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Every Mother Is A Home Maker
And we should take the work seriously.
When I was pregnant with my son Arlo, I thought a lot about what his childhood might be like. I was aware of course that a lot of what would happen in his life would be entirely beyond my control - would be up to history, chance, and the choices he would make for himself. But there were a lot of choices that his father and I would have to make on his behalf at the start, that would shape what he and his life would become. And so I wondered about a lot of things, like:
What kind of building, in what city, in what country, would he grow up in?
Which landscapes and animals would he feel connected with?
What songs and stories would he learn, and in what language(s)?
What kind of values and manners and sense of humour would he pick up?
What kind of food would he eat?
I began to realise that all these things were actually pieces of one bigger, core question; what would my baby’s experience of home be?
And it was then I realised that, in spite of decades of living, and my many years studying social sciences at acclaimed universities, I’d never though about home in a serious way. Hadn’t wanted to. Had been allowed not to. Indeed, I’d grown up in a generation where girls were, perhaps for the first time in history, strongly discouraged from turning their attention or skills towards anything domestic. And in the many women’s studies classes I’d taken, home was only ever really discussed as a site of oppression; a place women needed to escape at all costs. A place children endured, and then promptly left. As though they mightn’t want children of their own one day. As though, no matter where they went, or what their family status, people didn’t still need to live somewhere.
It was only once my actual body had become somebody else’s home that I realised the way I’d thought about home, or not thought about it, was all wrong. That I was finally able to dwell earnestly on what I think is one of life’s most fundamental questions -
What is home?
It sounds like a really simple question, doesn’t it? But if I ask you to tell me what home is, what would you say? What or where or whom or when would you be thinking of when you gave your answer? You might use the word ‘home’ to refer to wherever your parents live. Or your partner, or your kids, or your pets. It might bring to mind a whole country, or just one village. It might be one specific hilltop, or one specific face. You might associate home with a lively atmosphere, or a peaceful one, or a terrifying one. You might associate it with a smell, or a song. You might even think of your ‘true’ home as a land your ancestors migrated from before you were born, or even the place you hope your soul will go when you die. You mightn’t feel truly at home anywhere, or with anyone, but even so, you’ll still have feelings and memories and desires around the idea of home. The only thing I can guess with confidence is that those will be unique to you, and powerful. Because home means something different to each of us, and it means a great deal.
If I was to summarise what home is, for me, the word I would have to use is scattered. The list of names of people and places my heart calls out to (and recoils from) at the thought of home is scattered all over the world. I’ve lived in many towns, in many countries; I have slept in more beds, in more buildings, than I can number, with addresses and phone numbers and flatmates’ names I can barely even begin to recall. Meanwhile, there are cafes whose recollection leave me salivating, bookstores whose contents I long to fondle, hills I wish to wander, and humans I’d love to hug, scattered from Girdwood to Gesundbrunnen, and from Shoreditch to Singapore. I have dropped bits of my heart like breadcrumbs, or Google map pins, all along the way, and now home has ceased to be a specific spot I can ever be in all at once.
The scattering of my life can partly be credited to positive aspects of my character, like curiosity and enthusiasm. But underneath those has long lurked a feeling of not belonging. Better to be somewhere you have no reason to belong than to be somewhere you ought to feel at home, but don’t. Or so it seemed for a while.
And now I was supposed to create somebody else’s sense of home? Me? The person who never felt truly at home anywhere?
I held my belly, beside myself with wanting to meet the new human being kicking and dreaming within me. I didn’t want him to feel the way I had so often felt. Alone. Ashamed. Adrift. What did I want him to feel? I wanted him to feel, from the moment he arrived in this life, that he belonged here. Unconditionally. That was what I would wish for any new earthling, but for mine most of all.
What did a person require then, to feel at home? With what did they need to feel a belonging?
I thought about the sources of alienation and longing and heartache in my own life. In the lives of people I knew. I made my way through stacks of books, and large chunks of the interweb. Tomes and essays and videos and podcasts about pregnancy, child psychology, biology, animal welfare, technology, family, culture, ecology, mythology, religion, architecture, agriculture, creativity, and history.
The more I read and listened, the more I learned how much our early experiences of home really do shape us for life. How poorly our society is structured to support our home lives. How much of modern medicine and the welfare state and consumer culture are then spent trying to compensate for all the ways those early experiences can come up short. And how much of the responsibility for those foundational experiences falls inescapably on parents; and mothers most of all. Yes, fathers and friends and kin and other caregivers have important, wonderful roles to play. But mothers are the first home. The primal, primate source of sustenance and safety and love. And every human infant is born knowing that.
The trouble is, we don’t remember. Or, rather, we are encouraged to forget.
I got annoyed at myself for having been so wilfully oblivious to all of this for so long. And I got angry at all the ways my culture had taught me to value professional life and status at the expense of home life and love. But most of all, I got really excited about what I was learning, and the whole new way of understanding life that it gave me. I wanted to bring that excitement to my new role as a mom - a role I now saw was so much more valuable (and required so much more valour) than I had ever known. And I wanted to write about it.
It turns out though, that a new, huge, mentally-demanding project is a difficult thing to take on at the exact moment you start lactating. It has been said that it is impossible to live life and write about life simultaneously. I say that goes double for moms; it is just about impossible to be elbow-deep in the work of making a home for one’s young child(ren) and write about it coherently at the same time. (Especially in a pandemic, without family support and erratic access to daycare.) I have spent a lot of the last four years trying to do exactly that, and have ended up not doing as well as I would like at either. Though the child seems to be thriving all the same.
Mama Dentata was partly conceived of as a way of focusing the otherwise overwhelming subject of home into a smaller container, and working on my ideas in smaller chunks. But I am sitting on a backlog of several years’ worth of research and writing about all things home-related. What it is, what the core components are, what our society gets wrong about it, and what we could change for the better if we had the collective will and sense to do so. I’ve decided to start feeding pieces of this work into Mama Dentata. Starting with the first chapter of a book I’ve had on the back burner on for a while, and want to get going on again, called The Home Life Manifesto. And what I’m hoping is that you will help me, by giving me feedback. Much better to know what I’m missing or could improve on now than when I’ve spent another year or more writing the thing. So look out for that soon, and please, please send me any suggestions.
In the meantime, I have a question. If you were going to describe your own feelings around home, either in one word or a handful, which word(s) would you use? I’d really love to know. Plop them in the comments if you’re comfortable doing so, or send me a message instead.