By Jennifer Furner
Motherhood was not what I was expecting. I thought I had prepared myself—I read countless articles online, learned a myriad of soothing techniques, watched videos of women’s birthing experiences. But there had been no way to know what it would be like for me. And my experience was not at all like what I had been told to expect.
I was told any woman could give birth naturally if she breathed deeply enough, if she believed in herself. My daughter’s head was stuck on my pelvis, though, and in the end, it didn’t matter how much breathing or believing I did; I needed an emergency C-section.
I was told it’s a baby’s instinct to seek out the nipple and suck, but my baby only screamed at my bare chest.
I was told every mother had instincts that would guide her in how to care for her baby. But when my daughter cried for hours on end, my instincts told me nothing about what she needed, how to fix her problems.
Before my daughter was one-week old, I already felt like a complete failure as a mother.
Mothers and would-be mothers are told a lot of lies. “Motherhood is the best job in the world” is one. “Mothers put their children first” is another. These are lies, or at least certainly over-simplifications, because they imply that women stop being separate people once they become mothers, that they suddenly lose any ambitions they had for their own lives and think only about what is best for their baby. But mothers are people, and just like any other person, they have wants and needs. And flaws.
Ayelet Waldman admits just how not perfect she is in her essay “Rocketship,” from her 2009 memoir Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. The title of the book tells you what mothers who are not perfect get labeled as: bad. And yet is there any way to be a mother without feeling like a failure? My daughter is six years old now, and if there is, I haven’t yet found it.
Waldman’s essay tells the story of her pregnancy with her third child. She was at an “advanced” age for pregnancy—35—and so as a self-proclaimed pessimist, she decided to allow her obstetrician to perform amniocentesis. “I remember the experience vividly, not because of the massive needle plunging deep into my belly . . . but because of the image on the ultrasound screen,” Waldman writes. “The first thing we saw were the baby’s feet, two little pads with ten distinct pearl toes.” She took that ultrasound picture of Rocketship (a nickname her children had assigned to their new sibling) home and happily told her kids they’d have a baby brother in a handful of months.
Waldman and her family were set to leave for Hawaii on a vacation, but Ayelet decided to call her obstetrician first to see if her amniocentesis results had arrived, hoping to put her mind at ease. Her OB answered her with, “Are you sitting down?”
The results revealed her fetus had too many chromosomes. This was early 2000s, and research outside the topic of Down’s Syndrome had not advanced as far as it has today, so Waldman was told she had a 50 percent chance the baby would be fine and a 50 percent chance the baby would have seizures, malformations, and developmental delays, among other hardships.
For the next six pages, we follow Waldman’s efforts to get more information. She sees a genetic counselor, joins an online support group, visits a therapist, talks to her rabbi, emails and telephones strangers who had children with the same diagnosis as her fetus. She endlessly searches the internet for success stories and worst-case scenarios. “I did calculations in my mind of what I could tolerate—physical malformations, fine. Who cares?” she writes. “But developmental delay. That shook me to my core. [. . .] I couldn’t go there.”
She hadn’t been gathering information to prepare. She had been gathering information to consider her options, of which, there were only two: allow the fetus to keep forming in her uterus or get an abortion.
There are some people out there who might believe Waldman didn’t have a choice to make, that there was no second option. Her baby already had legs that could kick, genitals that could be identified. Some of those people believe an egg fused with a sperm and nothing should interrupt the 9-month process that comes next.
I have never not been a pro-choice woman, but I’d become a more vocal advocate for reproductive rights since my 22-year-old self, with no health insurance, had to visit Planned Parenthood for the “morning-after pill,” as it was called then, which had just been approved by the FDA and required a prescription. I was fresh out of college, had my whole life ahead of me, and my only real mistake was to trust a condom to work.
I have been lucky enough in my life to not experience that panic again. Planned Parenthood got me on the pill for free, and then Obama let every woman have the pill for free (if they wanted it). From then on, when I didn’t want a baby, I didn’t get pregnant, and when I finally did want a baby, I stopped birth control and I got pregnant immediately.
And then I lost that pregnancy just as fast. I couldn’t believe the grief I felt for a bundle of cells, the missed opportunity.
My second pregnancy followed quickly after, and then it stayed for 38 weeks. I read Waldman’s essay a year into motherhood. And as I read her internal deliberation, I felt her anguish, her suffering. I was not like those other people; I believed Waldman did have a choice, and she had the right to consider abortion, as any woman should for any fetus she carries. But as a newish mother who had suffered loss, I thought it was certain she would still go through with the pregnancy, that she would have the baby and it would be healthy and it would be a certain kind of happy ending.
But I was wrong. She aborted the four-month-old fetus in her uterus. “When women of my mother’s generation fought for the right to choose, they did not need to confront the ugly physical reality. But women of my generation, women who hang strips of grainy ultrasound photographs on our fridges. . . cannot deny it,” Waldman writes. She saw her future child moving on the ultrasound screen, and she identified it not as a fetus, but as a baby, as a person. She writes, “Rocketship was my baby. And I killed him.”
I was horrified. And for a moment, I thought maybe I had been wrong about pro-choice, that maybe not every woman deserved that right. “Whatever maternal crimes I had committed before were nothing to this one, mere whitecaps to this tsunami,” she writes. “I was not just a Bad Mother; I was the worst of mothers.” And I agreed.
At the time, I was doing a lot of writing about my own motherhood experience, the shame of often feeling like a failure, the guilt that parenting wasn’t sunshine and rainbows every day. My postpartum depression lasted nearly a year, and it only subsided when I accepted prescribed antidepressants to help me cope. Motherhood made me feel like I was drowning. Prozac was my lifeboat. In Waldman’s essay, she admits that she was not strong enough to accept an imperfect child. Now that’s honest. I’m not sure many people would be willing to admit such a thing out loud, certainly not to the whole world in a published memoir. And I admire that honesty. Waldman shows her vulnerabilities, knowing she will be judged for them. Waldman knows herself well enough to be able to draw that boundary line of what she can and can’t do.
It was Waldman’s essay that forced me to be honest with myself. I always assumed I would have two children. People said an only child would be spoiled and lonely. It didn’t feel fair to deny my child a sibling, someone just like them with whom they could walk through life, who understood them completely, who they could commiserate with about how inept their parents had been in raising them. I wanted to give my daughter that chance. I wanted to give my daughter everything.
But doing so would be the end of me. I was not strong enough to mother two children. I could not accept another child, “perfect” or “imperfect.” Waldman and I were the same. Maybe I was worse.
Therein lies the problem, though. Women who are honest and set boundaries when it comes to their family are shamed. Waldman spends the rest of the essay talking about her guilt, how she killed her baby, how she will always be trying to atone for this one terrible act. She repents for this by stating, “but although I still sometimes find myself in that place of judgment, I also know that my children need me too much for me to waste my time on the malignant indulgence of guilt.” When you’re a mother, doing what is best for you is always frowned upon. Mothers’ needs are always last on the list. While I’m not so much advocating that Waldman continue to feel guilt, her decision to stop focusing on herself and her emotions is driven yet again by what is best for her children. It is yet another way, perhaps unintentional, that she illustrates the pressure mothers feel to put their children first.
If mothers were viewed and valued as full people in society, separate from our children, no one would ask us to suffer such guilt and shame for every decision we make on our own behalf. But the title of “mother” puts an unreasonable pressure on us. We should not give a mother a car and tell her to lift it—it is too heavy. And yet, the world believes that if her baby is under the car, a mother is capable of lifting it. If she isn’t capable, then she is a bad mother. Mothers are discredited for anything short of superhero strength. Waldman’s essay is so important because it shows just how absurd an expectation that is. She could not be a superhero. Neither can I.
Jennifer Furner has been published in the Huffington Post, Motherwell, Santa Fe Lit Review, and Belmont Story Review, among others. She is the Associate Nonfiction Editor of The Dodge. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and daughter.