“There is something to be said for being with your teenage daughter and not showering for six days,” a mother told me recently.
Daiva had just gotten back from a trip to Death Valley with her 16-year-old daughter where they cooked on a backpack stove and climbed over dunes. They drove to the farthest ends of nowhere, setting lone rooster tails across the desert together.
Daiva said, “I handed over the keys to my beloved Subaru and said, Time to learn washboard, honey.”
Her daughter now has 180 miles of jarring dirt roads under her learner’s permit. She lives with her dad, going to school a plane flight away in California. Daiva, who lives in Colorado, said, “She’s not in my life on a continual basis, but to be with each other exploring new things like that, you can’t put a price on it.”
Daiva owns and runs an independent bookstore. She works her ass off, always has. Being a busy mother can be a different experience than being a busy father. She owned the bookstore when she was an unmarried full time mom, well before her daughter moved out of state.
“Why can’t we look at our busy lives and say, look at the shit I’m pulling off?” she asked. Instead, she thinks of herself as flailing, taking on more than she should or can. A successful business woman, a strong, wild mother, a traveling poet, and local organizer, she says she feels like so many women, overloaded, carrying more than she’d like.
“Do we have to, or do we just do?” she asked. “Am I just not seeing that men are doing as much, or taking on as much? Can we finally say we are two different species?”
Without using science to back me up, I feel I can say mothers and fathers tend to lead different kinds of lives, which might be why I and many of my friends with children are separated or divorced. Differences between the two species, men and women, are accentuated by being parents.
But gender is not a hard and fast rule. The stereotype might be that mothers tend to be more nurturing than controlling, whereas fathers are more controlling than nurturing. In a sample of 451 families with a child in eighth grade, researchers found that hard differences in parenting techniques do not exist. The paper appeared in 2007 in the Journal of Family Issues, “Linking mother–father differences in parenting to a typology of family parenting styles and adolescent outcomes” Looking at a variety of parenting techniques, the researchers wrote, “The results provided no evidence of gender differences.” Expecting fathers to lean toward authoritarian and mothers toward indulgence, they found leanings to be more personal than gender based.
A study from 1979 looked 40 middle-class American families with 15-month-old infants to determine how mothers and fathers interact differently with babies. In the end, “Analysis revealed more similarities than differences in maternal and paternal behavior.” In a similar 2016 study, “Mothers were rated as being more sensitive than fathers during parent–infant free play at both 9 and 15 months. There also was a higher prevalence of secure attachment in mother–infant versus father–infant dyads at both 12 and 18 months.”
Maybe we’re not as different as we think, we just hear that we are.
But we know there’s more. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are in different months. There is no Parent’s Day. There are two of us, not one.
Daiva, the bookstore owner, is bringing to an event Lydia Peelle, novelist, short-story author, and mother out of Nashville, TN. Peelle, who won the New York Times Book Review Critics’ Choice, two Pushcart Prizes, and an O. Henry Prize, is married to a musician who plays lead in the Old Crow Medicine Show and is often on the road. She once told me that she and her husband share parenting well, and that he’s a wonderful dad, but it is never truly balanced. She has a harder time breaking away from children than her husband, something she and I, and probably most of us, have noticed among many families. She has made a successful career for herself, and it is built on the back of motherhood.
Peelle wrote in a recent post on the literary website LitHub, “I wrote my first novel while carrying, nursing, and beginning to raise two children. I say simply this: it was hard. It was really, really hard. I don’t say this to complain, but rather to honor that fact, and to stand in solidarity with the millions of women around the world who are also, as I write this, doing really hard things, and to recognize the plight of generations of women before us who did infinitely harder things in order to earn us this right and privilege.”
I can scarcely begin to crack what this means, motherhood. It is work, and a partnership of differences.
A friend on her period, a mother, recently told me, “I’m shedding last month’s prospect of motherhood every time I go to the bathroom.” This is not an experience I have. Nor did I carry my two sons inside my body from zygote to roaring contractions. I did not nurse, and often I was gone on the road working on books or magazine assignments. I changed diapers, packed lunches, kissed scrapes, but not as many as their mother. It is never as many as the mother. Even if there is no robust, empirical difference in how we parent, or the cooing sounds we make for our infants, we know our fathers and mothers differently.
I think of Billy Collin’s classic poem, The Lanyard, where in return for all that his mother gave him, the poet as a kid gave her a plastic lanyard he made in camp. The poem ends, “I was as sure as a boy could be / that this useless, worthless thing I wove / out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”
It would not be the same poem if it were written for a father.
I know many women who have taken on the added load of their own lives, journalists and artists who would tell me that there is a difference in genders and motherhood is more work. Besides being fully engaged parents, Lydia Peelle and Daiva built creative, work-filled lives that have next to nothing to do with children, a task lauded by some, violently derided by others. There’s nothing more scorned than a mother by another mother.
It may be that the differences between mothers and fathers is tiny, but when circumstances are this loaded, the most minuscule of variations magnify into scenarios that science does not detect.
When I wrote to Peelle, letting her know I was putting her in today’s post, she wrote back, “I need a Mother’s Day pick-me-up, because Ketch has been out of town for eight days, and there’s seven more to go, and Percy is currently naked, and refusing to get into his clothes for the 100th time today, and we have to go pick up his sister, and I am staring at a stack of unread SNHU submissions and dirty dishes.”
When I told Daiva her words were going in this post, she began to cry.
This goes out to you, mothers.
Photo: Daughter and mother in Death Valley, Daiva Chesonis