Red State Refugee

Under the Arbor

I was told once I was not hot. Ouch. After I dusted off the old ego, I thought “OK. Everyone has different taste.”  It was the reason I wasn’t hot that rankled. It was because I was…a mom. The implication being that I am somehow held apart from inspiring and having desire because I carried a child. Well, I’ll just hitch up my mom jeans and take my third eye and my hump and schlep on back to the bell tower.

I hate to break it to all of you…moms like sex. How the hell do you think we all got pregnant in the first place?  Do you think we want to chuck that all in for Sesame Street and dirty diapers?  Not on your life. Yes, there are times that I would rather gouge out my own eyes then have another person hanging on me. But most of the time I long to be loved and desired, and yes even thought of as “hot” by random strangers. It’s a nice ego boost, one I shouldn’t have to give up simply because I carried another human for nine months. I hear crap like this and I start thinking, “Oh my God. I’ve missed my window. No one will ever look at me, let alone touch me, again. I look like Edith Bunker crossed with Jabba the Hutt.”        

I have been sent to The Arbor.

When I was in school, I had to read “Gone With The Wind”. I immediately swooned over the clothes and Rhett, but long after I realized it was a romanticized version of the Lost Cause narrative, one thing stuck with me. Buried between the battles, “fiddle dee dees” and the racism, there’s a section that describes the entire Southern hierarchy of behavior for a woman from girlhood to dotage. It describes the matrons of the County as being “under the arbor” at social events dressed in tacky clothes and discussing only childrearing and pregnancy related topics. The only plus was you could eat what you wanted and belch with impunity. When I read this at the tender age of thirteen, I thought this was a fair trade. I mean, my mom and her friends wore tacky clothes and never really talked about much except us kids. She belched, and I never really thought much of it. Besides, they were all old and married with children. Their lives were over.

Now that I am much older than thirteen and have been married and have children, I have been relegated to the proverbial arbor against my will. Any social event, I am either chasing after my children or worrying about where they are or what they are doing. My formerly fashionable clothes have been replaced by a uniform of nondescript t-shirts and jeans, which are stained with food, spit up or substances unknown. I am haggard and have given up makeup for any second of extra sleep I can glean. My hair is in a perpetual ponytail and I have roots down to my ears. Every time I start any kind of an exercise routine a child gets sick, so those twenty extra pounds plus haven’t been run off yet. It’s a miracle if I get a shower in the morning. I am too tired to even be embarrassed by my sudden lack of hygiene any more. I don’t even try to fight it. I begin to sink under the tide of demands from my children and give into the loss of personhood to motherhood. And that was before the pandemic hit.

When we first went to distance learning, I thought maybe this might be a boon for my second son. He is on the autism spectrum and has ADHD. I thought maybe without the distractions of the classroom, he could concentrate better. Boy, was I wrong. He needed constant attention and supervision that I could not provide while trying to simultaneously hold down a full time job. He bounced around the house while I was trying to conduct zoom meetings and get him to finish his writing journal like a kangaroo on speed. By the time we got to the end of the day, I was exhausted, he was melting down and nothing got done. It was a disaster. Teachers deserve millions of dollars and special education professionals deserve millions of dollars and a full time staff of personal care workers. 

Anyway, there were reasons why I did not become a teacher, let alone a special education teacher, and they were brought into sharp focus.
However, this is the role that I have been relegated to by society. Before my husband died, it was understood by everyone that his career came first. His hobbies and leisure time also came first. It did not matter that I also had a career, hobbies, hopes and dreams. That was great and I was encouraged to do all those things, just in my copious spare time. My main job was to smooth the way for him and my children so they could proceed into the world with minimal bumps. It did not matter if I had to lay down in the road for them to roll over me to avoid those bumps.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. I realize that they must come first because they are my responsibility, but why must I give up everything I am to do that?  I talked to my husband and he agreed I need time to myself to pursue my own interests. However, he never understood it’s not as easy as just leaving to go do what I want. Somehow, I was the only person in my toddler’s eyes qualified to get him a cheese stick and put him to bed. The worry that something was wrong with them pulled on me with a tangible tug and kept me from enjoying anything. It was ingrained in me that I must be there because they need me. I can’t really define what they needed me for that he couldn’t provide, but I felt it in the raised eyebrows of acquaintances when I finally made a run for it. Now that he is gone, there is the tacit expectation that “my heart is in the grave” (also a gem from Gone With the Wind) and my only consolation is my kids.

Then part of me rebels. I’m the same person I was before the children were born and before my husband died. I like the same things, have the same ambitions. It begins in pregnancy when all anyone sees is the enormous belly and forgets there is a person attached to it. Strangers feel they have free rein to rub your stomach and make comments on your weight. Old ladies corner you in elevators and tell you in gynecological detail about their five hundred and seventy-two hour labor. Random people give you parenting advice you neither want or need. You have become just a vessel for a child, not an independent person. Please see all the rhetoric on the Roe v Wade opinion and my thoughts on it over in the Mudlarking for America section.

You think people will start seeing you again once the baby is born, but they don’t. Anytime you go anywhere, people grab for the baby but greet you as an afterthought. The cult of attachment parenting has made the expectation that a mother should sleep, eat and live attached to the baby. “Baby wearing” is even a term. You can’t even go to the bathroom in privacy anymore. The baby must come too. Because that is exactly what you need after a million nights of no sleep, to be completely inseparable from your child. By the time the kids are toddlers and older, it is so easy to slip into that shared identity and destroy your own sense of self. Even stay at home moms in the 1950s had a neighborhood of other moms to share the load. Now it’s squarely on one woman’s shoulders, and she better do it all or she’s failing everyone.

But somehow these expectations don’t follow for dads. Everyone likes to see a dad involved with his children, but it is not a given. A dad who chooses to stay home with his children is praised to the skies. A mom who chooses to stay home with her children is wasting her potential. A dad who chooses to work outside the home is lauded as the breadwinner and applauded for taking care of his family. A mom who chooses to work outside the home is derided for letting others raise her kids. Men say they want independent women, but when they dare to express an opinion contrary to their own they are shocked and want none of it. We’re all feminists on paper. We’re all liberated in theory. But there is a heaping helping of mommy guilt for everyone, no matter what option you choose.

I want to nurture my boys to become healthy, happy adults, but I want to be able to nurture myself to keep growing and changing. I want my cake and to eat it too. This must be the stupidest expression in the English language. If you had cake, why the hell wouldn’t you want to eat it?  Somehow, that’s not supposed to be in the cards for me. But screw that. I’m tipping the table and spilling the cards. I see a square of sunlight outside the trees. Perhaps…perhaps, I can make a run for it and escape The Arbor with my personhood and my boys. Catch me if you can!