Minding Bodies

by cbcabeen on April 30, 2011

I’m revisiting something old this week, for reasons that’ll become clear by the end of the piece. I started this at the same time as Remembering Tiamat, when Rebecca was eight months old, and all the time references are to summer of last year:

I had a conversation stuck in my head all last month, one I had years ago with a friend with muscular dystrophy. He told me how it had been important to him to get on his feet everyday, even if it wasn’t for long. Being in a chair full-time triggers lots of other physiological changes–things I wouldn’t have expected, like being more sensitive to the sun. Last month some part of my brain latched onto those words as a metaphor for how I felt.

I’m pointing out the obvious when I say that that part of my mind lacked perspective. Taking care of a baby may impact your mobility and use of your hands, but it bears no more resemblance to a significant physical disability–I imagine–than a middle school sex ed class’ swaddled sugar sacks bear to Rebecca. The sugar is quintessentially sweet and much more detachable. But for a little while I lost sight of those points, and the story of how that happened stands as an argument that some of the assumptions surrounding ablism are not good for able-bodied people, either.

Ted started a new job in June. He used to be able to work from home after three or four o’clock, and now sometimes he isn’t home until after six. I used to get through some days by watching the clock and waiting for him to come home, so that I could get a break, so that I could live, so that I could cook a nice dinner, so that I could do chores that weren’t flashy enough to hold a baby’s attention or that required moving between rooms and bending over. Now I have to do those things while wrangling Rebecca or else not do them at all–she doesn’t nap by herself, so we really are together all day–and this is my real life.

Once you don’t have regularly scheduled time when you’re off work, it makes it hard to define whatever you’re doing as productive work instead of as your inherent condition. Once the only version of myself I saw regularly was myself with the baby, it set off a series of changes in my sense of who I was and what I was good for. How impotent must I be if getting dinner on the table is an all day project? Or if I have to depend on everyone else to keep track of the details of buying a house? I know that I used to be able to get a good dinner done in an hour or two, but I don’t have the experience of throwing myself at something and churning it out anymore. When I do get time, my attention span turns out to be shorter. I know that I used to be sharper, but that was back when my hands were free to take notes and I wasn’t continually distracted or interrupted.

Being a student was as much an embodied practice as being a stay-at-home mother, but I’d been in the habit of dismissing the physical components of being a grad student as separate from the mental ones. I was raised with the notion that your body is like a machine, in the sense that it’s an instrument of your will or vehicle for your consciousness. Ideally your body was supposed to execute your wishes automatically, without any complaining or talking back, and if your body impacted your mind or drew attention to the way it functioned, that by definition meant it was functioning poorly.

As a student, this led me into over-caffeinated asceticism as the demands of grad school pitted me against my body. If I loved what I was studying, if I wanted to look competent, if I wanted to do right by my students, wouldn’t I find a way to muster myself, no matter how tired or sick I was? My relationship to my body was about control. I was reasonably good at it, too, in that sense of being good that means you’re fucking yourself up and living an unsustainable lifestyle.

This kind of mind-body dualism has the problem not only of being wrong–our consciousness is fundamentally embodied–but it also naturalizes normative standards of productivity (by concealing their material basis and so homogenizing it) and stigmatizes physical demands that might get in the way of those standards. But though I thought I’d denounced dualism years ago, it still creeps into my expectations for myself.

The idea that our bodies should be like machines makes the dreamy physicality of motherhood seem unreal: not really necessary for babies, not a real job, not what makes you uniquely special, and a waste of your “true” or “inner” potential. It’s a cultural bias based on seeing mind and body as separate, and seeing the talkative mind as the real self. From my experience, I’d hazard that the bias is instantiated in part through socially mandated repression of the relationships to our mothers’ bodies. In any case, this kind of dualism suggests that babies grow because it’s just what their bodies do, and the details of their physical experiences don’t matter as long as they get the mechanics down eventually.  Because the model has no way of valuing my quiet presence the way Rebecca does, it gives you the impression that taking care of a baby happens at the mother’s expense rather than through her lively engagement.  We imagine that what a mother does with her body doesn’t depend on her will, personality, and character, and see the gauzy slowing and softening effect that gestating and nurturing a baby has on many women’s minds as unfortunate and not beautiful.

Well, I don’t think it’s beautiful. I’m not there yet. I’m floating the possibility anyway.

But I am there now! It’s one reason I wrote Just Like Magic (1) and the last part of Just Like Magic (3), to talk about how being immersed in Rebecca’s physicality has opened me up to a different set of joys and a different way of knowing things than I had as a grad student. Though I sure am glad to have two-handed time to write about it.

I’m also posting this for Ted. I’m afraid he’ll feel guilty when he remembers how I struggled with his new job, but what I want is for him to know that it’s not about my life versus his at this point, because all the stuff about productivity standards applies to him, too. When you’re swimming against the surge, don’t worry about why you’re not swimming faster.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Wolfmother August 22, 2011 at 7:40 pm

“Once you don’t have regularly scheduled time when you’re off work, it makes it hard to define whatever you’re doing as productive work instead of as your inherent condition. ”

Yeah I totally get that sentiment. I find that my perspective has shifted considerably as well since birthing my son and for the better. Everything is far more chaotic than before, but more fulfilling somehow. I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason why that is precisely because I do so much more during my days but ‘accomplish’ virtually nothing other than meet basic survival needs of my family. Strange.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: