There’s this language of “being human” that’s passed around among mothers, especially new mothers. “I actually showered and put on makeup today,” says the mother of a newborn, “and I finally feel human again!” Or, from one more experienced mom to another: “Around 6 weeks is when I started to feel like a human again.” My sister talks about how, during her daughter’s newborn phase, she was in “creature mode.” Talking with my dad the other day about some freelance work I picked up, he said, “I’m glad you have some projects to work on so you can feel like a person again.”
I completely understand what they are saying. Showering and putting on makeup makes me feel human again. Going to a coffee shop alone and working on my computer for a while made me feel more human. So did hiking with friends.
But what I’ve been wondering is, why do the early days of motherhood make us feel less human? Why would my dad assume I don’t feel like a person, now that I’m a mother? Is there anything more human than bearing and nurturing human offspring? Yet we go from taking care of ourselves, from driving around town and drinking iced coffees and working in offices and socializing with friends, to hunkering down in our houses, often just one room in our house, so it feels like a cave, and our minds are filled with thoughts of the baby–is she hungry? tired? not tired enough yet for a nap? cold? hot? distressed? bored? overstimulated? There is very little brain space for anything else. On top of that is the sheer physical work: the nursing, the carrying, the rocking, the bouncing, the diapering, the bathing, the cleaning. One can fill a 12-hour day purely with stuff of the body: feeding, eliminating, cleaning up after the food or the (baby’s) elimination.
Maybe what makes us feel less human during this time is that we are closest to our animal selves. We are not focusing on self-actualization, we are not pondering questions of ethics or philosophy or economics; we are not taking in master works of art or classic literature. We are eating, sleeping, taking care of our young, tending our wounds from the trauma of childbirth; we are living from day to day, almost incapable of looking far into the future. Even the non-anxious among us are filled with primitive fears, worried about the immediate safety of our babies and our homes.
I guess I don’t have a tidy way to conclude these thoughts. I wish that our society respected motherhood as a true part of humanity and personhood. And I wish that this season of being my most creaturely self would make me feel more human, instead of less. Maybe in the long run it will. Right now I feel completely separate from the self it’s taken my whole life to become, through chance and experience and discipline and curation. But I chose this path of motherhood with the hopes that it would grow and change and add to that person, and I am sure that one day I will look back and be glad I took this path that leads through the forest of my animal self.