Inconceivable

The Calling

Inconceivable is a column exploring a definition of motherhood.

Here’s a story I’ve been telling a lot lately. A few weeks ago, my mom announced—in an email—that she bought a house in Smithville, Texas. A few hours later, she sent me pictures—via text message—with her thumb in the frame. The house measures in at 238 square feet. I think what I mean by house is, it looks like a pretty-ish shed.

For a little perspective, most motor homes are around 300 square feet. Since my mom has been living in a motor home for the last year, I was a little surprised that she would, or could, downsize.

It’s not unusual for my mom to announce a life-altering event out of the blue. When I was nineteen, she called from a vacation in Iowa to tell me that she had eloped. Then there was the time she called to tell me she and my stepfather had bought a farm in Ohio, and she was going to live there and not where I was housesitting for her in Pennsylvania. After she became a fundamentalist Christian, there were the interventions about my mortal soul. There were respite times after the interventions didn’t work, when our calls were polite conversations about her garden. There was her refusal to give a toast at my wedding, because she didn’t want to prompt anyone to take a sip of alcohol. And shortly after, there was the call to tell me that she was selling the Ohio farmhouse, and all of her possessions inside it, to become a missionary for Roving Volunteers in Christ’s Service—RVICS, for short.

She and my stepfather bought a thirteen-year-old RV (with “nice cabinets”) and left their farmhouse in Eastern Ohio to travel around with other retired fundamentalist Christians (couples only) who also owned RVs. They would spend a month in various Christian ministry locales, repairing buildings and telling people about Jesus, and move on to the next place to spread the Paxil of Christianity.

Though it sounds highly suspicious, RVICS isn’t a scam or a cult. Or maybe it’s cult-ish. They do provide help to people “in need.” They often travel to towns that were ravaged by tornadoes or hurricanes, or help camps for “wayward” boys to repair roofs and do some painting.

But, underneath the surface of those good deeds and that free wheeling retirement, is a peculiar world of control, repression, and comically retrograde assumptions about gender roles.

In order to become a member of the RVICS cohort, you must be retired, married, accept Jesus as your “personal savior,” and refrain from their three “no-no’s”: alcohol, tobacco, and pets. (Just so we’re clear: “No-no’s” is their word, not mine.) The application asks for other trivia: skill sets, health, weight, date of marriage, level of self-dependency. Applicants must also sign a seven-part statement of faith and go through a “Protect My Ministry” background check.

The women of RVICS are only required to spend twelve hours a week in service, where the men must fulfill twenty-one hours. They expect men to provide their own hand tools, and women to bring portable sewing machines. Women work less, presumably, because they will need those other nine hours a week to do the cleaning, the laundry, and meals for their husbands. The women don’t really escape their day-to-day—it’s their job to keep the recreational vehicle nest in order.

I don’t want to write another story about my mother as a disappointment or a punchline. I’ve wanted nothing more than to write a treatise about my mother as an inspiration and role model. Those are the stories I want to read: Mothers in radical feminist groups, mothers climbing Machu Picchu, mothers being true to their sexuality.

There are too many stories that vilify mothers. Bad mother films are rampant: Carrie, Mommie Dearest, Ordinary People, Friday the 13th, The Manchurian Candidate, Goonies. There are plenty of Mrs. Bateses—women who don’t have names, who are literally projections of childhood issues. These stories depict mothers only through their choices in parenting, and not as individuals who had the agency to make those choices.

Those stories are reductive.

What motherhood requires of our bodies is too much. Now that I’m barreling into my mid-thirties, I’m only starting to understand—really understand—the cost of becoming a mother. My friends are all caught in the children question. Those who haven’t felt or chose not to answer the biological calling are often consumed by self-doubt, or always poised to defend their choice. Those who have decided they do want children are miscarrying, on bed rest, having back labor, taking Clomid, and downing non-FDA approved Chinese herbs. Motherhood requires too much of us to keep writing that story.

We expect mothers to be perfect moral beings, something other than self-actualized humans who endure excruciating pain and permanent body changes to create another human. We want someone who transcends the trauma, and still manages to steer clear of “mom jeans” and mommy blogs. We—I—expect infallibility.

In my idyllic version of motherhood, my mom would have taught me how to be a warrior. I wanted her to be someone who, when I made my first gay friend, said, “Everyone has a right to be who they are,” instead of, “Don’t you think that sounds wrong?” I wanted her to be my foundational feminist touchstone, shoving Our Bodies, Ourselves and Joni Mitchell records in my hands, and teaching me to be self-sufficient and authentic. But instead of a feminist pioneer, my mother wears a doily on her head to show that she’s submissive to her husband.

With a different spin however, the story I could tell is that she’s bucking the traditions of retirement, and subverting the stereotypes of a settled life. She’s living a life on the fringe of societal expectations. She is, in a way, doing real good and spreading change for struggling communities, albeit very specific sections.

Here’s the punchline of the story that I’ve been telling. It turns out that my mom’s new house is in a planned “Christian Community” where RVICS participants can take a break from their roving retirement life and still abstain from the “no-no’s.” If this sounds like the sort of place that fears strange creatures invading their borders, filled with doily-wearers who act like they’re living in the eighteenth century, it’s actually called “The Village,” just like the M. Night Shyamalan thriller. You’d have to be blinder than Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in that movie to miss the irony.

I have written my share of these punchlines. I once wrote a listicle for McSweeney’s that dared the reader to decide whether a quote was a line from Hemingway or an outtake from my mother’s emails. I wish I had written it as a tender, tongue-in-cheek tribute to her inability to adapt to changing modes of communication, instead of a cynical exasperation of how we never talk about anything real.

I was once determined that I would never go forth and multiply. I assumed that I was too selfish to hand over the power of my narrative to someone else, especially someone else with my DNA. Then, two years ago in an Arizona condo, I met my niece. She was a three-week-old roll of wrinkles with my husband’s eyes and skeptical brow and she refused to be swaddled. I was so possessed by the need to make a baby, like someone had just plugged a Christmas tree into my ovaries, that I dry heaved in the bathroom. When people talk about biological clocks ticking, no one mentions that it feels more like an alarm.

While the alarm gets louder and more insistent, my husband and I have been trying to have children, and have failed at it pretty spectacularly for nearly a year. Motherhood—what it requires of us, what my mother failed to do with it, all the incarnations of mothers in my life—has become so much a part of how I absorb the world right now. It’s almost illogical, and at least maddening, that I spent the past decade worrying about accidentally getting pregnant and resenting my mother, and now here I am.

There’s got to be a punchline in there, somewhere.

Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.