I have two boys, Jake, six, and Sam, nine. My favorite child is definitely Jake. I think I treat him better than Sam, too. But I’m fairly certain he’s going to be an asshole when he grows up. I can already tell. He preens around my sister, his aunt, upon whom he has an interesting crush. But sometimes he’s sneaky and mean. Sam, my oldest, has epilepsy. I’ve held back from truly loving him in case he dies suddenly. That’s probably why I’m brusque with him and sometimes fantasize about sleeping with someone other than his dad. At core, I don’t feel I deserve any of this, any of them. So I neglect them. Just a little.
Oh, also, I have slapped them, smoked and swore in front of them. I’ve been drunk. I’ve left them in the car while I shopped, and once, on a spontaneous solo trip to New York for the weekend, almost forgot to call them altogether. You should have seen Sam before I left. He nearly lost his mind, but he was too proud to beg me to stay. To let his younger brother see him cry like a girl about my leaving would have been unthinkable. That surprised me. I actually liked that about him.
I’m not sure why I became a mother. Partly it was to rub it into my childless sister’s face, to say, Look, I’m brave enough to do something that someone as selfish as you could never do. And partly it’s because I couldn’t get my head around a career; I became a mom because I couldn’t really think of anything else to do. To make matters worse, I accidentally on purpose got knocked up to avoid having to make a mature decision about my future. Is that bad? I can’t tell.
Who do you talk to about these messy motives? Other mothers? Yeah, right. Try that in your local playground. Stand there and say, “So. Any serious regrets? Miss your old life? If you could do it again all over, would you have kids? Jealous of your single, childless friends and their trips to Sardinia, their Restylane injections, their four-hundred-dollar hair streaks? Can I see some hands?”
So, since there’s no one I can talk to about my fears, my ambivalence, my crappy, crappy mothering skills, I’m telling you, the anonymous reader, because the big reason I became a mother is that I may never be one myself.
Here’s the part where I rip off my mask and say, I’m not an abusive parent, it’s me, Lisa Gabriele, writing in the voice of my character Peachy Archer Laliberte. She’s also not an abusive parent, but when you’re writing a novel from the point of view of a happily married mother of two, and you are not those things, your character is going to absorb some of your emotional interior. And, mine’s shot through with ambivalence.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe mommies do get together and really tell each other the truth. Maybe they just withhold it from women like me as part of an insidious recruitment campaign. First they tell you how amazing motherhood is, and how you’ll never know “real” love until you have your own kid. And because your life is devoid of meaning, purpose, and “real” love, you believe them. So you go to great lengths to have that gorgeous ball of squalling need, and the next thing you know you’re sitting ghost-eyed and tense in the park thinking, Oh dear, I wonder if they lied. I wonder if the other mothers can smell cigarette smoke on me? Last night’s gin?
My biggest fear in writing in the first person as a mother wasn’t that I’d screw up the facts. My sister, Susan, is a viciously thorough first reader. She caught most of my mommy errors, including the fact that Peachy didn’t phone home once in the first draft, while she was off having her adventures in New York. Not good. She combed the manuscript for other things, too, like the difference between five- and eight-year-old boys, and for how long after the birth of a baby a woman loses interest in sex. (“That long?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “That long.”)
No, my biggest fear was that I’d get attached to my imaginary children, so much so that I’d want my own. That didn’t happen, but what did was surprising. I discovered I could feel so-called “real” love for people who didn’t exist, namely my little boys. (I gave myself boys, ironically, because I didn’t think I’d get attached to them, and therefore have a hard time giving them a hard time. That didn’t happen either. Yes, I loved them, and yes, they had a tough go of things being surrounded by so many assholes. But that’s life. They’ll grow up to be better men because of it. I hope.)
I know mothers who believe that women like me are missing out. I know mothers who believe that women like me are missing out on some special category of love only reserved for mothers. Before I finished my book I secretly believed them. I envied them, even. But it’s an illogical claim. How could it be true when many mothers can’t, don’t, love well, if at all? Love is love, I’ve come to realize. Where you direct love, to whom you direct it, says nothing more about you than the role you’re currently playing. The role I played for the better part of three years was mother to two boys. I loved them. That’s all.
Of course, Peachy would think I’m completely full of shit, as she’s shoving another load of laundry into the washing machine, trying to time it so she can drop Jake off at a friend’s birthday party, pick up Sam at fencing (the only sport he’s ever shown any interest in, and an extra expense that means no new dryer for at least another year), and get home in time to hang out the laundry before it rains. She’d nod politely at my little rationalizations for only dipping my toes into the treacherous waters of motherhood in a safe, fictionalized form, avoiding all the yucky trappings of birth and poo and tears and snot. Then she’d politely excuse herself because she’s got much more important things to do with her time than to spend another second in the company of a woman who doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mother, to know “real” love, never stopping for a second to remember who, in fact, gave birth to her.