What is Motherhood? is a Brain, Child blog series, with original posts from our writers, and reposts from some of our most favorite websites and blogs, all answering the universal question—what does motherhood mean to you?
By Rachel Pieh Jones
Motherhood is gross and it starts in the bathroom when you pee all over your fingers even though you are aiming at a little white stick. Next comes the projectile vomit, your own, that some call morning sickness but is actually preparation for having a baby, who will vomit on you. Before pregnancy we barfed in private, now we are barfing in Laundromat garbage cans, potted plants lining suburban streets, and the parking lot outside Babies R Us. Breasts bloat and leak mysterious cloudy discharge and the baby has not even arrived yet.
We mothers used to be fairly modest, meaning we didn’t drop our pants for just anyone. Now, in the doctor’s office, we will pee into cups and spread our legs for whoever asks, hoping they will give us good news. If you are pregnant in France, you will also take off your shirt and bra so the doctor can check your pinched vaginal nerve. This only happened to me once and yes, motherhood means we now say things like ‘pinched vaginal nerve.’
Giving birth is excessively gross. My daughter asked if she came out my belly button. When I told her she came out my vagina, she said, “I came out your bagina? Eeeewww!”
Eeew is right. We sweat and swear and turn blisteringly red and lose things called mucus plugs but not from our noses and poop on our babies’ faces (tell that to your teenager). We cry from pain, exhaustion, overwhelming love and adoration (the poop has long since been washed off and the baby really is adorable now). There is blood and discharge and excess IV fluid. There is now yellow discharge from our breasts that seeps, then we wake one morning and find the seeping has miraculously turned to a shower of purplish white milk. And there is a human attached to our nipple, sucking on it.
The grossness of motherhood strips all pretense of fashion and style. We wear breast milk stained shirts and jeans with booger streaks at toddler nose level, right around the knee. We lug suitcase-sized totes with garish safari animals or cartoon characters. We pretend spit-up blends in with the pattern on our shirt. Drool coats every surface from our car keys to our hairbrush.
Mothers pick noses. With our bare fingers. And we feel accomplished when we successfully remove that offensive green slime. We swoop up small people and smell their butts. Depending on the result of these smell tests, we will wipe poop from those butts. We wipe poop from backs, even from shoulders when things have gotten out of hand. We wipe poop from car seats and strollers and highchairs. We scoop turds from bathtubs, the ones that won’t fit down the drain. In Somalia we wipe diarrhea with our hands. (That also only happened to me once.) We catch vomit with our bare hands to spare the child or the upholstery.
We pick up dropped pacifiers and lick them off. We use our teeth to clip baby fingernails. We admire goopy boogers and accept them onto our own fingertips so they don’t end up crusted to the car door. We tell our kids the dead frog they found on the street is cool and later we pull it out of their jeans pocket while doing laundry. We unroll crunchy socks. We comb for lice.
Motherhood is also gross when it reveals deep-rooted selfishness like when the kids think they are fighting over the last can of root beer this side of the Atlantic Ocean but you already hid it in the back of the cupboard for later, when they are sleeping or choking down vegetables. Or when you slide the hands of the clock forward ever so slightly each night so that bedtime is still 7:30 but it is really 7:10. Motherhood reveals the gross habit of grudge-keeping when we say, ‘I told you seventeen times to keep the Legos off the stairs.’ It reveals pride and envy when we compare our children and our habits to other mothers and their children.
Motherhood is gross because it sends us blubbering into Kleenexes when we stop to truly feel the soft, pudgy cheeks pressed against our own and we hear peals of laughter and snorty giggles that drift in through screen windows on balmy summer evenings. Eyeliner turns to black streaks and our noses start to drip during melodramatic television commercials.
Motherhood is gross, and courageous women dive into this murky world of fluid and smell and creatures and mysteries with antibacterial wipes in our back pockets and the unspoken hope that today will finally be the day no one asks us to admire the size of the log they left in the toilet.
The grossness of motherhood reminds us every day that our kids are not always kind, peaceful, or wise. And neither are we. In this disgusting world of motherhood, our weaknesses sneak up like poop on shoulders and our colossal capacity for love capsizes all faÃ§ade of propriety. Bring on the gross.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.
Illustration by Christine Juneau