It was the beginning of fall, and I had just about reached my limit in terms of how much more poop I could take. My son Dawson, the baby, was about 18 months (or something like that, I don’t know—once I had two, I stopped keeping track) and Liam, the older one, was just over three, and I felt like all I was doing anymore was changing diapers and wiping butts. My husband Tommy and I were working on potty training Liam, and we had gotten to a point where the bathroom door was always open because I read in a book somewhere that this is what good mothers do to make the child feel like everything is natural and normal.
One night Liam and Tommy were sitting on their respective toilets with the door open, while I was trying to clean the kitchen, which is right next to the bathroom. This was their conversation:
Tommy: "Oh my goodness. What was that noise?"
Liam: "Dat was just my bum making a silly sound."
Liam: "Poop is coming!"
Tommy: "Hooray! Daddy's pooping too!"
More disgusting sounds.
Liam: "Does Mommy want to see my poop?”
Liam: “Do you want to see my poop, Daddy?"
Tommy: "Sure. Do you want to see my poop?"
Me: "THAT IS ENOUGH!"
Bathroom door is forcibly shut.
Then I heard Liam say from inside the bathroom, "Is Mommy happy?"
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know many happy mommies with small children. Once we became mothers, it’s like we lost something fundamental to our physical and emotional identities. What happened to my body? My stomach? My breasts? My sense of decorum? Actually, I know exactly what happened. I had two kids, and that was the end of my mojo.
My friend Domenica once said, “You shoot a baby out of your vagina and no one looks at you, or it, the same way again.” But in my experience, no one looks at you period. In the three years since Liam’s birth I’ve felt more and more invisible. People don’t remember meeting me. Recently I had to reintroduce myself to the owner of the bookstore where I’d given a reading a few months earlier (“Did you change your hair?” he asked). Later that week I went to a spinning class where, for the third time, the instructor asked me if it was my first class (“I don’t know why I don’t remember you,” she said).
I do. It’s because the bathroom door is always open in my house. It’s because in my house, bodies can’t be separated from bodily functions, from who pooped on the floor and who didn’t. It’s because I used to think of my body as less utilitarian and more sexual. It’s because I’m exhausted. And now, with a husband who has seen me hooked up to a breast pump, one child who sits on my hip with his hand on my boob as if he owns the thing, and another who likes to show his poop to everyone from his parents to the cat to the appraiser who came to assess our house, the idea of feeling sexy is kind of a joke.
The irony of all of this is that the sexual body is what gets you into this mess in the first place. Then it disappears and you’re left with a new body—a wider, saggier, more fragile version of the old one. Ideally you would come to love this new being for its softness and its scars, for what it has produced and what it can do. But I’m not fully there yet. I feel like we’re fighting each other, my body and me. I can’t quite believe my body had the nerve to do this—get knocked up twice, become so sick during the first pregnancy and so bloated the second. And my body must feel betrayed that I let a surgeon C-section it open once for Liam, and yet again for Dawson.
A few days later, Liam and I were sitting on the couch reading a story. “Mom,” he said. “Do you use your boobs every day?”
I looked at my breasts, formerly known as firm, and for a second felt like I owed them an apology. It was so much easier when all they had to do was be a happy part of my love life. Now they’ve been stretched, bitten, pumped and stuffed into hungry little mouths. Sorry girls, I thought. But you kind of asked for it, evolutionarily. And this is yet another reason we need to figure out a way to get men pregnant.
“Not the same way I used to,” I said.
“Why do you have boobs?” he said.
I told him that I used them to feed him and Dawson when they were babies. “You ate ALL the time,” I said. “Every minute. Mommy was so, so tired.”
“Do you use them to feed people now?”
“No,” I said. “And just to clarify, I wasn’t feeding just anyone with these things. I was fairly picky about it.”
“Do you have milk in them now?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Let’s see,” said Liam.
I took a breast out and gave it a good squeeze. I never would have done something like this before I had small children, but motherhood is an altered state.
A tiny jet of collostrum shot out.
“Whoa!” said Liam. “Wook at that! You have stuff in there!”
“That’s right,” I said. “Mommy is very powerful.”
“Okay,” Liam said. “Put it away.”
“It’s the conversation we’ve been having with men for centuries,” I said later to my friend Domenica. We were in her kitchen, drinking tea and happily ignoring our children, who were in the living room dismantling a scooter.
“Right,” she said. “Wow! That’s really powerful! Now put it away.”
“But it feels like I have put it away,” I went on. “I’m sure I used to make more of an impression. People would remember meeting me. Remember conversations we’d had. But since I’ve had kids, it’s like the part of me that lived in the outside world is gone.”
“It probably is gone, at least for a little while,” she said. “You’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for five years.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Last night I breast fed the baby and put him to sleep. Then I had sex with my husband, which put him to sleep, and then I lay there awake, feeling like nothing but a vessel for everyone else’s needs.”
Domenica patted my hand. “It’s not forever,” she said.
I bit into a cookie. No one tells you how conflicted being a parent will make you feel. Before I got pregnant I swore to myself I wouldn’t be a mother who lost herself to her children. I naively underestimated how my body and its function as a primary source of food and shelter would take over. I love having children in the sense that I love Liam and Dawson more than I can bear. But I don’t love being “A Mother”—in the sense that that identity seems to exist at the expense of so much of my former self. And it’s probably this ambivalence that the world seems to be politely not noticing.
Liam came dashing into the kitchen naked except for a tutu and carrying a plastic sword. “Mom!” he said. “You need to buy me a dress!” Then he ran out, chased by Domenica’s son Bobby, who was brandishing a wooden stick.
“People always remember him,” I said.
“Maybe you should invest in a tutu,” said Domenica.
In the car on the way home, Liam, who was in the back seat trying to ignore the astonishingly loud Dawson, leaned forward and said, “Mom, when are you going to get a penis?”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to get one, Sweetie.”
“YOU GOT AN ANGINA?” Dawson yelled.
“That’s right,” I said. And then I thought, Mommy is powerful, dammit. I have an angina. No one may ever look at it (or me) the same way again, but if this period of my life is all about breaking down the old self—the one built on sexuality, romance, mystique, and their attendant elements of privacy and bashfulness—then something, someone, new must emerge. Someone more grounded, someone more honest. Someone as shameless as her children.
“One day,” Liam continued, “I am going to have boobs. They’ll grow and grow out of my belly.”
This reminded me of something I’d read once about Virginia Woolf, and how interested she was in the man-womanliness, woman-manliness that exists in all of us. Maybe small children see more clearly things that we’ve all forgotten: that sex appeal, like marriage, like gender, like happiness, can be a fluid thing, and maybe the truth is that we’re in flux most of the time. Which is so fundamentally human—sitting around doing the best you can while waiting to be something else.
“Yup,” Liam said. “One day I will lose my penis and grow boobs and you can’t stop me.”
“You do whatever you want,” I said. And one day the bathroom door will be shut. The boobs will stop leaking. My body will be my own again, and I’ll enjoy its strength, beauty, and sex appeal. One day the children will grow up and stop needing me, at which point I’ll probably want all of this back.