99 Problems

Published on November 27th, 2023 | by Jenny Hatchadorian


The Feral Instincts of Motherhood

By June 2020, New York City had loosened its Covid-19 restrictions enough that walking masked down my friend Elena’s closed street didn’t seem terrifying. Elena, her three-year-old daughter, and I strolled 34th Avenue near her home in Jackson Heights. Breathing in the blossoming trees and catching scenes of re-emerging city such as a hot dog vendor who wore protective eyewear, a face mask, and latex gloves, I was amazed at the liberation of my first pandemic social outing. It was also my first childless outing—my own daughter was born four months ago, a few weeks before lockdown.

As Elena’s toddler rode her scooter, content either at the whoosh of wheels on pavement or the wonder of a closed street, I eyed my friend. Our relationship contained a curious mix of nervousness and calm. Although we’d known each other since we were teenagers, we’d only recently transitioned from acquaintances to friends. In our suburban Cleveland high school, we sat next to each other in honors courses, but only because the seats were assigned alphabetically.

While I flitted in and out of the city over the intervening years, Elena parlayed her degree from NYU into an MFA from Bard and a career as a filmmaker, along with a marriage to a native New Yorker who wrote for the Times. The oldest daughter of Russian immigrants, Elena had a statuesque frame and pinned her hair up with Barbara Stanwyck flourish that defied gravity and bobby pins. To add to her heap of talents, she had a great sense of humor and her films screened at elite festivals and galleries.

When I first moved to New York, Elena and I saw each other at a hometown brunch group. When that folded, we kept in touch by reading each other’s writing, and grown closer that way. It mattered to me that Elena liked my writing. It mattered a lot.

“I’ve got some baby stuff back at the house for you,” Elena said, wiping her brow. “Diaper genie, car seat mirror…” She pressed her finger into her palm trying to remember the rest of the list.

This, I suspected, was another reason we’d grown closer. Like me, Elena had many childless friends, and she welcomed me as an expecting mother with open arms. In the months before the pandemic, she invited me to her daughter’s birthday party, she came to my house for dinner, and she attended my husband’s play and laughed in a way people with MFAs often don’t.

For two women with completely different proclivities, our new bond was a revelation. She was shy and pensive to my loud and impulsive, but we helped each other through broken childhood friendships, marital struggles, and artistic rebuffs. We maintained an older sister/younger sister dynamic: she decided where and when we met, and I provided the talking points and comic relief. She complained about her indulgent younger sister, and I my domineering older sister, yet we excused these qualities in each other. But walking down 34th Avenue in Queens, maybe because our intimacy was new or because Elena was so engrained in the city, our bond felt tenuous, like the slightest misstep could topple it. 

“I also have a bottle warmer, and a breast pump. Oh, right. Never mind.” Elena waved her hand in the hot air. “You’re not breastfeeding,” she said as if it was written on my tombstone. Elena still breastfed her three-year-old, and when I told her as I was lying on her living room floor eight months pregnant that I wasn’t going to breastfeed, she could barely hide her dismay.

From her wooden floorboards, I raised my hand in protest, “My stepsister didn’t breastfeed her second and it was way better for her and the baby. She wasn’t as tired and short with the baby because she slept more. Also, my husband wants to feed her, so that’s what we decided.”

“But you’ll do it at the beginning right? In the hospital? When the colostrum comes out?”


“You’re not going to do it at all?”

“That’s correct.”

Elena looked away and clicked her tongue sharply. She was disappointed, piqued, and as so often happens in disagreements over parenting, her disapproval was almost feral. Elena was a great mother, and her daughter was a gem, but I did not want to mimic her parenting style of co-sleeping and homemade baby food. For her, completely transforming her life seemed to make her feel better. For me, spending eight hours on the computer and running the loop in Prospect Park nine days after my C-section made me feel better.

34th Avenue gave way to Travers, a pocket park with a grassy hill and playground. I let Elena pick our spot. “Momma, momma.” Her daughter pointed at a nearby ice cream truck.

“Yes, I see,” Elena chimed.

It was in the high 80s and the afternoon sun slanted directly at us. “I think I need a water,” I said, eyeing the truck. “Want anything?”

“A swirl cone!” her daughter shouted.

“You already had desert today,” Elena responded. She turned to me and said, “We’re fine.”

Standing in line at the ice cream truck, I couldn’t deny that I was struggling. French mothers in my favorite pregnancy book spoke of fitting into their regular clothes three months after giving birth. I was four months out and even with those runs around the loop, my body was a dumpster fire. I felt like a hollow, moist, sagging, sack. My shoulders ached, my hips were tight, and my gut was bloated. At the same time, the psychological pressures of motherhood made me question my every decision. The cult of sophisticated mothers I respected made choices like Elena, who seemed to revel in personal deprivation. I wanted to make choices that were good for my daughter and good for the shred of a person (me) who had to sustain her existence. Or were my choices really about my own anxiety and my drive to fight all conventional standards of femininity?

Whether I embraced them or not, I was a hormonal ball of protective impulses and the feral instincts of motherhood left me alert and ready to pounce. I stood in line for the ice cream truck and traced the children’s paths through the park, scanning for real and imagined dangers. That was the thing about motherhood: you were constantly either holding, feeding, changing, cleaning up after, playing with, or worrying about your baby. If you didn’t have your baby in your arms, you worried about someone else’s baby nearby you. Your duties took over your mind, body, and soul. Personal satisfaction became a strange indulgent past time, a shock, especially for a woman like me with a robust social life and a penchant for mischief. Even though it had been four months since my daughter was born, I hadn’t finished an entire cocktail yet. I couldn’t stomach it.

The guy in the ice cream truck window signaled that it was my turn. I looked at the menu. Water felt boring and lackluster, so without another thought I ordered an ice cream cone.

As I approached Elena, her daughter yelled, “Ice cream!”

Behind her mask, Elena’s gaze was still and narrow.

I instantly realized my mistake and I licked as quickly as possible. Smearing my lips with vanilla and chocolate, my tongue curled desperately around the soft serve. Elena’s daughter emitted a low, guttural groan. Then it hit me. This moment was exactly the kind of stuff I wrote about, and that Elena loved when she read it online. Surely, Elena would hit “like” now irl?

But her animalistic hackles were up and her jaw was clenched. “Shit, sorry,” I said, and I threw the cone in the trash. She didn’t even smirk.

That was another thing about motherhood: anyone who threatened your kin was toast.

We sat on the grass, and we talked absently about our current projects. At that point in the pandemic, I couldn’t play with Elena’s daughter, who sat some six feet away on the grass, as she wasn’t allowed on the playground still, so in an attempt to improve my status, I swapped funny faces with her. In no time at all, my three-hour window was up, and I had to return to Brooklyn and relieve my husband of parenting duties. Elena and I exchanged smiles and air hugs, but as I walked to the subway, I felt the pinch of our muted goodbye.

On the train home, I rehashed it all. I wouldn’t get ticked off if a grown adult ate ice cream in front of my kid, or so I imagined. That didn’t seem like it would set me off.

But what would? It didn’t take me long to settle on exactly what vexed me: when people commented on the state of my daughter’s clothes, marveled aloud whether the car seat straps could be tighter, questioned whether she’d been to the pediatric dentist or if I’d taught her to baby back float. In short, I became incensed when people hinted that I was a neglectful mother.

Photo by Leonardo Sanches on Unsplash

I pictured Elena’s tight jaw and her daughter’s hopeful glance. The situation I put Elena in made it seem like she was no fun. These are the choices mothers are given: neglectful or no fun.

I treasured my and Elena’s bond because it was not about who we knew in common, that we lived near each other, or that we shared a hobby—it was about female authorship and comradery. However, I worried my gaffe had put us on opposite ends of the precipice.

A few weeks later I received a text from Elena. It didn’t say hey, you left this at my house or hey, can you read my work? It said how is your life, I miss you and let’s do something. There was my level-headed, non-judgmental Elena, who I imagined was also struggling. That was another thing about motherhood: you were so desperate for each other that you’d overlook any ridiculous misdeed. The choice keeping us both from the cliff’s edge was friendship.

Feature photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash / other photos courtesy the author or as credited

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About the Author

Jenny Hatchadorian has been published by Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Full Grown PeopleLittle Old Lady, Weekly Humorist, Story Club Magazine, and Role Reboot. She is an awardee of St. Nell’s comedy writing residency for womxn, and she reads comedic essays on her podcast Everything Good.

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