Emotional Tyranny

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by Claire Bischoff

“I am tired of the emotional tyranny of the holidays,” the woman the next cash register over was saying, with clear vehemence. “I do not feel merry or happy and do not want to pretend I do just because Christmas is coming. And did you see the headlines in today’s paper? I cannot believe what the Catholic church is doing…” She jabbered on, loud enough for anyone checking out at the busy grocery store to be accosted by her rant. I internally rolled my eyes at this woman speaking like no circumspect Minnesotan ever should in polite company: not only talking about religion but, even worse, stating her actual (and critical) opinion about something to complete strangers.

Yet since that morning buying groceries, the anonymous woman’s words—emotional tyranny—have echoed in my head on numerous occasions. The first time was when I took my cousin out to dinner to celebrate her recent engagement. As we dipped our bread in olive oil, I asked, “Are you excited to be engaged?” After putting down her bread and taking a sip of wine, my cousin responded, “Honestly, and I don’t feel I can tell anyone else this, I am sick of having to put on the gushing school-girl act whenever anyone asks about my engagement. Certainly, I am looking forward to being married, or I wouldn’t have said yes. But getting married includes lots of serious and stressful stuff: finances, the question of kids, trying to merge our two lives together when we both have been living as independent and single adults for 20 years. Heck, we both still have our own separate laundry baskets.” In a culture that puts so much emphasis on the blushing bride-to-be planning her dream wedding day, my cousin found there was little space for her to talk about the more sobering realities that marriage entails.

Similarly, over the holidays, my husband and I were able to share the good news about expecting our third child with family and friends. “Oh, that is so exciting! We are so happy for you!” went the typical refrain of well-wishes. And I am not complaining about this; I would hardly want news of my third pregnancy to be greeted with a grunt and a “Sucks to be you.”

But as the conversation moved beyond the initial congratulations, I was hesitant to share my ambivalence about this pregnancy. Certainly, I feel blessed that if all goes well we will welcome another child into our family in July. And I feel this sense of gratitude against a backdrop of knowing and loving so many people who have struggled to conceive. Yet alongside this gratitude is no small amount of terror. If I am having trouble falling asleep at night, usually it is because of the tickertape running in my head: “I just finished my dissertation two years ago. I just started adjuncting a year and a half ago. I am supposed to be working on this Mother Matters project. I am just starting to feel like a professional adult and that taking care of my two boys is getting easier instead of harder and now I am going back to the 24-hour a day demands that come with the first few months of an infant’s life. I just started to feel like I was getting my life, really myself, back and I am afraid it is all going to go away again. And what if I cannot bounce back from it this time?

file000278604432As I have worked to understand this fear, I realize that a large part of it is related to the emotional tyranny that has ruled so much of my tenure as a part-time stay-at-home mother to my first two sons. I felt blessed to be in a financial and career situation where I was able to be at home part-time, so I kept quiet about how excruciatingly boring it was at times and how isolated I felt. Used to being “successful” in the professional realm, I projected an image of a successful caretaker, not letting on to the constant questions about doing and being enough for my kids that plagued me day in and day out. I felt that mothers were meant to be supportive of their children, so I ignored my own likes and dislikes and played chess with my three-year-old following the real rules and one-on-one football with my five-year-old, even though I despised these activities enough that I could not make it through them unless I was accompanied by a pocket full of M & M’s (a sign of an eating disorder that I am just beginning to understand).

A few weeks ago, Annie Hardison Moody wrote on this blog about the importance of asking people in our lives about how they are feeling and how we can be supportive of them, as a way to make sure that we do not jump to conclusions about what we can do to care for them. As I think about the emotional story lines that inhere to important life events, like marriage and having a child, and to important life roles, like parenting, I think the accompanying point to the one that Annie made is that each of us has to be brave enough to speak the truth of our emotional existence. I am the first to admit that I have too readily lived under the emotional tyranny of particular images of motherhood—the selfless mother, the perfectly content at home mother, the has-it-all-together mother—images that have ended up being harmful to me because they have meant that I have not been honest with myself and others about my experience as a mother. So in an effort to live into my own image of motherhood, if you were to ask me how I am feeling about expecting a third child, I would honestly answer, “I am thrilled and terrified at the same time.” It is a place to start practicing speaking the full emotional truth.

What are the emotional aspects of motherhood that you are hesitant to speak about? We invite you to name them here, in solidarity with all mothers who experience much more than they feel permission to speak out loud. 

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One thought on “Emotional Tyranny

    Beth Shelly said:
    January 9, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    When I was at home with an infant and a toddler, I kept hearing over and over how “wonderful” it was to be at home with the babies. Everywhere I went, mothers were talking about being stay-at-home moms, and “wonderful” was the word everyone used. I really thought that they were lying. It seemed to me to be a conspiracy, where nobody was willing to tell the truth. The toddler wouldn’t go to sleep until midnight, the baby woke up at 6 a.m., the toddler woke up once in the night, the baby woke up twice in the night. They had maybe 20 minutes a day when their naps overlapped. The baby was constantly unhappy because of ear infections and thrush. The toddler needed constant attention. I was exhausted, alone, and every day was a struggle. I didn’t feel like I could talk about it, because everyone else was perpetuating the mythology of “wonderful.”

    It wasn’t until after the birth of my 3rd child, and I had mornings where the oldest was in kindergarten and I could spend quiet time with a contented baby and a happy toddler that I could see that maybe it was possible that being at home could be construed as “wonderful.”

    The expectation of emotions definitely made my experience more difficult than it should have been.

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