Last week, I tackled “mommy guilt,” and this week, we’ll look at female identity after childbirth through the lens of the short story, Georgie’s Big Break, by Monica Drake. The story has been made into a short film, for which I could not find a release date. The original short story was published in 2009 in The Sun magazine, the full text of which you can read here.
Georgie is a new mother on maternity leave from a college faculty position. She reads about the local upcoming literary expedition, knows her department chair serves on the board of the festival, and thinks that it would not only be a day out for her, a day to be “Georgie,” versus “Georgie the mom,” but also a chance for her to score points that might help her gain tenure when she goes back to teaching. She volunteers to help, hoping her contribution will be noticed.
What ensues is maddening for the injustice Georgie suffers, hilarious for how ridiculous we know it’s going to be and poignant as we possibly recognize ourselves in what we read. We can “laugh now” as we look back at our newly-minted mother selves, yet at the time, we were likely holding back tears of humiliation as well as a dose of healthy rage. Georgie is assigned “Mr. Clifford,” who she assumes is a particular author. [Interestingly, Drake is unkind to the adolescent girl Georgie hires to assist her on this (seemingly) simple day trip. The girl from the neighborhood is described in less-than-admirable terms.] While Georgie is excited to attend the literary event, she can’t stand the thought of leaving her young baby in the care of another, so she determines that the sitter will accompany her and Elana to the festival. Yes, I know, anyone who tried to do this with her own child will cringe as she reads this. The anxiety we feel leading up to and during this kind of outing is palpable, even when only in text and not our own immediate experience.
Of course, there’s the standard “comedy routine” of the cliché, but also all-too-true, things like Elana spitting up on Georgie after they leave the house, so that she cannot change her shirt. There’s the baby who will not be comforted by anyone but mom, (of course) so that the presence of the sitter is almost laughable. There is the running into an old lover, who was once her professor, and his much-younger, current girlfriend. Yes, all cringe-inducing, and so typical that we’re not sure whether to call it cliché or be maddened by how true the “cliché” really is.
Spoiler Alert: Georgie meets “Mr. Clifford” who is none other than, (you might have guessed if you have kids yourself…more on this “assumption of knowledge” later), Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a guest of the children’s literature portion of the festival.
Then, the ultimate insult comes when the department head, who Georgie hoped she’d impress with her presence, is the person who set Georgie up with the Clifford the Dog gig. Georgie is affronted, her mind whirls wondering why motherhood has suddenly steered her in the direction of cartoon characters in the eyes of her boss. As readers, we’re just as appalled that giving birth has somehow suddenly made a woman with a PhD in literature an honorary and instantaneous expert in (and avid fan of) children’s literature. On the one hand, it’s a compliment that someone might think that the act of birthing conveys wisdom in areas outside of birth itself. On the other hand, just because a woman has given birth, does not mean she is or wants to be an expert in children’s literature. No man returning to a faculty position in a literature department at any college was likely assigned a children’s book costumed character at his first literary expedition after the birth of his child!
As Georgie’s mind attempts to process everything that has just happened to her in the fifteen minutes that have passed since she arrived at the venue, her body whirls around quickly to escape the department head in an effort to find space to think. She trips and falls to the floor. A famous actor and his entourage were right where Georgie spun around to walk away, and while he attempts to reach out a hand to help her up, she feels her body lifted from behind. Clifford has come to the rescue. “He” stands Georgie up, dusts her off and takes charge of the diaper bag as well as Elana, who stops crying as soon as she’s removed from the sitter’s arms. Georgie then decides she knows who the person is inside the giant red costume. She knows it must be a mother. We end the story with Georgie wondering whether “Clifford” has “her” own master’s degree, is an aspiring writer herself, and has dreams beyond being assigned to a red, furry costume as a volunteer at a literary festival. Drake ends the story bringing us back to consider women’s identity, especially after childbirth when she says that Georgie feels as though Clifford is “how we dress a mom” and that the costume represents what we all see, yet that the role of mother hides “another person deep inside.”
While not every woman necessarily feels a reluctance to leave her newborn, many women do feel this way after giving birth. Maybe it is biology, and our hormones strongly bond us because at one point before society developed, our species could not survive with an apathetic mother. Because of this likelihood of attachment to our babies, women struggle with identity after giving birth. Even if we are fortunate enough to not have to worry about the financial aspect of childcare and can choose to remain home with our babies, we still feel “lost” where our former selves are concerned. If we return to work, we’d be horrified if no one asked about our child, yet we don’t want to be solely seen as “new mother” in the eyes of our colleagues. As usual, the patriarchal (as I will refer to it for lack of a better term, actually) rule is that motherhood and work are separate realms. There is no easy way (really) in most jobs to allow for simultaneous work and mothering. And, while I know there are those “working mother” magazine articles that try to make us all feel bad because they show singular women and their unique jobs and circumstances where a seemingly seamless meshing of both worlds occurs, those are not the norm, or the reality, for the majority of families. What I always shout at those articles (in my mind, since I’m always reading them in a doctor’s office waiting room) is this: “But what about her assistant? Does her assistant get to bring her baby to the office? Does the assistant get to leave for every appointment, recital and school event?” I bet she doesn’t. So, those articles that show how “one woman combines motherhood and a career” are just that, how one, single woman can do that. For the majority, it’s just not possible.
Not only that, most of us don’t want to combine mothering and work. It’s exhausting if you’ve tried it. And, no man has ever had to do such a thing, either! There is no male CEO who has an in-office nanny. He gets to leave for work and be Mr. CEO, only. So, not only are those “having it all” articles a falsehood for the general population, but they are also not necessarily what anyone wants. I’ve taken my children to work—lucky me, right? Just read about Georgie and see how “seamless” it is outside of a magazine article!
My own metaphor for motherhood is not a person in a costume, but rather the famous depiction of motherhood offered in the matroyshka or Russian nesting doll. There are multiple selves in a woman. Especially when one is a new mother. There is the young self, who still wants to sleep in on the weekends and have tea and toast in bed while reading until she decides to toss on shorts and hiking boots to take a spontaneous hike. There is the little girl who is not sure how she exactly got this baby in place of a doll, who could be put down anywhere with never a complaint. There is the woman who is a sister, daughter, cousin, friend, spouse, bus driver or account executive. Now that we’ve gotten rid of the mommy guilt from last week, it’s now time to embrace all of the “selves” in our own nesting doll of roles, and not demand that we let any one role overpower the others. That’s a tall order, and yes, I’ll get back to you once I’ve managed to balance all those roles in my own life.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.