Chopped Liver is what I have been so often since this whole parenting journey began that in our household, the words are shortened to a hand signal. The letters “C” and “L” shaped in the air by my thumb and forefinger. My woebegotten, self-pitying face in the background.
This undeniable subordination is probably the most visceral, protracted feature of parenthood that I share with new bio-dads, the thing that reminds me so consistently that whether or not I pee sitting down or standing up, whether or not I have mammaries and enjoy processing my feelings, whatever I choose to call myself, I am Not The Mother.
Again, the caveats: if we both adopted, another set of dynamics would create the delicate fissures that separate our roles and distinguish what our kid(s) want from us. But we have a bio-mommy in the house, an estrogen-pumped, milk-producing, birth-giving marvel of womanhood, inside of whom kid A spent nine months, and kid B has spent seven already, with every intention to spend another two.
Then there’s me. Baba. Lovey-dovey, diaper-changing, bottle-filling, toy-repairing, kiddle-hoisting, Baba.
I note above that I, along with other non-birth mothers partnered with birth moms, share this feeling of lonesome subordination with new bio-dads. It’s important to note the qualifier “new” though, becasue I presume the condition to be distinctly time-bound, in this rosy-fingered dawn when the kid has breastfed as many months of her life as she’s fed herself. Right now, in the kid’s memory, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump back to the good ole, wet cramped dark ole days of the womb, when food and oxygen just got pumped in, no effort, no muss. Inside her body. Mothership connection.
I don’t begrudge this centrality of Mama, though. How could I? It feels quite simply to be the reward (and sometimes, when she needs a break, the curse) for the arduous, Everest-climb of pregnancy and childbirth. Followed by the long, slow descent of breastfeeding. There damn well should be a dramatic distinction between the two of us. For nine months I did not:
- watch in horror as my ankles, face, thighs, and other body parts swelled past recognition;
- feel as though I was on an endless Ra Expedition-like reed raft journey back and forth across the Pacific, with no dramamine in sight;
- hurl in the toilet pretty much weekly for months, and when I didn’t hurl, wish I could;
- haul the weight of a hefty grocery bag strapped to my midrift everywhere I went, like it or not;
… and so on. Many of you all know whereof I enumerate.
A time will come — won’t it? — when the cellular intensity of the mother-child connection will become mixed with the richness of our lived experience. I hope so. Because that will be my dawn. The richness of lived experience: that’s all I have to offer our children. I’m all nurture; no nature. And I need to be patient.
Which is a darn good thing. Because so far as I can tell, abundant patience seems like it’s one of the top three qualities to cultivate for healthy parenthood. Along with unconditional love and a clear sense of one’s role as teacher (as vs. boss, e.g.). It’s a bit of a cheat to list teacherliness, since good teacherliness entails a host of other practices I also find critical to parenthood, most significantly (a) the habit of viewing the world empathetically from the kid’s point of view, the better to understand the motivation behind their behavior, and (b) the conviction that people learn best by doing, by discovering and experiencing their own capacities, all the while believing that failure or error is simply the sign that they are moving out into untested territory.
Good teaching and good parenting seem to share a great deal, but this most of all: that one is honor-bound to create, cultivate, and protect the conditions under which the person — student, kid, whomever — can thrive the most. And then you jump back and get out of the way and let the unstoppable force of learning and growth happen. At its own pace. Because good teachers know that you don’t always see the results on your watch. Often you’re just tilling the soil and planting seeds.
I learned this before I left grad school. I ran into an old student at an on-campus conference. She said something like, “You know, you might not even remember me. I took a class from you a couple of years ago.” (Oops: and I just barely did remember her; of the dozen-plus classes I taught in grad school, one was a large lecture class I collaborated on for three years with a dear friend and colleague; alas, a fleeting recognition of face or name was often the best I could muster.) “I didn’t even do that great in the class,” she went on. “But I want to tell you that even though I didn’t realize it at the time, you guys totally changed the way I think. I just wanted you to know that.”
I smiled and thanked her profusely, and filed that moment away as the priceless lesson it was. Now, when our kid is still a seedling, and I so long to occupy a place as viscerally central to her as her mama, I go back to that lesson in patience. I hunch myself over it, and run my fingers back and forth over the page, mouthing the words silently. Reminding myself. As with so many such things (jealousies, injuries), I suspect that the moment I am no longer wounded about my Chopped Liveriness, the moment I finally have accepted it and no longer pine for more, I will turn to look for it — and it will be gone.