The Unwanted Empathy Of Motherhood

No one can describe the epic, radical, transformational love parents feel for their children, but everyone tries anyway. The thing no one told me about motherhood is how it would switch the lens on how I see every other parent in the world. The scope of maternal empathy can feel almost impossibly wide: As a new traveler on one of the most universal highways of the human experience, I am now equipped with the ability to relate not just to my child, but to a near-infinite network of fellow parents. Like parenthood itself, this uninvited empathy is beautiful, revelatory, overwhelming, and inconvenient.
Pregnancy, birth, and motherhood mirror the destruction of your entire prior conception of yourself by performing a parallel destruction of social boundaries. This can be tiresome, as when I was cornered in a post office line, newborn on my chest, by an elder woman who gave me a fifteen-minute lecture on why I should be breastfeeding, including unsolicited recipes for lactation-boosting soup.
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But it can also be illuminating and charming: There is a certain lit-from-within quality that comes over the faces of women over 50 when they recall their early days of motherhood, a kind of fond nostalgia for their own cluelessness, often accompanied by a willingness to divulge anything. I have had more conversations about sex with women over 50 in the last three years than in the previous 30 combined. It’s emerged to me that I’ve been surrounded by fucking superheroines my whole life, but had previously been too lost in youthful arrogance to recognise them.
In this new awareness, every woman in my own family; every friend’s mother who’d ever fed me pizza or showed me kindness; every woman trailing three kids on the train has taken on a new dimension. Leslie Jamison writes in The Empathy Exams that, while “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” it “requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” In other words: I am so embarrassed by how invisible, or interchangeable, the mothers of the world were to me before I became one of them, by how often I failed to acknowledge the limitations of my own horizon of context. In other words: I began to ask questions.
I’ve always been predisposed to nosiness, but in motherhood the questions I’ve asked other mothers, especially those a generation ahead of me, have reached new measures of intrusion. The questions I’ve asked most often plainly reveal my own agita: How old were you when you had your first baby, and were you trying? The former I asked because at 29 I felt too young and dumb to have a child, and because I knew that virtually every woman in my mother’s generation would have been younger at her maternal initiation, which made me feel better. Only now does it occur to me that maybe I felt underqualified for motherhood in part because they seemed so capable at it.
The latter I asked because I’m still not sure how to answer it myself, and because I needed reassurance that other people had also been idiots about birth control. One friend’s parents gleefully informed me that all three of their children were surprises. I have since reached the conclusion that approximately five babies in world history have ever been fully “planned.”
Invited into these confidences, I’ve probed my elders’ dimensionality with increasing boldness: Was sex better or worse for you after having a baby? Do you still pee a little when you laugh? How does it feel to have a miscarriage, a hysterectomy, a prophylactic mastectomy, a grandchild? How did you decide how many children to have? How do you feel about your ex-husband when you look at your children, your grandchildren? What would you say to your daughter’s birth mother? How did it feel to have four kids by the age I am now? Do you still fuck in your sixties? If you knew then what you knew now, would you do it again? Were you an accident? Were you a miracle? Are we all made of both?
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To feel empathy as a parent is also to acknowledge that one’s own parents had lives that began before we were born. My inconvenient empathy looms largest for my parents, and is easiest to chart on a map of its failures: There are so many family stories that I always knew, but into which I had never really inquired, until after I became a parent. I had always, for example, thought of the death of my grandfather three months before I was born in terms of what a shame it was that he and I so narrowly missed meeting each other. It was only when I needed my parents so badly in pregnancy and early motherhood that I stopped to consider how impossible it must have felt to my father to leave a pregnant wife to attend the bedside of a father losing his battle to colon cancer. For him to wonder if my grandfather could see the sonogram pictures through the morphine. And, ultimately, to grieve his father and cleave to me simultaneously.

You cannot make a goal of getting back to where you were before, or you will always be disappointed.

Similarly, I had always known that my mother been widowed by her first husband when she was only 30, the same year she lost her father, and travelled a long, hard road to motherhood, culminating in my birth when she was 40. Her mother, my grandmother, called me the miracle baby; my mother gave me the middle name Elizabeth, after the mother of John the Baptist, who thought herself barren until late middle age. I knew these stories, but I hadn’t stopped to consider how she must have felt until I was 30 myself, holding a newborn: how painful it must have been for my mother to spend her thirties trying to rebuild, missing her dead husband as she watched all her friends and siblings marry off and have babies. How awful it must have been for her to endure two miscarriages, to accept the burgeoning truth that her one child would be her only child.
But grieving and cleaving are the actions that make a family: We anoint newcoming members with stories of the departed. We welcome new mothers with fond recollections of our own once-new motherhood: how dumb we were, how shit went awry every day, and how it never really got easier but slowly, without quite realising it, we built muscle. I do it too, now, when I empathise with the very new mothers I see looking swollen and shellshocked and dumbstruck with love, looking exhausted, looking scared about their vaginas, looking so much more capable than they feel, looking at me over plates of food I bring them, because food is the way my mother taught me to welcome someone to their own metamorphosis. Honey, I say in the gently authoritative tone a million mothers gifted me, you’re doing great.
Empathy is the daughter of vulnerability, and among all the things no one can explain to you about parenthood no matter how much they try, the extremity of its vulnerability is paramount. Especially (but not only) when pregnancy and birth make the physical metaphor of transformation real, becoming a mother takes you apart piece by piece and rearranges you entirely. You cannot make a goal of getting back to where you were before — not physically, not emotionally, not logistically — or you will always be disappointed. And to turn away from that disappointment which is only the past is to turn toward the present. Motherhood has forced me to exist in the real, where we care too much and feel too much, where the house is always a mess, where we are suspicious of falsity because we simply lack the time for it, where we have all been decimated and remade so many times that not all the cracks can be soldered. This kind of presence is, as Adrienne Rich writes in “Diving into the Wreck”: “the thing I came for / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth”.
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I sometimes miss my prenatal self-absorption the way I miss another old friend, my college feminism: Everything was so much more easily contained in the theoretical, individual realm, and I had so much more free time to talk about it there. Maternal empathy has made me an unbearable party guest, and not only because I crash at 9pm: A friend complains about the annoying thing her mother does and instead of groaning along with her, I say, counting the minutes in babysitting dollars, “I know, but think of how much she does and how unappreciated she feels for it.” I miss the twentysomething sensation that no one’s ever had a revelation like this before. My revelations these days are banal, used, common: Show me a person who’s raised a child and I’ll show you a person bowled over by a toddler who points to a stove on the page of a book and says hot.
But do you know the intricate, intimate labour that ennobles a child to look at that stove picture and say hot? How he will grow the eyes and fingers himself but it will be you who soothes them when they hurt, you who repeats a book’s every word slow enough for him to understand, you who shields him from the real stove with this admonition? You who reads the book a third time before bed; your face the last thing he sees before sleep? This, the work of engineering a dozen minor miracles a day, so ordinary it could be mistaken for invisible.
There is a specific intelligence that radiates from the arms of certain grown-ass women when you place a baby in their arms, an ancient muscle memory. Every time I handed my newborn son to one of the women who helped to raise my husband and me, I saw all the hundreds of babies each of those women had held before, and each of their shellshocked mothers in the same embrace. In the effortless curve of their arms, in their intuitive sway and hush, I saw years of work. Work I’d mistaken for effortlessness, taken for granted, failed to notice. Love’s labour: I see it now.
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