The Comic Misunderstandings of Motherhood
Scenes From the Life of Susana Moreira Marques
Image: Micaela Lattanzio
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.
One day, on a noisy street corner, after a casual run-in, she says, raising her voice over the roar of the bus passing us: But you have a happy family now.
This but presumes: You separated from your first daughter’s father, but you have a happy family now. But you found another man. But you had another daughter. But you rebuilt your life. It also presumes: You were unhappy once, with your first family, but you are happy now. But you know better now. Also: I, with my family, which is intact and not cobbled together, am not happy.
At the look of shock on my face from her pronouncement on my life, she hesitates: At least, from the outside, you look like you have a happy family.
This conversation reminds me of Tolstoy, of the opening of Anna Karenina. Except Tolstoy failed to add that all happy families are alike “from the outside.”
We go our separate ways, she probably thinking I might not be as happy as I seem, and I thinking I might be happier than I thought.
In a single conversation, a woman, seeing me with a baby in my arms and sensing how tired I am, says Don’t worry; it’ll be over soon and, right after, Enjoy it while it lasts; it’ll be over soon, as though these two statements were not at odds.
At a café, a couple with their newborn meets up with some friends who want to see the baby. Presumably, the friends do not have children. It must be one of the first times the couple has taken the baby out; they are keyed in to the slightest movement in the pram.
When the baby cries, the mother picks it up right away but does not bring the baby to her breast, as if still embarrassed to nurse in public. They use all of the short time in which the baby sleeps to discuss the birth. Rather, he discusses the birth. He tells them everything, the finer points.
He describes in graphic detail how the baby had come out of his partner, how she had dilated, opened up, how first it was the head and then the rest of the body. He describes the look of the umbilical cord, its color and texture, the feel of cutting it. It was amazing, he says, and she, silent, nods and averts her eyes.
Two friends, new mothers, discuss the time after birth. One of them makes a confession, and the other follows suit; the first woman responds, and the confessions pile up until they are sharing details about the sex they do or do not have with their husbands, and the state of their vaginas. They do this at a table in a public space, without glancing around them, because this public space has become safer than the private.
When my turn comes to be seen at a state agency, a clerk, without asking whether I would like any advice, uses her working hours to instruct me on when and for how long I should hold my baby. She shares in detail her theory on people’s habit of walking with babies in arms, and on the benefits of prams versus other means of transportation that would force a baby to be held at their mother’s chest, absorbing her scent.
In the short time I waited—I had priority, after all—she noted that I had stood rather than sat, had moved around instead of staying still, that I’d muttered and not been silent, and had, she admonished, effectively been rocking my baby. Her sentence is swift: She will turn you into a slave.
At first, I’m taken aback by the unwarranted intimacy, by her intrusion into my life, but soon it dawns on me that she must have also been a slave, and that she may have deluded herself into thinking there was some way around it.
End of day. Me—exhausted, frantic in the evening chaos, phone pinned between cheek and shoulder, hands busy changing the diaper of the baby who will not stop moving—telling my friend, who’s unsure whether she should have a second kid: But it’s so good!
Outraged no one had warned her of all the things that were not as they seemed, nor as people claimed they were, a mother decides to tip off other women.
Whenever she meets a woman who is pregnant, instead of saying everything will be fine, like everyone else does, and that she will know what to do when the baby comes—she’ll learn from instinct—she speaks of what will go wrong: of how the woman might not have a natural birth, and almost certainly not a “beautiful” one, and how it can be really hard to breastfeed, and she might not get the baby to sleep through the night, not after several months or a year, or even two or three years, despite all the people who talk about babies that sleep without waking.
She soon realizes that pregnant women don’t want to hear any of that. They look at her askance. They change the subject. They say yes, they understand, but it’s clear they think it’ll be different for them.
She listens to a long radio program in which a researcher is interviewed about what motivates humanity. The researcher concludes that it’s not money that motivates humans, nor social status, nor even love, even though these things might eventually be connected to the thing that motivates us: pleasure.
Hearing this, the woman feels as though the researcher’s theory explains another enigma discussed at the time: maternal ambivalence. Take her daughter, a mother. And she, therefore, a grandmother. Her daughter leaves her house, drops her son off at nursery, and dashes to work—an hour-long drive—to earn a salary that doesn’t allow her to live near her place of work. She works seven or eight hours, then dashes back home—another hour-long drive—often not arriving in time to collect her son from nursery.
His grandmother picks him up and takes him home and, if need be, bathes and feeds him. When her daughter arrives, exhausted, with no patience for her son’s tantrums, she does so with the air of someone who wants to head right back out, to escape. But then the boy says a word he’s never said before, or pulls a face that’s meant to be funny, or leans into his mother’s body as though she were a buoy at sea, and in that moment—even if it’s just one moment—her daughter experiences real pleasure.
The conclusion reached by the researcher—that we are capable of extraordinary feats, of unthinkable sacrifices, of madness and risk-taking for the sake of five minutes of pleasure—can be applied to motherhood, she thinks. Having been a young mother, and now a young grandmother, she believes that nothing compares with the pleasure of love for a child, nor with the work needed to win that love.
She debates this at length, more with herself than with anyone else. The concept of pleasure—not to be confused with joy or satisfaction, though it could encompass both, but not necessarily—deserves some consideration; after all, it is a complex concept and, for some reason she can’t figure out, has been given a bad name since the time when she was young, and a mother.
You’ve planted a tree, written a book, made a child, I am told by people who do not have children and do not know that a child is never made.
The couple realizes that the best answer to the question of whether she is their first—knowing the next question will always be whether they’ll have another—is: No, she’s not our first, but she is our last. This always elicits laughter, and maybe they realize they can’t ask that sort of question of parents the way a person asks if you want to go back to x restaurant or to a dream destination you once visited.
As a second-time mother, first-time mothers address me with something like reverence. I soon have the feeling they’re disappointed to learn I don’t have a ready answer for their questions, or any answer at all. Other times, it’s as though my failings are a consolation, making conversations with me paradoxically useful.
Since the birth of her son, a friend who lives in another city regularly sends me messages and photos on WhatsApp. Through these brief exchanges, I accompany her as though she and the baby lived around the corner from me. She sends photos of him sleeping, of him awake and staring at her, of the baby lying in bed while she, lying beside him, watches him, enthralled.
She shares his first times: for example, a video of the baby’s first laugh. Through her, I relive the experience of having a newborn child. I relive it as if it were something new, as if I’d already forgotten what it was like, even though my own daughter was born just a year before.
A friend who does not have children makes an effort to talk to me about babies. Meanwhile, I make an effort to talk about things that are relevant to grown-ups and to people who do not have small children. This well-meaning understanding goes on for a long while.
Until I realize it isn’t a misunderstanding at all: I don’t want to talk about babies; I want people to talk to me like I still have important things to say about the world. She is tired of the world, of debating interesting issues, and feels comfortable in a family home surrounded by the chaos of children, talking about babies.
I know the story. I’ve heard it dozens of times, either from mothers or from children. Parents separate. Father leaves to live abroad. Mother cares for child. Father visits from time to time. He rings on Christmases and birthdays. Sometimes he says he’ll come but doesn’t. Mother manages child’s expectations.
Child grows up. Father grows old. Father comes home. Father grows close to child. Father wants to spend time with his grandchildren. Child takes their father in and, if he is ill or in trouble, helps him. And yet I’ve never heard this story told the way it is told by this mother, who is now almost 60 years old and has been a single mother nearly all her life: without a hint of resentment, anger, or regret.
After years of day-to-day exchanges at the nursery, I am still referred to as “the mom.” This continues to shock me, and I still fail to recognize myself in this umbrella term. Even though, at home, with my daughters, I constantly talk about myself in the third person, and refer to myself as “Mom.”
The woman has grown old. She’s had work done on her lips, the wrinkles around her eyes, and her nose, but all this does is highlight her lost youth. Her gaze is unchanged. It is sweet and a little feverish, and is most apparent now, when she’s stopped talking and seems to have forgotten she’s sitting at a table having dinner with a large group, and looks over at her grown-up daughter, who laughs and chats animatedly, even though she isn’t saying anything special, and does not return her mother’s gaze.
Before couples become parents, they are told that when they have children, their lives will end. Or, that their lives are just beginning. No one mentions the far more likely prospect that, more often than not, life will carry on just as it was.
The full version of this essay was originally published in Issue 20 of The Common. Translated by Julia Sanches.