So I’ve been watching (or, in some cases, rewatching) Ken Burns’ entire oeuvre on Netflix while I nurse Henny Penny to sleep, in little twenty minute segments before bed and I just started Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony. I know, it’s pretty wild and crazy up in here. It’s like a regular Ke$sha song.
Both women are fascinating, but I’m particularly obsessed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton right now. She was the wife and mother of the pair, with seven kids and a burning desire to not only have full freedoms and political equality, but also to have a happy home life and a bunch of kids.
She refused to opt entirely out of what was then a pretty oppressive existence as a married woman (no birth control, i.e. a baby every two years, no ability to work outside the home, just pure domestic drudgery for life) and instead, demanded to have it all, but remade in her idealistic image. Susan B., on the other hand, decided to stay single to keep her life her own. I was struck by Stanton’s words, though, about that uneasy attempt to achieve everything she wanted, while constrained by the biological, societal, reality, that, no matter how big she thought, how wide-ranging the scope of her goals and dreams, when you have babies and young children, you are an indentured servant to their needs:
Imagine me, day in and day out, watching, bathing, nursing, and promenading the precious contents of a little crib in the corner of my room. I pace up and down these two chambers like a caged lion, longing to bring nursing and housekeeping cares to a close. I have other work at hand.
But she didn’t stop having her babies, and by all accounts, she loved being a mother and strove to be an excellent one, loving, caring, encouraging freedom and responsibility and learning in her children. She didn’t accept that she couldn’t both be a loving mother and be free, in a way that intense early mothering just isn’t.
I feel that lately. I mean, what other human condition can essentially lock up a segment of the population in a domestic state, tied to their bodily functions simply due to their innate biological state, like motherhood? Of course we are legally free to come and go, to hire nannies and feed formula or use hospital-grade breast pumps and marry equal parenting husbands. But there’s no denying the reality…your life in early motherhood is not quite your own. It’s not FOR you. You’re not the point, you’re not the afterthought. You’re a vehicle. It’s a lovely drudgery, the recipients your children, the beings you’d do anything for, and with, and to, and from.
If you are used to expending relentless energy. If you’re a lion. You feel caged. You have ideas. They bounce around your brain and go nowhere. They meet no one. Your body may wither, turn to veal. You wear circles in the carpet, step on your own footsteps on the wood floor, from kitchen to bed, to crib, to kitchen. You step out to feel air, to see friends, but it’s the outing of a prisoner. It’s officially mandated Rest and Relaxation. It’s a turnabout in the prison yard. It’s not yet freedom.
I like to imagine that I would have been a 19th-century reformer, if I had lived then. I’d have been a Puritan radically reading the Bible in my own living room; I’d have been an abolitionist, a vegetarian eating proto-Corn Flakes with Nathanial Hawthorne. But would I have been? How can you see what the progress needed is, the injustice of your own time, without the 20-20 hindsight glasses on?
Some people see gay marriage rights, fat acceptance, and other causes as the natural descendants of this tradition. And of course the long slow women’s movement has shown that one is never quite over. Women still do more work than men in a week, with less to show for it. Stanton was wild and radical because she looked at the entirety of the female condition at the time, everything from birth control to divorce, unpopularly, as part of the struggle for equal rights. Our social lives, our family lives, even our biological lives. These are the things ethics and self-determination movements must contend with. That’s why we need to say things. Things about ourselves, and our less than lovely feelings, things about what goes on, even in our homes. Because that’s where our lives are, as new mothers. That’s where the lion lives.
I think postpartum issues are a feminist issue. I’m not sure how to enunciate this position beyond that, yet, and of course I’m not the only woman who is making that connection. It’s not a coincidence that the best website on postpartum depression is called Postpartum Progress.
We were probably never meant to birth and raise babies all alone in our nuclear isolation. We were never meant to live geographic miles or emotional miles from mothers, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, friends. We were never meant to so separate out our Life from our Work. Husbands were never meant to board trains or highway on ramps every day
Here I am, in my house, with my deep thoughts that just rattle and crash in my brain. I’d like to take a road trip. I’d like to get peoples’ brains piqued toward collective improvement through carefully chosen words. I’d like to hike the Appalachian Trial. I’d like to volunteer for a phone service to answer 4 a.m. calls from lonely, desperately tired mothers, who want to know…will this ever get better
I believe it will, for her as an individual, and for us as a whole. It just takes a while, is what I will say. It will just take longer than you’d like. Longer than you think you can take, is what I’d tell me of three years ago, exhausted, lonely, uncomprehending in the face of my staggering new life as a mother. But you will make it
But for now I just write, and sit, and pace, and foment. One day I will explode out into the world, with all I’ve learned during this time.