In the spring, my friend gave birth to a daughter. Studying a picture of her newborn, I searched for signs. Where was my friend in this creation? Could I see her in the curve of her daughter’s cheeks? In the color of her eyes? Or perhaps the baby would inherit attributes that couldn’t yet be seen: imagination, compassion or reverence. For now, to know the woman who was her mother was enough. I loved her already.
A mother! My friend was now a mother. During her pregnancy, my other friends and I asked questions. How did it feel to give up caffeine? Was she craving sugar or salt? Were her feet swollen? Was she nauseous? Tired? Nervous? Which books was she buying? Cloth diapers or disposable? Would she breastfeed? We felt concern, curiosity, wonder. Now that we were in our late twenties, the possibility of motherhood increasingly asserted itself. It could happen to us. Other women were doing it.
Then there were questions of another kind. My friend is a writer. Others I knew who were having children were teachers and nutritionists, marketing professionals and engineers. I wondered how they would protect their time, earn their money, retain their energy and safeguard their personalities. I wondered how my friend would write her short stories, or her novel. I wondered for her, and I wondered for myself. In asking her questions, I also was trying to understand what it was that I should do.
When should I have a baby? And how would I ever make being a mother “work” with all the work I already had? As a writer, it felt like I was only just beginning to find my voice and believe I had something to say. Even still, I spent lots of time drafting paragraphs, then deleting them. I was married, but my life had no unidirectional caregiving: no sick relatives, no pets, not even a high-maintenance plant. Even still, it already was difficult to find time and motivation to put words on the page.
As I thought, a story broke. The United States’ fertility rate was declining. But this wasn’t actually news, the reporters informed us. The birth rate had been down for several years, which was good, and also bad. Fewer births meant fewer teen pregnancies and more accessible contraception. The planet couldn’t support more people anyway, some pundits said.
At the same time, many women who wanted to have children had been delayed, even deterred. They had student debt. The rents were too high. Childcare was unaffordable, but a one-income household wasn’t feasible. These problems could be helped, other pundits argued, by universal preschool, paid parental leave, remote work and the child-tax credit. As I read, I found myself in agreement. Children shouldn’t be a luxury good.
Still, I felt that something was missing from the arguments about funding and flexibility. An uncomfortable acknowledgment had to be made: motherhood would always cost something. There was no getting around this, no matter how much support you had. Take my friend, for example. Her husband also took care of the baby. Her extended family was happy to help. She was able to work on a flexible schedule. Her writing could be done from home. All of these things were true for me, too.
And yet, her life had irrevocably changed. Like anyone, there were only so many hours in her days, only so much space in her mind. Now some of those hours were spent changing diapers, and some of the space was taken up by thoughts of a new person. She was less available. Did that mean she was also less free?
In her new book On Freedom, poet and essayist Maggie Nelson begins by asking, “Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” She then sets out to examine its contradictions. She draws on others’ work about drug addiction and climate change, sexual liberation and art, in order to think through how each of us can be free to make our own choices while also caring for the needs of others.
Freedom, Nelson argues, is never absolute. It’s always “knotted up” with “so-called unfreedom, producing marbled experiences of compulsion, discipline, possibility, and surrender.” We can choose to be obligated, or dependent. We can choose to be restricted or distracted. All this to say, we are free to make choices—to get married, adopt a dog, move an aging parent into our home, convert to a religion—that make us less able to do whatever we want. That’s what my friend had done in having her baby. She’s made a choice, willingly and joyfully. Neither the will nor the joy is negated by new limits on her schedule and resources.
Some critical reviews have found On Freedom disjointed, overcrowded with quotations and footnotes, too uncharitable or abstract in its arguments. They wanted more of the autobiographical material Nelson is best known for, more story to which the theory could be applied. The writing in On Freedom, it’s true, can be overly academic and even, at times, obtuse. But Nelson does get personal on occasion. She shows us her stakes—they are intimately connected with her experience of motherhood.
In one scene, Nelson writes with her cell phone next to her keyboard; her son has been feverish, and she might need to pick him up from school. In another, she writes with her son on her lap. In motherhood, Nelson says, freedom is tied up with “care and constraint,” and the “distinction between the mandated and the voluntary is often far murkier than we sometimes hope or desire.” Does a writer with a child on her lap, crumbs falling onto the keyboard, have him there because she has to or because she wants to? The unsatisfying answer: both.
Women can choose to have babies for themselves. They are also likely to find that the “charge of providing limitless, unconditional, self-sacrificial love and care to others, without reserve or resentment, within systems that make such a thing difficult or impossible,” is exhausting. Motherhood can be expensive, isolating and guilt-ridden. To solve this, Nelson proposes “the socialization of the maternal”: a redistribution of the “burdens and entanglements” of motherhood among a larger community of fathers and extended family, friends and neighbors, childcare programs and government money. In this kind of society, children are seen as everyone’s responsibility, and the choice to have them wouldn’t require such drastic self-sacrifice. We’re back to those policies again, tax credits and parental leave and preschool.
But Nelson is interested in more than just the day-to-day conditions for freedom: food and funds, time and trust. She also values freedom of thought, and freedom of feeling—the freedom to change one’s mind, to be in-between and to surrender. She seeks to maintain an “underlying conviction of fellowship and love,” to value “reliance, service, and infirmity” just as much as independence and self-sufficiency.
It’s this kind of freedom that Elizabeth Bruenig describes in “I Became a Mother at 25, and I’m Not Sorry I Didn’t Wait,” her Mother’s Day column in the New York Times, which was written partly in response to the ongoing debate over declining fertility rates. Concerns about money and stability are legitimate, Bruenig writes, especially for women living in poverty. Having kids is never easy, and so she advocates for the same kinds of generous social policies as Nelson. But as for the young mother worried about her identity, who has the “the sense that she may be making somebody else before knowing who she herself really is”? Bruenig has some words of comfort. Having a child is “not the end of freedom as you know it,” she writes, “but the beginning of a kind of liberty you can’t imagine”:
Deserting yourself for another person really is a relief. My days began to unfold according to her schedule, that weird rhythm of newborns, and the worries I entertained were better than the ones that came before: more concrete, more vital, less tethered to the claustrophobic confines of my own skull. For this member of a generation famously beset by anxiety, it was a welcome liberation.
What Bruenig wrote proved remarkably controversial. Critics said that she was anti-feminist and tone-deaf. She was privileged (rich, white, married, straight, a columnist with a large platform) and captive to outdated ideals of domesticity. She was deluded, and pathetic—and dangerous—all at once.
But I understood what Bruenig meant. Limitation as liberation. It’s a marvelous “best of both worlds.” I knew exactly the feeling she describes in the column, how good it can feel to get outside your own head when you are so often trapped in there.
To take Bruenig’s word for it, having a baby can set you free spiritually. Maybe it can materially too. Sometimes I convince myself that the constraints of motherhood might make me more productive. Even a better writer! Maternity leave? More like writer’s retreat! (At this point, the mothers must be shaking their heads.) I’ll publish a lot of meaningful work, like Maggie and Elizabeth. They’ve done all right.
But there are other alarming counterfactuals. Take Rachel Cusk, another successful writer who unlike Nelson or Bruenig has found motherhood to be an affliction—and was accused of being selfish, even abusive, for admitting as much in her memoir. “The harness of motherhood chafes my skin,” Cusk wrote in A Life’s Work, published twenty years ago, in 2001:
And yet occasionally I find a predictable integrity in it too, a freedom of a different sort: from complexity and choice and from the reams of unscripted time upon which I used to write my days, bearing the burden of their authorship.
This sounds similar to what Bruenig describes: “freedom from complexity and choice” given up for an emphasis on “concrete and vital needs.” “The burden of authorship” is taken away, and the “claustrophobic confines” are escaped. Before she had her daughter, Bruenig was “haunted” by the “risk of falling off the world.” But once the baby was born, these worries disappeared. She found herself not unmoored, but irradiated: like light shining through a prism, having a baby “illuminat[ed] all the sundry colors” she contained.
For Cusk, this “freedom of a different sort” comes at an explicit cost. She recalls her pre-motherhood days as being less inhibited, more spontaneous; she expresses “longing for some lost, prematernal self, and for the freedom that self had perhaps enjoyed, perhaps squandered.” Now, she can’t go to a movie on a whim, or spend an afternoon reading. She can’t count on a full night’s sleep. When she sees friends, they “meet at the uncrossable border between the free world and the closed regime of motherhood.” Cusk’s then-husband eventually agrees to give up lawyering and watch the children. If he hadn’t, the reader is made to understand, the completion of the book in our hands would have been impossible.
Caring for her daughter, Cusk writes,
is like being responsible for the weather, or for the grass growing: my privileged relationship with time has changed, and though these tasks are not yet arduous they already constitute a sort of serfdom, a slavery, in that I am not free to go. It is a humbling change. It represents, too, a reckoning of my former freedom, my distance from duty.
Serfdom, slavery—these are dramatic metaphors. But I take Cusk’s point. The missives from the other side of motherhood (you’ll be nauseous, labor hurts, breastfeeding is tough, you’ll be exhausted, and maybe depressed) are frightening. The fact that the role was chosen doesn’t mean it won’t come with costs, or suffering—and even occasional regret.
When I imagine my future, I see children in it. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit the clarity of my wanting, though I don’t know if it’s all that rare. As a modern woman, isn’t it appropriate to treat the prospect of motherhood with proper skepticism, considering how much I will have to give up?
Rachel Cusk says that “the state of motherhood speaks to my native fear of achievement. It is a demotion, a displacement, an opportunity to give up.” That’s my fear too. It’s what the angry internet personalities accuse Elizabeth Bruenig of: that her desire to “desert yourself for another person” is just oppression by a different name. For better or worse, I possess this desire too.
Some days, it scares me. I worry I might come to resent being a mom—my longing for a family misremembered as a lack of ambition. I worry I might find myself a mother and love it so much that I’ll forget other things I wanted: essays, books, recognition. Perhaps I’ll remember all too well, and be sad. At the very least, I expect to run into the conundrum that Maggie Nelson outlines here: “I am familiar with the pleasures and difficulties of wanting and needing to devote myself entirely to someone else’s needs, while also wanting and needing to differentiate and contend with my own.”
Of course, even now, I know I’m not free to do whatever I want. I have to pay rent. I have to eat. I have to call my friends and go to church. I have to run errands, and write birthday cards, and help someone move. Even now, childless, I don’t spend every moment of every day either furthering my ambitions or having fun. I am not free to be “optimized.” Would such a life even be enjoyable? In daily obligations, there is security, and yes, there is happiness.
I know I’m perfectly allowed to choose not to have children, even amid the changing, and not altogether favorable, landscape of abortion rights. There’s perhaps never been a place or era (California, 2021) in which making that choice would be more acceptable. And yet, it’s a choice I don’t feel free to make. Not because of pressure from parents, or society, or the patriarchy. It’s just that I want kids too badly to say no. I guess I feel this way about writing too. “When we make art (as when we mother),” Nelson writes, “we often don’t know what we are doing. We can never really be sure if it’s need, leisure, compulsion, transaction, freedom, or submission—likely because it can be all these things at once, or in turns.”
Rachel Cusk says that the “freedom” she finds in motherhood is just “walking over the grave of my sex.” It’s a con. It’s a sham. All I can say is: I really hope that’s not true. I prefer to side with Nelson. She acknowledges that while valorizing women’s self-sacrifice can be harmful, it’s also true that “doubling down on the familiar—often leftist—insistence that our salvation lies in liberating ourselves from the dark clutches of need and ascending to freedom’s bright expanse is not good enough.” It seems to me that even with my flexible work, and a partner, and an enviable support system, being a mom will take time and energy and maybe even opportunity from me. It will make things more difficult. As it must. As it should.
Rather than seeing caregiving as a threat to women’s achievement, it should become more of an expectation for everyone, men and women alike. Caregiving should be accommodated. It should be celebrated. If our understanding of personal achievement is so threatened by basic needs and tenderness, maybe it’s time to reevaluate whether what “success” requires is worth it—whether demanding such things of people is even human, much less free.
In the middle of summer, my friend and her husband baptize their baby in a small church, surrounded by Virginia grasslands. The baby wears a white christening gown, flowing over her mother’s arms like water. The priest crosses her with oil. Her parents make vows of devotion. Hymns pour from an organ. She blinks her eyes and smacks her lips, and does not cry.
Later that evening, during the reception, I’ll hold the baby in my arms on a secluded upper floor of her grandparents’ house, singing scales on nonsense syllables while a fan whirs, walking and rocking. Her eyelids grow heavy, then flicker open. Almost there. Outside, guests eat slices of berry pie and dance to a band, celebrating her parents’ marriage and her subsequent birth, both of which have taken place during a period in which we all felt anything but emancipated. Now, we are rejoicing again. Soon, her mother, who’s right now dancing in her gown, will come in to feed her baby—pulled away from her admirers, and yet overjoyed.
I could be out there, with the other guests, talking and laughing and drinking glasses of wine, fireflies blinking in the air. For a moment, I am in here, barefoot and humming, pacing the wooden floors. A guitar thrums, and a saxophone wails. Are the dancers free, or am I? It feels like the wrong question. In this moment, freedom feels abundant, not scarce, something that multiplies and transfigures. It can be careless. It can be careful. It can be temporarily relinquished, then gathered up tenfold. Freedom feels like something I can bequeath without losing any of my own supply, to a child that will grow up to make her own decisions, make the best of her circumstances, live in tension with her own ambitions and limits. I hum and rock, hum and rock. For tonight, I try to ease her burden of wakefulness, to release her into sleep.