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Motherworkin’ Part II – Interruptibility

February 28, 2012

If I had to even begin to conjecture how many times I was interrupted while writing this blog post about how interruptible a person becomes the moment she turns into a mother, my head would fall off, it would roll out the front door and down the sidewalk, it would melt into a radioactive ooze that would almost certainly react with the trail of Cheerios and raisins my children left between my minivan and my front door to launch an alternate universe in which evil robots would set into motion an awful plan to enslave humanity  and accelerate global warming.


I just won’t even get started on that.

Let’s suffice it to say, I started this blog post in June and now it is February. I suppose I could have forced myself to be a bit more single-minded about it — that is how, in my experience, one gets things done. But I’m not single-minded. I used to be. Now I am a mom.

This is how this post started in June:

There’s only a handful of things I know for sure about mothering. One of them is that you’re never the only one — some other mother somewhere feels just the same. Another thing I know is that no two mothers will ever have the same experience and so you can’t ever assume that your experience is at all universal.

It’s hard to quantify the work of mothering because the real nitty-gritty of it is different for different people. But I know I’m not the only one afflicted with interruptibility.

Many of the torments that new parents suffer are perfectly obvious and quite universal — there is the sleep deprivation, the stress of your emotional and financial responsibilities increasing exponentially, the anxiety of being screamed at and barfed on, and the drudge work of diapering, feeding and transporting an infant in a plastic bucket that looks like it should weigh 2 pounds but actually weighs 30 and has a three-point harness system that requires at least five hands to operate. All that work is hard, sure, but for me, most of the time, it’s not the hard part.

The hard part is more nebulous, duller, and excruciating. Interruptibility has a lot to do with the hard part. I wish I knew the term years ago — I wish it was in that plastic bag they give you at the hospital with Pampers samples and Nestle coupons — because for me, just having a word for it is a tall glass of water and a month of sleeping in on Sundays.

The term interruptibility came to me via Ariel Gore who arrived at it via Adrienne Rich who got it, according to Oprah, from Tillie Olson:

“More than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.” (Tillie Olson)

What this means is that when you’re caring for an infant, you can get completely lost in caring for an infant, but you can’t get lost in any other type of work or leisure or relationship or anything else at all. You can try, but you’ll probably be interrupted 30 seconds, or a minute, or five minutes, or sweet glory! an hour! into it.  This doesn’t sound so bad, I know, and for some people, it seems to be not that big a deal. But for others, artists and writers particularly I think, who need to disappear into a painting or a story or a what-have you, it’s a special kind of torment.

It’s like trying to read with somebody asking “Whacha’ reading?” every other page, or paragraph, or word. But it’s not just your feet-up-with-a-book time that gets interrupted — it’s all your time. Your sleep – interruptible. Your meals — interruptible. Your conversations — interruptible. Your relationships — interruptible. Your work — interruptible. Your very thoughts — interruptible. This is an exhausting and socially isolating part of motherhood.

It’s difficult to even describe what it feels like to always have to shush somebody back to sleep or change a diaper or to rescue someone from the cabinetry if every time you open your mouth to start a sentence about what that’s like, you have to shush somebody back to sleep or change a diaper or rescue someone from the cabinetry.

People looking forward to a parental leave for the first time (or, thanks to the marvels of momnesia, even a second or third time) often picture vast swaths of time (a whole year of “not working”!) in which they will write a novel, get their home and garden looking just like in the magazines, finish up a degree, or start a lucrative home-based business or two. Why not learn Mandarin?

One imagines turning to a fussy baby and explaining, “Mommy is busy getting a PhD just now. You sit tight and I’ll help you with your catastrophe/crises/tedium/nuisance/ordeal/grief and/or predicament in five.” And the baby nods and smiles and politely waits because you have taught the baby to do this. It’s because you are a smart and conscientious parent.

I imagined gardening while my firstborn happily entertained herself on a nearby sunshine-dappled blanket. Butterflies would gently flit past her while she beheld those marvels of nature in rapt delight. If she grew fussy, I would simply glance at her in a motherly way that I would certainly acquire as soon as I became a mom, and she would be calmed.

It was more of a:
“Why aren’t you paying attention to me? I like it when you hold me and make me laugh.”
“I’ve been doing nothing but holding you and making you laugh for hours. My back hurts. My brain hurts. Can I please just do this for five minutes? I need to get something done.”
“Let me eat the thing you are holding or I will cry. My teeth are mildly uncomfortable.”
“No, It’s a dirty shovel, you shouldn’t put it in your mouth. And I can’t dig up this soil while holding you.”
“Then I will make this experience terrible for you until you do hold me.”
“Well played, Baby. Well played.”

Highly effective people, people used to running marathons and getting law degrees inevitably find themselves baffled by the fact that it suddenly takes them over an hour to make a pot of spaghetti. And by the time they get it on a plate it’s cold. And by the time they get it from their fork to their mouth, it’s even colder. A new mom once told me in tears that her only goal of the day was to bring a pre-made meal up from the freezer and plunk it in the crockpot — and she didn’t get to it. They ordered in.

“So what, exactly,” a very intelligent and very pregnant mom-to-be once asked me, “are you so busy doing?”

I, and a group of other experienced moms, were cautioning another expecting mom in our group that she “might not” get her PhD done during her mat leave.

“I don’t know,” was all I could muster. “You’re just… busy. It’s like, you can do whatever you want, but you might have to do it in 5 minute increments.”

After being through it 3 times, it’s still difficult to understand and nearly impossible to describe. I think we lack the right vocabulary to describe the work of mothering.

You are busy being interrupted. You are busy responding. It’s not that you’re not doing anything, it’s that you aren’t getting anything done. And it’s hard. It’s really hard.

In Ariel Gore’s book, “Bluebird,” she talks about “optimal flow” which is a state of mind one enters by getting lost in your work. It can be any work — writing, folding laundry, building something. Optimal flow is vitally important to a person’s sense of well-being, she says. If we don’t experience it, we don’t feel good. It’s why work therapy works. Optimal flow, she insists, is the thing that mothers of young children are so direly missing without being able to put their finger on it.

We all know parenting is hard work, but we also know it’s not the same as work. Mothering does not mean the same thing that working does. That’s why we describe a stay-at-home mom as “not working right now” and we ask people on parental leave about “going back to work.” We say that we need to find a work-family balance, and we know what that means, because when we say work we don’t mean parenting. By work we mean something that pays money. By work we mean something that gets done.  Parenting is something that you don’t finish, like you finish building a house or writing a play. It is something that will always demand you to be responsive in some way or another. Gore insists that she can always tell who, in the writing classes she teaches, are parents. “They are the ones who leave their cell phones on.”

If you are afflicted with small children, I recommend respecting your need to get something done and to take time for yourself, no matter how absurd it seems. Last summer I hired a babysitter to take my kids to the park while I cleaned my house.

“Wouldn’t most mothers prefer to go the park while somebody cleaned their house?” a friend asked me. She had school-aged kids, she worked full-time and she really craved some time in the sun with them. She was busy and needed time to unwind and “do nothing.” I did not crave time in the sun with my children to “do nothing.” I craved just getting something done.

When your children are able to entertain themselves, this interruptibilliousness gets better. When your children sleep through the night, it gets better. When your children can feed themselves and use the bathroom by themselves, it gets easier. It gets easier so incrementally you might not even notice it. And then, of course, there comes a time, when you wonder why your kids don’t bug you any more and you wish they would.



28 Comments leave one →
  1. Martha permalink
    February 29, 2012 12:25 pm

    So well written Marlene. Brings back bitter sweet memories of a time long ago when I felt so much like that. And could not explain to people that did not understand exactly why and how I felt. ox

  2. Steph Mills permalink
    February 29, 2012 10:13 pm


    ha. good one.

  3. April 7, 2012 7:54 am

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you thank you thank you.

  4. April 7, 2012 9:00 am

    This resonates 1,000% with me.

  5. April 7, 2012 2:52 pm

    There is so much truth in this, and it’s endlessly frustrating to me. I’m the full-time parent, so while I feel like so much of our day is play – parks! the beach! indoor playgrounds on rainy days! the library! playgroups! – it’s play that feels like work, because everything changes every three to five minutes, and I’m always running from one kid to the other and back again, trying to set things to rights, which I can’t do before the one who was previously happy doing something else needs my attention right now. Right now they are both napping – bliss! I can have read and even commented somewhat thoughtfully on this post in the same half-hour! – but as soon as they’re awake again it will start all over.

    But thank you for having shared it, because now that I know what I’m up against (I’m a fan of words, particularly names, having power), I feel better armed and more capable of dealing.

  6. April 7, 2012 5:50 pm

    So well written – how true it is … I have four children and have been working on the ‘skill’ of being able to create among endless interruptions …. the first part for me was to learn to regulate my emotions and not feel so hurt and upset/frustrated at every interruption, then to stop thinking ‘why me, it’s not fair?’ … also to change my standards with housework and cooking, another trick that sometimes worked was to play with my children so much that they got bored of me and then would want to go off on their own, only until they needed a drink, or go to the toilet etc. now they are older they seem to be becoming independent little creators, I think it has been valuable for them to be around me while I’m seeking to create rather than consume. They never seem to interrupt their dad as much …?!

  7. April 8, 2012 12:09 am

    Here from blue milk, and I just have to say: YES.

  8. April 8, 2012 7:42 pm

    Boy howdy, am I ever glad you finished this post.

  9. kate permalink
    April 9, 2012 2:16 pm

    This post really resonated with me..then I was thinking, hmmm maybe I’m past this stage now, what a luxury..then my toddler walked out announcing she had done a poo. yes it was in her undies. yes, it was runny.

  10. April 11, 2012 3:02 pm

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve been feeling with baby number 2 now 10 mths and wondering why is it I feel somewhat uneasy, uncomfortable, undone and unable to unwind every single day….I would love hours to paint and write and yes even clean my house! 🙂 Wonderfully written and made me laugh out loud while reading….and I was only interrupted twice!

  11. Patricia permalink
    April 11, 2012 5:26 pm

    Here via blue milk, and I’d just like to add a resounding YES and I too am so glad you finished this post. I have a baby and a preschooler and am working on my PhD in those ten minute increments. Loving it all but wow, hard. Thanks again.

  12. April 12, 2012 6:48 am

    Oh so true and made me laugh (inwardly – I’ve time to read – on my phone – by virtue of the fact that I am nursing my toddler back to sleep)(hopefully!) at the same time. Even after three children, I still find it hard to explain what takes all my time, and still find myself setting intealist goals of a morning, and really thinking they’re possible. Interruptibilty. Fantastic.

  13. April 18, 2012 6:34 am

    I never dreamed I would love cleaning so much after having children. The blissful solitude of doing the dishes and finishing them.

  14. June 4, 2012 1:28 am

    That is possibly the most accurate description of motherhood I have ever read! Ive even done the, please take Baxter out for the day, whilst I clean the oven, pick up a weeks worth of laundry, put the food shop away etc! As a mum, whilst I get lots of contentment from my son, it’s not the same as getting satisfaction from finishing a job, even if that’s just hoovering the floor! Victoria

  15. June 21, 2012 6:18 am

    Wow! This is everything I’ve been experiencing since my son was born almost 8 months ago! It feels good to see it in words!

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