One of the (many) intellectual and emotional tasks after having a baby is to unify all the different bits of identity into one body and psyche: career, post- partum body, sexual desire, split attention, domestic work, feminist, shifting interests. This is an extraordinary work that we ask women to do, and I’m not convinced that we as a society know how to help women do it well (if it is acknowledged at all).
There are useful metaphors that signpost where you’re meant to go with this armful of complex identities: you can strive for a ‘work life balance’ or try to ‘have it all,’ you can ‘be a martyr’ or a ‘yummy mummy.’ The urge to make all these identities play nicely together is enormous: attempting to contain a screaming baby’s emotional turbulence is considerably more difficult when you’re struggling to make sense of your own feelings and emerging sense of self.
This struggle makes myriad shapes: sometimes it’s a constant back-and-forth of career v domestic life. (That one is a familiar story in the press) Sometimes it’s a knot of obsession around feeding and eating, ‘losing the baby weight’ while trying to eat enough to lactate for the suckling baby and to complicate things, when will my vagina be whole again and how frustrating, if you identify as a feminist, to even care about my so called baby weight. Another struggle is the shift in the quality of attention, fleeting attention for subjects you used to debate from all angles are now skim over in favour of plunging into the smells of warm skin or thinking in depth about how this infant perceives that sun catcher. These are not easy things to struggle with, to make sense of.
An enormous task for me has been grieving my loss of interest in feminist texts- where did that voracious part of my identity go? And allowing space for the emotional life of infants to colonise my attention. I choose the word colonise because it is not neutral, because it is not, as Donna Haraway would say, ‘innocent.’Surely ‘baby brain’ is the enemy, isn’t this the oppression so many women have died to free me of? I feel deeply ambivalent about this shift in my interests. Is it allowed? I’ve given over space in my mind for this emerging interest. To what extent do my other identities need to budge up, cede synapses and other mental real estate for this interloper? Perhaps I’m letting feminism down, am I not simply colluding with patriarchy?
All these thoughts while I hold the screaming baby.
Another struggle I’m doing is the re-thinking of the natural. I was into natural birth before I did one. But I would be dead a hundred years ago after my birth, and so would the baby. There is no way the baby would have come out of my pelvis ‘naturally.’ In the ensuing weeks, he might have also been brain damaged from jaundice if we didn’t have access to modern technology- my milk took far too long to come in, and he was too tired to suckle. I’m grateful for formula, antibiotics, UV treatment, hospitals, catheters, midwives and whatever painkiller they used to numb me before the episiotomy. Nature was not best, natural birth, contrary to what I thought before, would have been a death trap. Its difficult, shoring up so violently against one’s beliefs. If I’d gone ahead with the home birth I romantically envisioned and ideologically wanted because ‘natural is best,’ my baby might have suffered brain damage from the shoulder dystocia he experienced or perhaps he wouldn’t have had access to the oxygen they pumped into his lungs seconds after he slid out. ‘Natural’ which had been synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ or ‘autonomous’ and ‘fuck the patriarchy and their unnecessary medical interventions’ had to be re-conceptualised as I winced, sitting and holding my newborn. My body was torn and so was my psyche: a difficult place to be emptied out from into motherhood.
Donna Haraway doesn’t exactly let me off the hook, but she does give me permission to forgo the peace talks with my psyche(s). I suppose one instinct of mine is to repress one or two of the conflicting identities, to silence my inner feminazi who is angry that I’ve given up my feminist readings, or no-platform my internal patriarch surveying my fat thighs and now lactating breasts with disgust. It would be easier to just reinvent myself in this way. Throw out the old self and usher in the new. However, I’ve been down that road and it isn’t satisfying. Its by- products are a constant, gnawing anxiety in the absence of other feelings. It makes for a rather two dimensional inner life which needs constant grooming.
Haraway gives me a metaphor to sink my teeth into: if I’m a cyborg, I can listen to all of these conflicting personas. I don’t have to violently disown the shrill, the demanding, the inconvenient and shameful parts of myself. I can be, in her words, an ‘illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.’
When I got out of hospital, I struggled to put my new sense of self into words. I had just been through an experience which was simultaneously the most awful I’d ever been through and which I was grateful for. I was fucking amazed at what I had managed to endure and digest- but it had come at a cost: I had gone to places in my soul I didn’t know existed. I emerged feeling like it was the best and worst experience of my life. Painful but replete with meaning. Something to be grateful for and also something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Holding this dichotomy split me physically and mentally, and I didn’t know how to reconcile them. A few nights later, my husband was watching X-men and I walked (limped)into the room just as Wolverine was being pumped full of ademantium. Here was a story I could work with: a super strong mutant who was declared dead from enduring unimaginable, indescribable pain, who emerges from the experience as a mutant by-product of military patriarchal capitalism.
I had to replace my very naïve, single-visioned account of reality with the story of the cyborg.
I’m a cyborg mother.
Copyright Diana Smith 2017
Donna Haraway’s essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ from ‘Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The reinvention of nature’, New York, Routledge, 1991, Pp 149-181