I have spent a considerable portion of my life feeling like a faker. Sometimes I do it professionally as a performer, and other times just recreationally, like when I administer my own creative haircuts, or plan the garden based on feelings rather than appropriate growing seasons or a reasonable understanding of space. In both categories, I live with a suspicion that everyone else seems to understand the world in a way that I just can’t manage to access – that I’m somehow just a little bit off. Rather than remedy this with the Internet or a salon appointment, I usually just decide to forge ahead with my instincts.
Feeling like a faker extends rather grandly into my motherhood. It became clear to me from the get-go that there are certain homogenous prescribed ways that mothers are “supposed” to feel about things. Quickly on the heels of this discovery came the companion realization that I don’t feel many of the “right” ways at the right times. Usually this just results in me shrugging my shoulders and carrying on, but other times, it involves theatrics.
When my daughter Ida was a week old, I dropped her off for a couple hours at a friend’s house. I had a meeting for work that there was no way I could get out of, and to be honest, I was looking forward to the break. Ida was a very intense baby – the sort that cried whenever she was awake, slept in 20 minute installments and nursed like the act was simultaneously stabbing her eyes out and the only thing keeping her ravenous self just barely alive enough to keep screaming. It’s a good thing she was so frigging adorable. My nerves were shot, aided in no way by the fact that my pants were being held up by a scarf that I had decided to tie around my waist like a beach cover-up. Sometimes weird things make sense when you’re only sleeping in 10-minute installments.
I got to my friend’s place, deposited the momentarily non-screaming baby and supplies, and kind of stood there waiting for some indication that I could flee. My friend made a frowny smile and in her most sympathetic tone said, “she’ll be fine, it’s okay. I know it’s so hard to leave her, but you’ll make it.”
“Um, duh,” I thought. “I’m about to get a drive through coffee and then sit through a blissfully boring administrative meeting where it is my understanding that at no point will anyone demand I take off my shirt. It is entirely possible that there will be snacks.” I felt sheer glee at the prospect to leaving Ida’s care up to someone else for a couple hours. I have always been sure that Ida will be just fine in someone else’s care. I do occasionally worry about the caretaker (see above re:) screaming, but that’s when I usually sip my latte and the nagging concern is washed down clean with wonderfully quiet selfishness.
But in that moment, confronted with the earnest sympathy of my friend who was so sure of what I’d be feeling, I faked what I gathered was the correct maternal response to leaving my one-week old baby. I even manufactured a tear, and managed to give Ida a mournful hug so as to say “I am overcoming unfathomable emotional obstacles to leave you here. My heart is broken and I will count the precious moments until I return to you once more.”
Actually, that last bit was true, but you know, as in savoring each precious baby-free moment stuck in Chicago traffic. “Yes, Sarah Jindra, say the words I long to hear. Tell me that 94 is a mess and that I’m stuck here with only my gal pal Terry Gross and this muffin I ganked from the snack table (see! I told you!) and tucked into my laptop bag.” But I wanted to pass for a real mother – one who had the “correct” response to parting with her baby for a while, so I faked it.
A lot has changed since then. Perhaps most notably, Ida no longer screams all the livelong day and I am now sleeping on a more humane schedule. I remembered this experience when I was out of town for a dance engagement last week, and some of the other dancers asked me if it was hard to be away from Ida. Having since mostly given up faking as a mom, I decided to tell the truth. “Not really.” I said. I explained that while I love being a parent, I also love time away and find that it’s very easy for me to enjoy what I’m doing while Ida is being cared for by someone else. Several of my fellow dancers (none of them mothers) expressed relief at this. The notion that a mother can both love her kid a whole big bunch and still love being apart from the kid from time to time seemed to be a liberating idea. I guess they had ideas about how a mom should feel too – ideas that made the gig look daunting and ill-fitting.
And I have to agree. Because faking what I thought was the right way to be a mother never felt great. And eventually, when it occurred to me that Ida might one day be a mother herself, it started to feel wrong. It began to feel like a feminist mandate to tell the truth about myself as a mom – to proudly claim my own experience and hold it up as one of many valid paths. I started to wonder if by telling my truth, I was making space for other rebellious mothers to tell theirs.