Time for Joy

Jan and Elizabeth

The feminist struggle could be pretty joyless. I became a mother in the thick of it – in 1973. Should I wear a nursing bra or burn it? That was the question.

Like every movement that seeks equal rights, recognition, and authenticity, feminism took its pendulum way to the outer reaches of Siberia before it settled back to the tame little arguments we have today. Lean in? Hell, in the 70’s, we weren’t even standing up yet.

At the risk of telling my “I walked 5 miles to school, in the snow, uphill” story, I feel compelled to tell younger women just a bit about how it was. Becoming a mother was a weird mix of natural childbirth, unshaven legs, and do it yourself gynecological examinations. If you don’t believe me, go rustle up a first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Oh wait – I’ve probably still got my copy on the shelf entitled “WTF was I thinking?”

So while we were supposed to be doing the mother earth thing, feminism expected us to push the struggle. Tuck that baby under your arm and pick up that hammer!

So I tried to be both. I did the natural childbirth thing, being all calm and doing the breathing like I was taught. I was never nutty enough to want a home delivery although a couple of my friends actually had their babies at home with their husbands doing the delivery. Shit. My husband was an urban planner. Seriously, I was going to have him deliver our baby?

Anyway, the natural childbirth approach worked fine until I cracked and started begging for drugs. When the nurse told me the drug wouldn’t take effect until after the baby was born, I told her I didn’t care. Give it to me anyway.

All I remember about the actual birth is a sexist pig old male doctor telling me what to do. Last male doctor I’ve ever had except for the guy who checks my ears. Done with that – my childbirth resolution. And then I remember the serene, dimly lit recovery room, the frost on the inside of the window from the coldest ever Michigan winter, and my baby wrapped in a white blanket on my chest. The two of us alone in the dark. The tiniest, most perfect slice of joyfulness.

Soon after that, my feminist struggle resumed. I was a new mother, a very recent college graduate, with not much of a career and few prospects, married to a successful man, well-educated, a public figure in our town. I was overwhelmed by feeling ‘less than’ and started to squirm and fidget, looking for my hammer.

I went back to my two-bit research job 4 weeks after my baby was born. It wasn’t like I was a brain surgeon where my maternity leave would result in lives lost. I was, get this, driving my VW around the countryside coding the crops that were detected via aerial infrared sensing. Soy beans? Sugar beets? Seriously. This was my precious work.

A few years later, a friend remarked to me that my boss at the time said that I had “…the worst adjustment to motherhood of anyone he’d ever known.” It stung at the time but it was probably true. I struggled against motherhood at every turn.

And so, if I have regrets about anything (and I really don’t about much), it’s that I let this struggling – the cross pulls of old and new feminine roles: my mom in the kitchen with her apron, freshly pressed, mother earth in a peasant dress with the safety pinned flap for breast-feeding, and a mad as hell Rosie the Riveter who would leave her baby in a bucket so she could turn on the pile driver – take the pure, perfect joy out of being a mother.

Now my life is about wandering around and picking up those little shards of joy that fell on the floor, the ones stuck in the bottoms of my pockets, in my big purse with the old pens and Kleenex.

I know what I missed in my fitfulness. It’s in this picture.

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