A Maternal Instinct for Benign Neglect

I really have to hand it to my mother. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was exposed to the idea that parents were capable of disliking their children. Ma never gave me that impression, so the concept never occurred to me.

When I was in my early 20’s, my mother admitted to me that she had never really wanted kids. She wasn’t saying this to hurt me. The subject came up simply because I had told her that I never intended to have any of my own. (And, in fact, I never did.)

For my mother’s generation, the question was never if you would have children, but when. It was just what a woman was expected to do. And so that’s what she did.

Recently I read an article in the Atlantic from 2012 entitled, “Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal” by Jessica Valenti. It even made this diehard child-free woman blink. (And very few things make me blink.)

It turns out that a lot of mothers, I mean, a LOT, say that if they had it to do over, they wouldn’t have had children. And yet that pervasive idea that we all have this maternal clock that’s tick, tick, ticking away is still expressed throughout the land. Most people seem to think that every woman’s primary desire is to have children.

I, personally, am relieved to be in my 50’s because finally, FINALLY there’s not this overwhelming societal pressure for me to procreate. If I had a dollar for every time someone smiled at me and said, “You’ll change your mind,” regarding motherhood, I’d be a millionaire. The truth is, I’m actually more the rule than the exception. As the article points out, “most women spend the majority of their lives trying not to get pregnant.” It went on to assert that half the pregnancies in the US are unintended, and the mothers of unintended children treat them much differently (as in, worse) than they treat planned children.

I’m quite certain I was not a planned child. My parents were divorced 3 months after I was born, and I never met my father. He also never paid a penny of child support.

Looking back, I’d have to say that my mother’s parenting style was one of benign neglect. Basically, she let me run wild. I never felt disliked. But I did feel as though she didn’t want to be bothered. She seemed to be in a constant state of depression. She set no boundaries for me, and I therefore never felt safe or confident.

She would bury herself in library books and so would I. She didn’t tell me she loved me until I was 12 years old and my older sister forced her to do so. I had food and shelter and clothing and health care and an education, but I also had the sense that if I pissed her off, she’d stop loving me. She looked the other way when I was experiencing abuse. That, too, is abuse. But I didn’t know any better.

My mother did what was expected of her. Society didn’t care if she liked it or not. And that’s where society got it wrong.

I’m grateful for all the sacrifices my mother made so I could go on to live the life I chose to live, the one that she never had a chance to live. But perhaps we should stop telling women that they’ll change their mind. Perhaps we should congratulate those women who know themselves well enough not to make a mistake that could have psychological repercussions for generations to come. Just sayin’.

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A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

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