Saturday, May 2, 2009

Motherhood: Nature or Nurture?

A little over a week ago (on the day of my birthday, to be more precise), my husband got sick. It actually was no big deal, but his sickness got me thinking about my ability to take care of him, and that, of course, got me questioning my ability to take care of any human being, for instance, a son or daughter.

The day before my birthday, my husband had a fever, so I had the great idea of having him lay down naked, covered with blankets, and making him some Vick tea with ibuprofin 600mg, knowing that he hadn't eaten in over six hours, and that ibuprofin is to be taken with food. The very next day, he woke up with nausea and heartburn, the fever had not gone down (obviously, as I had done nothing that would bring it down), and I went to school and then work. At work, I was lucky enough to get my boss to let me go home early to celebrate my birthday, so on my walk home, I called my husband, who mentioned he had thrown up. Immediately after hearing his words "I threw up today", I had the urge to turn around and go back to work (I didn't follow through though), because I really didn't want to be around someone who was sick to his stomach, especially on my birthday, especially considering my vomit phobia grows every time someone throws up around me, and considering I think of me before I think of others.

In the previous paragraph I just made a brief description of the situation that lead me to have the following reasoning, the sole purpose of that paragraph was so that the rest of my entry will make sense, I know readers will have little interest in my husband's occasional sickness.

My best friend from childhood said to me once that research had shown some women have a maternal instinct, and some don't. It isn't something that can be changed at will, some people get it earlier in life, sometimes it awakes a little later, sometimes it doesn't even come up at all. She made the comment that it seems like none of us have got that instinct yet, and she wondered if we ever would get it...

One of my first thoughts when I was in the ER with my sick husband was that someone with a maternal instinct, in the same situation as I was then, would have thought of putting some ice on his forehead and armpits (like the doctor later recommended) to bring down the fever, and would have mentioned he should wear a t-shirt so the sweat would be absorbed by the clothing and not by the sheets. The fact that I didn't think of these things until the doctor and my mother mentioned them got me worried, and, even in the waiting room, I kept thinking not only was I not ready to be a mother, I also wasn't able to take care of my own husband, myself or a pet, even.

When I talked about my insecurities with my mom, she said those things are not necessarily instinctive, that you learn them through mistakes. To that I responded "maybe that's why all oldest kids are conflicted, it's cause they had to be their parents' guinea pigs".

However, my mom's response never really did convince me, and, combined with the conversation I had had a few months back with my friend, I was lead to the following wondering: Is maternal instinct something you can acquire, or is it incorporated in our DNA? Can you learn to be a mother?

I know there's mothers out there who aren't really mothers, women who have children but never fully develop their maternal instinct. Women who abandon their babies. Women who put their own well being first. Women who have children for welfare reasons. Women who have children and let them "raise themselves", or even worse, "raise each other". Women who never really commit to their jobs as mothers.

I also know there's women who, without actually being mothers, have more of a maternal instinct that women who have gone through labor. Women who adopt children that other women didn't want. Women who feed children who are hungry, who set up shelters and neighborhood schools for less privileged children. Women who take care of random kids and make sure they're not hurt, or cold, or hungry. Mothers who, without actually being mothers, know just what children need, and how to provide it to them, and know just how to act in case of eventualities.

So, is it hormones? Is pregnancy what turns a woman into a mother? Or is it something that is predetermined in their DNA, even before they gain a conscience? Are all women potential mothers? Or just some of us? How and when do we know if we'll be good mothers? What is it to be a good mother anyway?

I think before I wonder if I'll ever get to be a good mother, I should start out by defining what I think being a good mother is (I want to emphasize the fact that this is just my opinion of what being a good mother means, there's no academic knowledge or research put into this):

A good mother always puts her children's happiness before her own. A good mother always knows just what her children need (even before they know it themselves). A good mother never, ever, under any circumstance, hits, beats or spanks her kids. A good mother is always aware of the nutritional value of the food she puts on her children's plate, and she never feeds her children something she wouldn't eat herself. A good mother sits down and talks, and asks her kids regularly how they're feeling. A good mother treats her children as equals, because they're younger, but not inferior. A good mother enjoys and rejoices at the sight of her children playing or laughing. A good mother learns from her children and with her children. A good mother wakes up early even when she doesn't really want to, and she hugs her children good morning. A good mother takes care of her children when they're sick, she regularly checks up on them, she makes their bed while they're in the shower, she reads them a story or holds their hand so they fall asleep in peace, knowing they will be alright. A good mother helps her children with their homework, even if she knows less than they do, and she can only provide moral support. A good mother always puts her children first, but she doesn't let herself go. A good mother loves herself and takes care of herself and improves and cares about personal stuff. I believe being a good mother does not necessarily mean leaving your personal life behind for your children, it also doesn't mean you absolutely must be a stay home mom, or sacrifice your personal happiness or achievements for your children. It just means you know just how to find the right balance, the special balance that only women with a high maternal instinct seem to be able to achieve.

Sometimes I think my selfishness and egocentrism would not allow me to be a good mother. Sometimes I find it hard to sacrifice myself for others, or to realize I'm actually thinking of myself first. I don't have that self-sacrificing soul that mothers have, I have never had it and I'm too individualistic to suspend my personal needs and dump all my energy on someone else. Wake up early on a Sunday? Not having just ice cream for dinner because it isn't healthy? Going to the veggie shop every day and trying to come up with ways to disguise the flavor of veggies so they'll eat healthy food? Watching cartoons over dinner? Who knows how many things a mother sacrifices for her children... Am I ready to do make those concessions? I don't think I'm ready yet, or I don't think I want to yet.

Is it worth it to have children if I'm going to be a bad mother? Actually, the correct question would be: How do I know if I'll end up being a bad mother at all? How do I know without trying? But, once I try it, won't it be too late? If the day I have a child, I realize I shouldn't have had him, what do I do? Can I learn to be a mother, or am I going to leave a poorly raised kid to become a scarred adult? Children don't come with a return policy, you can't rent them out to try and see if you like them, there's no such a thing as test driving your children; once you have them, they're for good. So what if having them is a mistake (for them)? What if they'd be better off with another mother? What if I have children and I give them a shitty life? What if I make my own children unhappy?

It's a lot of questions, uncertainties, fears, but what is best: to try and fail, or not to try at all?


* Even though it may seem my reasoning goes against my feminism, I still believe mothers are mothers, and fathers are fathers, although that doesn't mean they can't share responsibilities and chores, including the raising of their children. I speak about mothers because I am a woman, not because I believe in the traditional role distribution where women take care of the children while men go out to work and provide for the family.

** Photo: "A good mother" - My mom and I in summer '84.

*** I have no intention to offend anyone, so if you feel personally offended by this entry, you're welcome to have a private conversation with me via e-mail or any other communication medium you prefer.