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Lately I’ve been encountering stories of frustration, anxiety, and resentment from moms, and also from women who don’t (yet) have kids, who are feeling bombarded, and sometimes violated, by others folks’ ceaseless investigations into their mothering choices. The most pervasive of these conversations seem to be the ones centering on the possibility of future children. It’s pretty much the norm now for your dear Aunt Mavis, or your college roommate–via your Facebook page no less–or your friendly supermarket cashier to ask you in all seriousness what your plans are for another baby when you’re bouncing a three month old on your hip. The newlyweds at the holiday party are all but asked point blank if they conceived or not when they’re trying to show off their honeymoon pictures. That cool cousin who never got married and happens to be over forty is blasted with questions when she answers quite confidently in a room brimming with doubt, Yes, I do want to have a baby.
Now personally, queries like this don’t bother me. Aside from the fact that I happen to LOVE having an audience of one good listener, or a couple thousand for that matter, to talk with about the depths and intricacies of my mothering practice, I don’t really believe there’s any such thing as a question that’s too personal when it comes to my mothering work. Breastfeeding, pregnancy, and birthing questions are especially stimulating because most of the time I am connecting people with new information and resources they didn’t know were there. Even more, mothering work is my life’s work. My process as a mother is also an emerging spiritual practice, the birth of each child revealing yet another dimension of my power and responsibility. Questions then, even the most insensitive, biased, steeped-in-skepticism ones, help me to become more engaged in my path and clearer about the fullness of this calling.
But I haven’t always had such a holistic understanding of these moments of interrogation. There was a time when I felt self-conscious about being honest with my family and friends about my mothering dreams. After many years of downplaying the magnitude of my vision, the burden of suppressing my emotions was weighing on my body, spirit, relationships, and creativity. I realized that part of my foundational work as a mother in this world was to answer truthfully whenever I was asked how many children I want to have. I had to practice sharing the narrative of my mothering vision orally with real people. I had to sustain a vital consistency between the prayers in my heart and the language in my mouth. This was at times, and still is, excruciating because some people were very harsh. I’ve been told my mothering dreams are–to use their words– stupid, extreme, ridiculous. Still, intuitively I felt that any space my children could ever occupy in this life would ultimately begin with me making space for them to first exist freely in my thoughts.
Questions from others have become this very essential space where I can practice mothering in the affirmative. They present an opportunity, where if necessary, I can at least give myself the Yes and the validation for my own feelings. I am also very clear that I’m not obligated to respond to every question put in my face or posted to my timeline. In instances where I don’t feel safe to answer a question, I can take it back into my creative laboratory where it becomes a seed for writing, movement, or a workshop. I have learned to be very intentional about finding a way to make every question valuable to my mothering work. And it’s also true that as much as I welcome the questioning, I still experience plenty of questions as intrusions into my delicately forming way of life. On many occasions, long after the questioner has switched the subject and forgotten the way my tongue got caught on its words, I am still scrambling to salvage my sense of self after the blow, still reeling from that harrowing moment of feeling raw, exposed, and isolated. This is the space where much of my writing is born. This space of textual recovery is where I can stop time and just sit with what hurts. It’s where I can make deliberate efforts to be gentle with the inquiry, go slowly in identifying the parts of the question that rattle me, figure out whole new ones to ask myself if need be.
Writing also gives me room to absorb the lingering aftershocks of the questions that really sting. Before my first son was born I had multiple, consecutive miscarriages. Many of my close friends were pregnant and having babies. I remember being asked at one of the baby’s birthday parties, So what are you waiting for? When are you going to have your baby? For several years, I was confronted with the approximation of that question by various people who genuinely thought they were only making small talk and meant no harm. Still, the breath would always get stuck in my throat, and for a moment I would consider being honest, collapsing right there into the heap of grief I really was, setting the record straight once and for all, But I am not waiting! I am in mourning, don’t you see?
Being a performer, I could always pull myself back from the edge and resume the mask. Even now I’m struggling to recall how exactly I answered such questions. I think it was something like, Yeah, one day, or, I know, right! Something appropriately shallow and convenient for those brief moments between cake cutting and gift giving when questions about your fertility tend to pop up unannounced. Afterwards, I would just smile and tap my inner reset button while moving to another part of the room. I would commit to doing the real healing work later when I could revisit the question and examine my wounds in peace. Underneath the rehearsed, clipped lines was also the persistent fear that answering authentically about wanting to have a child could backfire if I wasn’t careful. What if I was misunderstood? What if the person asking me about my mothering journey wasn’t really set on listening? My deflection of such questions was mostly a desire to mitigate the compounded trauma of being more unheard, of feeling more unseen.
We’re all different, us mothers and women, and yet everyday we make similar decisions to evade or decline questions about our mothering practices. Our reasons for doing so are more than justified. Still, I can’t stop thinking about all the opportunities for growth, connection, and awareness that we lose when we walk away from the potentially transformative space that every good question opens up.
Before moving on with that thought, I do want to acknowledge WHY some of these questions can be highly problematic in the first place. I could actually write another essay, a book even, on this, but in an attempt to summarize for anyone wondering why their “innocent question” is repeatedly going unanswered, I’ll try anyway. Mothering work, womb work, babymaking work, childraising work, breastfeeding work, fertility work, conception work, partnering work, unpartnering work, sexuality work, adoption work, pregnancy work, abortion work, career work, finances work, health and wellness work, grieving work, happiness work–and so much more–is complicated. A woman’s choice to have a child or children in her body (or elsewhere) is dependant on many factors, most of them unseen and not easily relayed in a random chitchat with someone who is not deeply invested in her mothering practice. Also, many questions are rooted in a premise that is not fair to assume (and possibly isn’t even relevant!) if she has not clearly articulated those factors as being true for her. For instance, You’ve been married for five years now. When are you going to have a baby? assumes all sorts of things (the least of which is the idea that you have to be married to have a baby–okay that’s a whole other topic, but I had to point out another massive and triggering assumption space while we’re here–it’s all related!) that a woman may or may not have decided on yet. Also, miscarriage is a very invisible part of many women’s mothering stories. How can anyone ever be sure that the absence of a baby in the arms means that attempts haven’t been made or that losses haven’t been experienced?
And that’s just ONE example. There are countless other reasons why certain questions carelessly leave the burden with the mother or the woman to loop you into a story she may not even be ready to unpack herself. So what tends to happen in these moments when a feeling akin to desperation arises–because no one wants to fall apart and feel lonely and helpless amidst the pieces of her dismantled self–is that she shuts the inquiry down as an act of self-preservation. The phone call might end abruptly, or the conversation might change mid-sentence, or someone might suddenly get up from the table without finishing their food. However it transpires in the moment, the hole left gaping in the wake of whatever question was put out there is unmistakeable. It is here, at this critical juncture of accessing survival and risking vulnerability that I am most fascinated. It is here where I see the greatest capacity for humanity to begin reimagining how our questions, and specifically our mothering work questions, can cultivate abundant spaces of discovery, healing, and clarity, not only for the women being asked, but also for the people, often other women themselves, who are doing the asking.
Whenever I am confronted with that quintessential, awkward mothering question, I get happy. The more outrageous the question, the better! I get excited because in initiating the question space with me, the questioner is inherently consenting to being questioned also. There are no free passes into my mothering work. Yes, everybody, even dear Aunt Mavis, must learn to question responsibly. If you’re asking me about mine, then obviously you are telling me about yours too. For me, as a mothering work practitioner, this is like hitting the jackpot. Not simply is it satisfying to invite someone else to be “on the spot” with me, but my vision to create more visibility for the infinite variations and narratives of mothering work is nurtured through honest dialogue. Even more, we all BENEFIT from being active participants in the question space. Practicing positive communication about mothering work in our private thoughts and with the people we love–and even with the really smiley lady in the checkout line–is an essential component of making sure we all get seen and that we all are heard.
Transparency, flowing both ways, is the key to maximizing the openings fostered by these questions. When it comes to dialoguing about our mothering practices, reciprocity is an imperative. Most times, the question itself is a good question that is worthy of self-reflection and thorough analysis. We actually attract the questions to ourselves, and usually we’re being asked about something we’ve been secretly grappling with for some time. More often than not, the person asking all the questions, whether consciously or unconsciously, is seeking a safe space to unravel and process her own stuff, stuff that is likely too buried, too confusing, or too scary for her to navigate alone. When we choose to acknowledge that internal and fertile space of inquiry, we inevitably give others the freedom to own the unanswered parts of themselves. This is where true healing and transformation can flourish, and where, maybe, the answers we need can be found.
So, go ahead. Ask me all about when I want to have the next baby, and whatever else you’re curious about knowing in my mothering work. Bring all your questions to the table and be prepared for me to do the same. Please know that I am more than willing to sit in that light of illumination with you. I am trusting that in the event any question causes me to come undone, that you will not leave me stranded there to sort it all out by myself. Indeed, I am certain that in asking me to tell you why, and when, and how I want to experience my mothering journeys that you too are truly ready to do this work. The question, I’m learning, gives us somewhere to begin.
Binahkaye Joy is a new mommy, dancer, doula, writer, movement facilitator, and creativity coach. She writes extensively about the intersections of mothering work and the cultivation of a vibrant creative practice. She is the founder and gourd keeper of the Mothering Gourd Writers Collective. Binahkaye produces the New Mommy Writers’ Workshop and the Birth Stories creative storytelling intensive. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, James, and sons, Bloom and Wonder.