Twenty Years and One Little Boy Later by Anne Neville

At 19, I read Adrienne Rich as she struggled to put into words the isolation and terror of being the solo parent of small children all day. I saw her essays as the record of a historical moment, the cusp of change between an era of rigid gender roles and frustrated housewives, and my own time of working mothers and egalitarian divisions of parenting labor. I treasured her insights into how destructive the old system could be to the spirit of mother and child alike. Reading Rich and Audre Lorde, I appreciated their deeply feminist understandings that the children-- even boy children-- were not the conquerors in this system, but equally trapped and isolated.
The difference between me and Adrienne Rich is that she didn't get to read Adrienne Rich in college. She didn't enter into stay-at-home mothering already armed with a rich feminist analytical vocabulary to describe to herself exactly, precisely, incisively, why it sucks.
Back in the day, frustrated mothers were pacified with Mother’s Little Helper, barbiturates, to be cured of the restlessness that would later be diagnosed as the beginnings of the women’s movement. That movement was the reason I fell asleep as a child listening to Marlo Thomas sing “Some mommies drive taxis/ or sail on the sea, yeah/ Mommies can/ be almost anything/ they wanna be!” And I believed it. The restlessness and frustration had been cured by social change.
Thirty-five years after Marlo’s 1974 record, I’m navigating the labyrinths of 21st century HMO authorizations to ask a psychiatrist whether I need to go back on Prozac, or just wait for my son to start kindergarten.
I have a graduate degree. I married a feminist man. I am mothering a toddler at forty, when I might be imagined to have more resources than when I was younger. I even work outside the home; currently, on much the same terms my own “working” mother did, alternating full-time parenting with periodic part-time work scheduled around when my small child won’t miss me, usually while he’s asleep.
My adult life and identity are not defined by mothering. When I begin to wonder why I’m reading “Blue Hat Green Hat” for the ninety-fifth time straight, I can derive irony, but also comfort, from remembering that I’ve filled many other roles in other years, other decades. I’m not afraid that I’m only this. As an adoptive mother, I haven’t felt, as many birth mothers do, that parenting has redefined my body and my function in the world at the most basic physical level. When I am holding a bottle, singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” or hunting for an elusive pacifier, I am not worrying that the world has passed me by. I have only to fire up the Internet (another saving resource Adrienne lacked) to touch base with professional colleagues and old friends, all of whom validate that there are other sides to me than this, more dimensions of personhood than just Mama.
And I wanted so much and for so long to be someone’s mama. Every day that I waited, I found it incredibly painful to hear fertile women complaining about the burdens of mothering their babies—like listening to Warren Buffett complain about his taxes. What wouldn’t I give! I thought, to have their problems.
When my son was tiny, I felt like a brilliant mother. There were only three things he wanted: food, dry pants, and to be rocked to sleep. Miraculously I was able to provide all three.
Now he is two. Five mornings a week, the door closes behind my husband, who will not return for ten hours. Minus a two-hour nap, whose beginning time is not dependable, that’s eight hours of solo parenting a toddler, five days a week.
It’s like standing in a hurricane? Lately I feel as if I’m walking into a stiff wind, all the time.
Here’s the thing that’s hard: my son has learned to walk, run, climb, throw, smear, and dismantle. He has not yet learned to construct sentences or follow instructions. He is not autistic, or developmentally disordered, or emotionally damaged. He’s just two. He wants to be Doing Something every second that he is awake, and he does not want to do any of it alone, and he does not want to do any of it sitting down. If I start him stacking blocks, and I walk into the other room, he leaves the blocks and follows me. If he is sitting at the table eating lunch, same thing. There is no autopilot with a two-year-old. He is doing what I’m doing.
When I focus on something other than him, he works at engaging either me or whatever I’m doing. This has its benefits: he’s learning to do housework while he’s learning to speak. My son is going to be a man who can’t remember when he didn’t unload the dishwasher, throw away trash, clear his dishes to the sink after meals—and so far, he takes great satisfaction in doing those jobs himself. But his single focus also means that when he’s alone with a mother who is thinking about something else—subtracting expenses in the checkbook, say, or cooking pasta for his lunch— he becomes increasingly desperate, grabbing the pen or the spoon, or my arm, or my face. If I persist in asking him to wait, I get a poke in the eye, which gets him a time out.
His father and I have absolutely agreed that we must teach him not to hit; that we must teach him with consistent and age-appropriate consequences; that hitting children to teach them not to hit is kind of problematic and likely to backfire; and that the appropriate consequence is a time-out for a number of minutes equal to the child’s age in years. My husband read that somewhere and it sounded sensible to us both.
After two minutes, a toddler has forgotten about whatever he was doing before you put him in a room by himself. After three, he’s found something else to play with. After ten, he’s flinging himself at the door and screaming because obviously nobody is ever coming to let him out.
After two minutes, the cortisol in my bloodstream is at pretty much the same level it was right after somebody hit me in the eye two minutes ago. In these moments, I cannot recall a single exact quote from Adrienne Rich,while a line from the gothic thriller, The Crow, repeats in my head: "Mother is the name of God on the lips of all children." I'm all too aware that I am not just structuring my son's daily reality, but I am shaping his brain and teaching him about love and power. Am I teaching my son that God abandons him for five times as long as he can understand? Or that God is shaking with fury, unable to look at him?
Who decided that the two of us should be each other’s only companions for ten hours in a row? Who decided this was safe? Am I saying I’m a danger to my child? Am I saying I’m an unfit mother? Am I saying I’d better fill that Prozac prescription? Am I seriously saying that a forty-year-old woman with a graduate education in a helping profession cannot handle two four-hour blocks of interacting with her own beloved, long-awaited child?
I’m saying that by the time his father comes home at night, I’m so dissociated all I want to do is curl up in an office chair and drink margaritas until I fall asleep. Instead, I cook supper and surf the Internet while his father gives him a bath, a bottle, a book, and a bedtime kiss. “You seem so distant in the evenings,” he says, “I love to have my whole family together at night, won’t you come sit with us?” I think how lucky I am to have a husband who’s willing to come home from work and take over completely, who doesn’t mind diapering, picking out pajamas, giving piggyback rides. I think what a good dad he is, how fun, how at least my son has this pleasure to offset my gritted demands to eat one more bite of oatmeal or spit out a mouthful of playground dirt. I sit beside them on the sofa. I can’t remember what I was thinking about.
At 19, I thought naming a problem solved it. I never imagined reaching 40 and finding that while women have named and pointed and sometimes gesticulated wildly, I'm living in the same questionable circumstances that Adrienne Rich described before I was born. Market work has not changed, and policies and supports for care-takers, who are often also workers, are nonexistent. In our current culture, every family is still an island. Though I have co-workers and neighbors, and even a church, I still find most days my son and I are stranded without relief boats in sight and I am past the point of caring whether they arrive with on site day care or anti-depressants, as long as they arrive.
Anne Neville has lived all over the United States; both coasts, the deep south and in the great lakes region. She's worked in tech, retail, food service, office administration, education and health care. She's currently settled with her son and husband in a little yellow house on a sunny street.


dishpan_hands's picture

Yes, yes, yes. This is the most spot-on description of staying at home with a young child that I have seen, and the only thing, so far, that has made me feel less alone.

lousymom's picture
Submitted by lousymom on

I posted a link to this on my blog because you are so, so right. But, I loved reading this because in addition to expressing some of the same frustrations and confusions that I have, you still have the ability to write clearly, remember things you have read, and sound like a grown-up. I just hope I will still have that ability when my daughter turns two.

BloginSong's picture
Submitted by BloginSong on

Thank you SO MUCH for telling the truth. I am constantly having to remind myself that I believe in asking for help and that its okay to sometimes want to flee the children I begged the universe to give me. I do believe these things, so why do I buckle under the 'perfect mama' pressure?
I Blog In Song
See "How Love Can Be" for another honest look at parenting