The Physical vs. Cognitive Stage of Motherhood: Two Perspectives
Motherhood has different stages. The early months and years are dominated by physical interaction: feeding, cuddling, carrying. At a certain point, however, this changes and new parenting skills are required: answering questions, playing games, negotiating. Tanya Slavin prefers the former phase; Christine Organ the latter. What about you?
I Prefer the Physical Stage of Motherhood
By Tanya Slavin
“Mom! You’re not listening!!!” My six-year-old pulls at my sleeve in frustration. He is right. I tuned out mid sentence, when he was telling me something about his new favourite dinosaur. It’s not that I’m not interested, I really am, but we’ve spent the last several hours together, and I just need some personal space. Some personal space to think. Now that he is bigger, I require more frequent breaks from him than I did when he was a baby (or than I do from his baby sister now). Not only that, but the typical challenges of parenting a six year old—setting boundaries, discipline, and so on—are much more of a struggle for me than any of the physical responsibilities tied to parenting an infant.
A friend of mine recently revealed that she often resented breastfeeding because she perceived it as an invasion of her personal space. That made me think: I am very much the opposite. Breastfeeding felt wonderful to me, while too much talking and playing with an older child is what becomes an invasion of my personal space. I suppose the physical-emotional side of mothering comes more naturally to me than the cognitive—thinking, reasoning, communicating—one.
I absolutely love and crave the physical closeness that is inherent in a baby’s first year of life. I welcome the near non-existence of boundaries that is part and parcel of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, carrying her on me. In those moments, I don’t have to say anything, and don’t have to make a conscious effort to connect with my child. My presence is enough. My body is enough. My smile is enough. My touch is enough.
I never tire of holding a baby, and I rarely feel that her needs are intrusive. That’s because while I can be physically there to comfort her, my mind is free to drift in and out of the situation as it pleases. I realize now that this is why I nursed my son until he was two and a half, and co-slept with him until he was at least four years old (and even now, at six, he still sometimes sleeps in our bed). Because being physically close is the easiest way for me to say “I love you,” to fix any rifts between us, to strengthen our bond.
Now that he is six years old, my interactions with my son revolve mainly around playing buses, talking about Minecraft, and getting him to brush his teeth every morning. I can enjoy an occasional board game, I love our conversations about life, and dinosaurs, or whatever his most recent interest is. I consider him one of the most interesting and engaging people I know. But too much talking and playing wears me out. Pretend play often feels like torture to me. My ideal is to sit side by side with my son in a cozy coffee shop or at the dinner table at home, each doing our own thing. We would have an occasional chat, be there for each other for a hug or a cuddle, but would mostly give each other space.
At the same time, I’m not too bothered by a transgression of my physical boundaries, even with an older child. I don’t mind it when my son climbs onto my back as I’m nursing the baby on the couch or if he wants to snuggle when I’m busy talking on the phone or working on my laptop. I still let him slip into our bed for a cuddle towards the morning, or even spend the whole night there, especially if he is sick or distressed.
I sometimes wonder how my introverted ways affect our relationship in this regard. I tend to withdraw into my own world when I’m concerned or upset. I also tend to need a lot of mental space. I often worry that these traits of mine will contribute to a disconnect between me and my son in the future. But understanding my own strengths and needs has helped me find different routes to connect with him. Even now that he isn’t a baby anymore, I often rely on the physical to mend things between us.
That’s how it is in difficult times, after a rough day at school or at home, after I’ve screwed up and want to make amends. I know that something needs to happen before the day is over, if not to fix things, then to smooth them out a bit. I open my mouth to say something but the right words don’t come. I feel awkward with words, they never come easily to me. So, I simply sit him on my lap, press his head against my chest and hold him like this for a few minutes, breathing into his neck. I say nothing, just breath, breath, and watch the invisible threads of our broken connection weave themselves back together again with every exhale. After that, we can talk. Or maybe we won’t even need to.
Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and a recovering academic who was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and spent most of her adult life moving around North America and documenting a Native American language. She now lives in the UK with her husband and two kids. You can find her at her blog Invisible to the Eye where she writes about the challenges of parenting and growing up, and on Twitter @invisible2the
I Prefer When the Physical Stage of Motherhood Is Over
By Christine Organ
This morning I did what was once unimaginable. I lay down on the couch and closed my eyes for a few minutes while my son played quietly on the other side of the room. Just a few years ago, the idea that I could lie on the couch without a child crawling on me would have been impossible. Heck, the idea of simply going to the bathroom alone seemed like a pipe dream.
Motherhood, for many years, blurred the lines of personal space between my children and me. The early stages of motherhood—from infancy into toddlerhood—are inevitably defined by its physical demands and constant contact. Feeding, rocking, bouncing, and cradling are the cornerstones of a mother’s role in the early years —not to mention the physical and emotional toll sleep deprivation takes on a mother. Even in the toddler years, motherhood involves a significant amount of crawling on the floor, carrying children, and feeling the tug of little hands on pant legs.
As an introvert, personal space is absolutely essential to my peace of mind. Though I like to cuddle as much as the next person, I can only take so much physical closeness. At some point, if or when an indefinable threshold is crossed, physical contact begins to feel suffocating.
After the birth of my first son, the loss of autonomy and control over my body and self was staggering. Due to undiagnosed postpartum depression, my mind didn’t feel like my own. And in light of the physical demands of mothering a newborn, my body didn’t feel like my own either. As the stay-at-home parent, the physical demands of motherhood were so all-consuming, so pervasive, and so relentless that I sometimes feared that my life had been taken hostage, that I would never feel like meagain. I felt smothered by their needs, like I was being swallowed whole.
Exacerbating my frustrations with early parenting were the relentless messages that motherhood—especially early motherhood—is defined by physical closeness and affection. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of mothers serenely smiling at their nursing baby. Grandparents clamored to hold babies and pouted when they surrendered the little bundle. Other mothers talked about how they instantly fell in love with their baby.
I, on the other hand, prickled with anger when I nursed, was more than happy to let someone else hold my baby, and felt dazed rather than in love most of the time. Lack of conversation about this uglier side of early motherhood made me feel like something was wrong with me. But as a child grows, candid conversation about the challenges of parenting becomes less taboo. Complaints about difficult threenagers, homework battles, and sassy teenagers are not only common, but accepted and almost celebrated, whereas admitting that you don’t want to hold your baby is akin to blasphemy.
Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems, they say. As a new mother, I found this phrase to be both condescending and depressing. It seemed to imply my problems as a new mother were insignificant, my struggles were just whiny naiveté, and the dilemmas I faced were inconsequential in the long arc of parenthood. What’s more, this cliché made me feel hopeless. You mean it only gets harder?!, I wanted to cry. You mean I might never feel like me again?
And yet, somehow, I did start to feel like me again. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but eventually the smothering sensation abated when the physical demands of parenting lessened as my children moved through infancy and toddlerhood and into the school-age years.
Parenting is still hard, confusing, and demanding. Parenting will always be hard, confusing, and demanding. But the parenting challenges I face now are less physical and more cognitive in nature—something I am far more suited to handle.
Now there is whining, bickering, and negotiating. But while these challenges are frustrating and have more long-lasting consequences, they don’t feel as suffocating as the physical demands of early motherhood. I can ignore the whining, discipline the fights, and listen to the pleas (or not). I can talk to my children about the problem, resorting to logic when possible, or simply dole out a firm response. I can take the time to gather my emotions, if necessary, ponder a response, consult with my husband, and find the much-needed space—both emotional and physical—when I am pushed to the brink of frustration, fear, or confusion. And even my parenting mistakes can be teachable moments about the importance of grace, humility, and forgiveness. Paying attention to my own needs doesn’t feel as selfish anymore, but an opportunity to teach my children about respecting others’ needs.
People also like to say parenting doesn’t get easier, you just get better at it, and having been a parent for nearly ten years now, I can say without a doubt that parenting, as a whole, does not get easier. As my kids have grown, the issues have also grown in complexity, with more nuances and deeper ramifications. Having the sex talk is more awkward than a diaper change in a Target bathroom. The decision to let my son play football (or not) could have repercussions more far-reaching than whether to give him a pacifier. And I can only imagine the perplexing challenges we will face as we move further into the tween and teenage years.
Yet despite the “bigness” of the problems, they somehow seem more manageable simply because I am better equipped to handle them. Parenting didn’t get easier, but I got better at it—and I finally got that much needed personal space.
Christine Organ is a freelance writer who lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, among others. She is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life and writes at www.christineorgan.com.
Join us on Twitter Thursday, January 14th at 1:00 EST to discuss the issues. Do/did you prefer the physical stages of motherhood or the cognitive ones? Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate.