I was 21 years old when I had my son. His father and I were utterly unprepared, not nearly mature enough to have a baby together, and ultimately not a good match. Within 6 months of our son’s birth, we had split.
I was still in college at the time, still taking classes. Terrified of their reaction, I hadn’t told my family of my pregnancy until later in my pregnancy and it had caused something of a rift, one that lasted for years. While my family insisted I could still graduate on time (which I did, in the end), they didn’t give my son’s father and I terribly a lot of financial or logistical support. We couldn’t afford babysitters, so I had to rely on my (amazing) friends and on the good graces of professors who would graciously let me sometimes bring my infant to class.
However, when a girl in one of my literature classes referred to my breastfeeding as “disgusting” and complained of it to the professor, I was told my child had to be banned from the class. While finishing my degree I was also told by more than one of my fellow students that I should just quit college. I feel as though it bears mentioning that I went to a women’s university.
Motherhood, in my case young and unplanned motherhood, never seems to stop being a hot button topic. We’re not doing enough as mothers. We’re doing too much as mothers. We don’t spend enough time with our children. We don’t spend enough time on ourselves. Everyone has an opinion on how I should raise my son. Everyone has an opinion on how I should live my life as a mother, how I should talk about my child, how much I am allowed to be sexual, how, as a poet, I should write about him.
Things that people say make me a good mother include the following: I rarely post about my child on social media. I expect him to behave when we’re in public and if he doesn’t, we leave. I don’t make him the whole of my identity. He has never been my profile picture on Facebook or any other website. I give him some choice in what he eats. I don’t give him much, if any, sugary food day to day. I let him pick what we read together. I don’t force him to do sports. I almost never write about him in my poetry.
Things that people say make me a bad mother include the following: Everything listed above and a lot more.
I’ve been thinking about all these things lately for a few reasons. One is that there’s been a kerfuffle on the women’s poetry listserv (WOMPO) over the past 24 hours or so over an essay by Joy Katz wherein Katz addresses the idea that female poets are told time and again we should not write about our children, specifically about babies. That it is sentimental. That there is too much “feeling” in those poems. Katz, like I do, wrestles with writing about children, about babies. Her struggle is clear in the essay. I feel that same conflict every time my son sneaks his way into a poem.
The kerfuffle is over what I see as a complete misinterpretation of the essay – the interpretation that Katz is actually damning the idea of feeling in poetry. There have also been comments that she is too full of fear. But why damn her for that if she is? Someone put that fear in her. She is laying that fear out for us to see. As a poet and as a mother she is admitting that fear, that conflict, exists. As women, as feminists, and as mothers, is it not our duty then to open our arms to her, not chide her for a fear she certainly doesn’t want? There’s a secondary conflict where it is being argued she is not being kind enough to a poet she cites in her essay. For the sake of this post’s focus, I’ll leave my comment at that.
I’ve also been thinking about this because my son met my partner last week. We’ve been dating for a little over 4 months now. We’re in stupid amounts of love, I’ve met his parents, and we decided it was time for him to meet my family, including my child. I was just as nervous about my son liking my partner as I was about my partner getting along with my kid. It went remarkably well in the end. They got along well and our trip to the museum and out for Chinese was appropriately adorable. Everyone behaved themselves. After the weekend, however, my son’s father called into question my judgment in introducing our child to a man I’m not engaged to.
I understand the concern of not bouncing my child from one partner to the next. But I believe that, even as a mother, I have a right to an emotional life, to a creative life, to a social life, to a sexual life. Do I consider my child in the choices I make? Of course I do. I’ve gone on dates with plenty of people who never met my child. But I also will admit that I will not give my life entirely over to him, and if that makes me a bad mother, then so be it.
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. She misses the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl