I have been told, lately, to take control of many things. Fertility testing companies have ordered me to take control of my reproductive lifespan. Skin care brands have instructed me to take control of my pores. Wellness startups have encouraged me to take control of my health (by which they mean my weight). If I were feeling generous, I might see all this encouragement as wonderfully feminist. After all, they tell me, I am in control. I am being empowered. My body, I am reminded, is mine.
But if I were feeling less charitable, I might point out that I am being instructed to make sure that this empowered body of mine is clear-skinned, thin, serene, and fertile. I might argue that I feel less as though I were being invited to take control and more as if I am being told to control myself, and that the specific ways in which I am being invited to control myself make me more serviceable to men, and, now that I am thirty, also to children. I am not yet a mom—a state of being that has been entirely my responsibility to maintain, by taking control of my hormones with a daily pill. I do, however, soon want to be one, and I know which creams and gym passes and supplements I will buy in order to reclaim aesthetic dominance over my thighs.
When I think about taking control of motherhood, I don’t just mean of stretch marks and varicose veins. I am thinking about the kind of control that requires mothers to have read everything there is to read about what to buy and what to discard, how to breastfeed and how to sleep-train, when to schedule what appointment and apply for which school; I am thinking about the kind of control that women in heterosexual relationships are expected to take of their child’s best interests, while their male partners “help out.” I am thinking about the kind of control-taking in which women cannot admit to themselves, or their friends, or God forbid the public, that sometimes they hate all this taking of control, which amounts to a kind of self-control; I am talking about the kind of control-taking that requires a mother’s emotional life to be pure and clean and lovingly focused on her child, rather than weird or drifting or unpredictable.
How promising, then, that I opened Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct and was ordered by its author, the journalist Abigail Tucker, to accept that should I become a mother, I will not be in control. Childbirth, she writes, is a “second birth” for a woman, so extreme is its transformation of a woman’s brain into a maternal one. Much like a woman’s first birth, this is an act of creation in which she has absolutely no say:
Despite our robo-strollers, fancy genetic screening kits, and baby monitors that let us sing lullabies from far-flung time-zones while on business trips, we aren’t always in charge here, nor are we precisely who we used to be. In the course of becoming mothers, we do not change our minds about the world. Our minds are simply changed.
What Tucker appears to offer in her book’s early chapters is just what I want: for someone to tell me what motherhood will do to me, and for someone to give me this information without expecting me to use it to take any sort of control.
Yet this initial impression is misleading. Mom Genes would be a moving book if shifting the burden of control was in fact its aim. Self-acceptance, as it is gradually defined over Mom Genes’s pages, is in fact—oh no!—“the first step to taking control.” And what does Tucker mean by “taking control”? She means what all those advertisers mean; she means that mothers should not accept all of themselves, if this self includes the desire to just let someone else handle things for once.
Tucker’s story begins, as promised, with a surrender. Yet this particular surrender is the kind of abdication that should prepare readers for the sort of control that women in this book are going to have. “The whole bizarre maternal undertaking was my husband’s idea,” Tucker writes. That husband is Ross Douthat, the Harvard classmate and conservative Catholic New York Times columnist she wed in 2007. It was he who “won” on the matter of when to have children, she writes—or, rather, she “gracefully conceded the point, in large part because I’d misjudged the power of the maternal instinct.”
What Tucker means is that, at thirty, she was a woman living “a rather yummy existence” as a journalist for Smithsonian Magazine and an enjoyer of brunches. She was not, then, dwelling on the subject of babies. Therefore, she argues, it’s to the credit of her “maternal instinct” that she beholds her first child as “all of a sudden the most wonderful thing in the world.” Tucker seems to be somewhat exaggerating her aversion to babies here: at thirty, she wanted children in a few years, and to want children eventually is really not the same thing as not wanting children. But she wants to make her point: a woman’s brain really is materially and meaningfully changed by becoming maternal.
When Tucker talks about the “maternal instinct” she is not arguing that, say, moms instinctively know how to install a car seat, or to do any of the practical labor of childcare. Rather, she defines the “maternal instinct” as a “new repertoire of senses, feelings, impulses” which develops as a result of childbirth and is oriented toward the well-being of the infant. For example, studies have shown that the brains of pregnant women delete gray matter to free up space for women to focus on a new child. Likewise, oxytocin and dopamine get going in her brain, such that a mother has better odds of finding her baby rewarding, even if he is quite a funky-looking being. These changes are profound; Tucker reports that she can’t help but notice that, when she looks down at her leg to see one of her children penning “Mom” on it, the flip side of Mom is “Wow.”
Much of the material of this book is in fact a survey of the literature on rat mothers, as well as on lions, sheep, and assorted other mammals (Tucker’s previous book concerns house cats). There is dreadfully little research, Tucker points out, on how childbirth affects a mother long-term, which is in part why she turns to her own experience of motherhood for evidence of biological transformation.
Tucker finds proof of brain changes everywhere in her life, particularly when it comes to corroborating studies that mothers are unusually protective. Research shows that biological moms are less sensitive to environmental stresses that don’t concern their children’s welfare. When an earthquake hits DC, Tucker, who is in a dressing room at the mall, discovers that while literally everyone else is “screaming and stampeding,” she is “marching out Ann Taylor’s doors in a no-nonsense manner,” determined to collect her child from a terrified babysitter (apparently, not a single other person in the mall has children).
Similarly, after a discussion of studies showing that mothers can recognize their own baby’s cries from a symphony of wails and find their own infant’s poops less smelly than other poops, Tucker shares that giving birth to her first child turned her into “the terror of the nurse’s station,” demanding at all hours to be helped with breastfeeding and diapering and burping and everything else. It did not matter, she confesses, that she was not wearing very much as she made her rounds the maternity ward. This is because she was no longer the “prudish New Englander” who had entered the hospital. Tucker “was now somebody else,” and this new self was “extremely motivated to take action to protect and help” the new child, propriety be damned.
In fact, Tucker reflects that she was so motivated to care for her child that not even the violence of a botched C-section could dissuade her from fulfilling her motherly duties. During the birth of her third child, Tucker realizes that there “has been some sort of extreme miscalculation about the amount of pain medicine I would require”: she could feel the doctors cutting into her abdomen. “I screamed,” she writes, “screamed some more, and threw up.”
What struck me as equally horrifying, however, is that when the nurse offers Tucker morphine after the birth, she refuses it. She has noticed that the nurses are going to take her son to the NICU to make sure he has no fluid in his lungs, and, she writes, “nobody would be removing this new baby for observation as I slipped off to la-la-land.” She says “no,” snapping at the nurse to take the shot away, “things are happening with the baby, and I want to make sure that I know what’s going on.” She was, she says, willingly “embracing physical pain to protect my child.” The nurse declares Tucker’s son lucky to have such a mom.
And yet: where exactly is her husband in all this? Why can’t he handle this one? Why can’t Tucker sleep off the violence of a C-section gone wrong while trusting that her child’s other parent is keeping track of this NICU situation? While we’re at it, I wish she would tell us what Douthat was doing, after the birth of their first, while Tucker was running around half-naked, fresh from labor, trying to learn how to swaddle and breastfeed. I wish she would talk to us about how she came to feel that she had to be so in control.
Tucker’s answer is that women take control of motherhood because we are biologically programmed to do so: “A mother,” she writes, “is her children’s truest fortress.” This is annoying not because it isn’t to some extent true—again, changes in the maternal brain are extraordinarily real in focusing a mother on her child—but because it is not complete. Our desires and choices are shaped by our biology, yes, but also by the people and institutions (corporate advertisers included) that are invested in maintaining the illusion that the world was meant to be this way—and that mothers were meant to be this way.
There are many, many lists on the internet of tasks you must complete before a child is born. They are all, as far as I can tell, on websites for women, despite the fact that two-thirds of children live with both a male and a female parent. (These lists are especially prevalent on websites that also sell new mothers baby outfits.) A few years back, the French cartoonist Emma described this maternal list-making in male-female relationships as “the mental load”: male partners might be delighted to help, but it is often up to women to ask these men to do the thing that needs doing. The real labor is in taking control, in order to serve everyone else.
I don’t know if women are more likely to take on the mental labor of childcare because some men are just outright unwilling to take it on; or if other men are theoretically willing to do all this keeping track of things but would in fact be appalled upon discovering the enormity of the inconvenience; or if some partners are quite willing to do much more but would do a tragic job at it, having not been raised to plan their lives around the desires and needs of others. What I do know is that it is women to whom, as Cheryl Strayed once put it, “a giant Here-to-Serve button has been eternally pinned.” And women are up against an awful lot in trying to re-set the terms of their intimate relationships.
In The Panic Years: Dates, Doubts, and the Mother of All Decisions, a new and affectingly sincere addition to the motherhood memoir, the British journalist Nell Frizzell recalls a night spent trying to calm her screaming infant son while her boyfriend, Nick, sleeps. Why, wonders Frizzell, did she not wake Nick? “Because I was scared,” she confesses. “I was scared that, were I to expose Nick to the true howling weight of what having a baby entailed, that he would regret what we’d done.” Specifically, she is afraid that he will leave her, which is a fear that may feel familiar if you have ever watched The Bachelor and have seen two dozen women compete for one man by becoming not more frantic, but much more chill. One possible way to keep a man around, both on reality television and in the real world that it often quite accurately mimics, is to demonstrate that you are more in control of your emotional range than other women: that in fact his attachment to you will only make his life easier.
Tucker seems to have no violent moods or selfish desires whatsoever. “We” moms, she says, “have a hard time watching movies or TV commercials involving suffering children” because “we feel too deeply.” “We” also have nightmares that involve wolves and landslides and which remind “us” mothers to wake up and check on the kids. Motherhood, she reports, is about “desiring to do anything at all for your child, at every given moment, and to press on to the ends of the earth until something works.”
Going “to the ends of the earth” for your child is a cliché, and clichés are bad not just because they make for boring writing, but because they do not leave a lot of room for feelings outside of accepted convention. When Tucker begins to cover the scientific literature on some of the uglier maternal transformations, she discovers that she has little room for them. “It pains me,” she writes, to even type that “maternal favoritism exists.” While it is true that something like eighty percent of parents favor one child over their others, her own experience does not validate it: “I believe from the bottom of my heart that I love them all the same. No scientific paper will ever make me think otherwise.” And, again, while it is true that mothers do still kill their children, she reports that “infanticidal logic just doesn’t square with the rush of tender devotion I feel when I smooth a blanket over my slumbering son.”
The most exciting part of the book—forgive me—is when Tucker’s life gets depressing. Her husband, Douthat, has gotten mysteriously sick and seems to have receded from childcare responsibilities. Tucker now has three children, the youngest of whom is just a few weeks old (it was that birth that entailed a violent C-section). This latest delivery has left her feeling not quite like herself. She tells us that she is upstairs in bed, and she is alone, and she is crying.
The worst part of the book—forgive me again—is when Tucker moves right along from this episode. Douthat turns out to have been afflicted with chronic Lyme disease. He recovers (he has written about his illness for the New York Times and has just published a book about the ordeal). Tucker, meanwhile, requires just “a few doses” of medication for her depression and reports that she needed from SSRIs “not the chemistry of the medications themselves” but “the feeling of restored control that they conferred.”
This is a book for privileged moms, and this is fine. The trouble with Tucker’s seamless description of retaking control is that unhappiness and horror exist in white, rich, two-parent households, too. When Tucker ends the book by surveying the policies and programs that might help moms in need, I wish she wouldn’t. While she is right that all this pro-parent legislation would do so much good for caregivers, it is not the best ending for a book that has not quoted any such needy mother in the preceding pages. Instead, I wish Tucker would address her fellow married-to-a-celebrity moms, and her fellow moms with grandparents-who-foot-the-nanny-bills. I wish that she would tell them that this violence, this sorrow, this wildness, this doubt, this fear, this regret—you do not need to deny it, and you do not need to be ashamed of it. Instead, we must be free to talk about all that is inside us that is uncontrolled.
My closest friends and I are all at the moment extremely preoccupied with the subject of the children we don’t yet have but hope to create. When we talk about motherhood, we talk about lots of things: will we even be able to have babies? How the hell will we afford them? Are our partners the sort of men who will join us, equitably, in taking control of parenthood? Still, what we talk about the most is this: what if motherhood doesn’t, in fact, fundamentally change me? What if I have a son and I don’t… like him? What if, as he grows, he becomes precisely the kind of man I spent my twenties trying to avoid? What if I resent him? What if I regret having him? What if, no matter how good he is, my obligations to him and my desire to please him and help him make me spiteful and claustrophobic and ugly with longing for a former self, for another life?
We worry about these things now because we have always worried about what hideousness we might be capable; ever since we were girls, we have known that inside us is fear and greed and impatience and all sorts of feelings we know to be ashamed of. We are not sure that motherhood will fix us.
The best books I have read about motherhood have not reassured me that these feelings will resolve. No—they have reassured me that this strangeness in me will persist, and that it will manifest in wild ways I can’t yet imagine. They have also consoled me that this doesn’t mean that I am doomed to be a terrible mother. They include Frizzell, who (in the tradition of Rachel Cusk, and others) tells us in The Panic Years that sometimes she imagined picking up her infant son, whom she sees as the very “incarnation of love,” and throwing him against a wall.
What “pains” Tucker is that this dark and puzzling humanness exists inside motherhood—that it exists alongside the spectacular miracle that is human love. What pains me is that I suspect that Tucker has written a book not about her children, but for them—that she has written a book that she would like for them to someday read. When they open Mom Genes, they will witness their mother as she wished to be seen: as protective and dedicated, without resentment or regret. They will learn that they have always been equally loved, and that they were always wanted. They will be told a wonderful story. Only, perhaps, if they become parents themselves might they wonder if it was a complete one.