Anxiety Has Turned Moms, Would-be Moms, and Non-Moms Into a Bunch of Self-Immolating Harpies

Hey there, lady. Thinking about becoming a mom? Good luck with that. Not only are you about to enter a batshit world of constant judgment, unsolicited advice and mom-on-mom crime (mostly in the form of judgy vibes), but also one filled with impossibly contradictory advice about how to parent, with surprise sucker-punch reports on the job you're doing. That's just if you read the books.

If you bother to get on the Internet (and you will, you masochist), consider yourself permanently descending down the mommy-claw rigged rabbit hole of conflicting viewpoints, harsh judgments, reactionary thinking and brutal takedowns, all because you thought it might be a good idea to try a newborn wrap to carry your child. You know, the one that could suffocate your baby? Oh, I'm kidding. It's the sling that fucks them up.

We weren't always such judgmental nutbags, were we?

I mean, sure, people have always been judgmental. I'm sure parenting has always been hard. Well, good parenting has always been hard. Shitty parenting is a breeze! But since the dawn of time, I'm sure there has been conflicting information out there about which deer antler best soothes a teething baby or which toxic anti-nausea meds will most likely guarantee that your child grow a deformity. No one's ever had it easier really, because it's all relative.

But the anxiety over parenting has reached an all-time high — or at least, it feels that way. Is it actually harder to be a parent now in the digital age of we-think-we-finally-know-best (but we still don't know shit, but that won't stop us from telling you what you're doing wrong) or does it just feel that way? Has it always been so hard to have good, useful conversations about it?

I submit there's something peculiar about this particular age, when all the available studies are reported with breathless certainty, then debated, torn apart, contradicted with anecdotal evidence, then more scientific evidence, then stalked, murdered and buried, only to resurface a few months later as a brand new study yet again touting its superiority. (Yes, I'm talking about new the cry-it-out sleep method victory.)

I'm convinced it's because more choice = more anxiety = bitches. Lots of good studies (that I'm sure you can contradict) have argued that more choice, even though that's a good thing, can come with paralysis, or what psychologists would call "demotivation." I, for one, was totally just going to do plastic diapers, until I found out that cloth is better. Then I found out there was a diaper-free movement. And now, that all diapers are bad. Seriously! But not for the reasons you think.

We all want more choices, because to us, that is synonymous with freedom, but like studies showing arranged marriages can be more hospitable, it sometimes contradicts reality. Take the jam experiment. In a very cool Columbia University study, two groups of shoppers were presented with six jams to shop from versus thirty jams, and asked to choose. Some 30 percent of those who only had six options to pick from came away with a purchase. But only three percent of those who had thirty options were able to pick one.

And get this: Not only did the participants choose more easily with fewer options, but they seemed more committed to what they chose. Additionally, folks who had more choices were more likely to second-guess their pick. In other words, nothing like only having two options to make you pick one fast, and stick with it. I choose my choice, anyone?

Applied to parenting, we might argue that the more options for how to parent a child, the harder it will be to decide, and the more doubt about the choice after the fact. I'd take it further to say that because we have so many choices about parenting, we want to feel sure of what we pick. And this surplus of choice — too much knowledge about too many options, often contradictory — could ratchet up the anxiety, and make us more likely to fight over what's right, and criticize what we think isn't.

We second-guess not only our own choices, but the choices of others, to make us feel better. The result is a lot of shit-talking awfulness that spirals into absurdity, tedium and exhaustion. (Also, it's depressing.) Some of that is, indeed, the web, but don't get me started on the real-life debate I'm overhearing about when, exactly, is the correct age to take your kid to Disneyland.

(Side note: Furthermore, with parenting, I'd even argue the plethora of choice is a bit of an illusion in itself, as it overshadows a big myth about parenting: That you can even just choose a method of parenting in a vacuum and roll with it anyway, when in reality, you're more likely to end up parenting the child you have and following his/her cues, rather than implementing a rigid parenting method regardless of whether the kid responds to it, such as cry-it-out. Lots of well meaning parents go down this road and find their kid never takes to it. You don't have to be a hippie to find yourself suddenly trying the family bed. In other words, the child's personality/disposition has a way of eliminating a lot of so-called options right away.)

Of course, that's all assuming you've even decided for sure you want to be a mom.

This choice, too, has exploded into a million tiny little choices that overwhelm. There is not just the choice to have kids, or don't have kids, as is often presented. Some women don't actually know how they feel. Some reach a certain age and do panic. Some women always knew. Some women THINK they know, then realize they were wrong. Some women don't have kids and regret their choice, and some women do have kids and regret it.

Some don't have kids, and never regret it. Some do have kids and don't regret it. The sky is the motherfuckin' limit. Add to this that the ability to put off kids until later, or adopt, and this means you might never actually be sure exactly what's right for you. You would end up with someone a lot like Doris.

Don't know who Doris is? I'll clue you in. A mom wrote a doozy of an open letter to her friend named Doris about how Doris is always on the fence about having kids and isn't sure she's ready. The mom wanted Doris — a 30-something career woman who allegedly likes to a.) whine and b.) look at her iPhone a lot — to know that she probably is ready for kids, she just doesn't know it.

What follows is a bunch of condescending hee-ho from the mom that's obviously based on her own biased mom experience where she repeatedly tells Doris in a faux-sisterly tone what's good for her (hint: Having kids!). Obviously, a lot of people wanted to punch this mom, myself included. It was obnoxious. If she weren't busy raising micropreemie twins, I'd organize the punch-out myself this evening just for kicks.

Then, writer Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon wrote an open letter to Doris too, letting her know that the mom who wrote the original blog post was, in fact, a condescending wet blanket who was obviously generalizing from her own experience and that, hello, have kids or don't, because not all women want kids. And, it's not the alleged path to enlightenment for all mothers that this woman tried to say it is.

Take it from a mom, Doris. A very happy one whose daughters are straight up the greatest people in the world. Have kids. Or don't have kids. But you don't have to make your choices based on the incredibly condescending notion that raising children is the way to enlightenment, or that the alternate road leads to having nothing in life to care about but your iPhone.

That's totally true, and she's right. It's not a path to enlightenment for all women. But again, this have kids or don't thing is also not the only choice. And it's not that easy. The condescending mom was clearly presented with choices that, though certainly difficult to endure, may have been surprisingly easy to make. If you have a kid with special needs, the urgency of those needs can make the choice to devote one's well-being to them pretty loud and clear. It's no one's favorite choice, but again, it could reduce the anxiety of choosing considerably.

Someone like a Doris, on the other hand, without any of the same urgency in her choices (aside from the perception of a ticking clock) has too many choices in a way. Keep having a job, keep being single, keep being whatever. There is the pull of impending motherhood, but it isn't life or death. The annoyingly condescending mom who wrote her the letter probably can't see that.

That doesn't make it OK for her to go off on Doris with a condescending diatribe. There's talking about your choice, and there's claiming your choice is better for everyone. The latter is obviously annoying.

Not to mention, if I were Doris, a 30-something career woman on the fence about having kids, this micropreemie twins lady is not likely the woman I'd ask about having kids, anymore than I'd turn to Michelle Duggar. Of course they would tell you to breed. Any other answer makes their choice look less meaningful to them. I'd look for someone who had a lot of choices, and who chose to have kids anyway. Their answer, like this one, another response to the Doris fiasco, might not be so great! (See, there's my judgment.)

But I think it's important for us to understand that it isn't so black and white for all women how to navigate our newfound freedom regarding procreating. It's creating untold levels of anxiety, and along with those greater choices is a lot of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

See, I wasn't going to have kids, but then I did. I don't regret it. But I do see both the fact that it's not the only path to enlightenment (I was gonna do a bunch of other stuff that's great and enlightening, too, and am still doing that stuff, and it is also great and enlightening), but also that having kids IS a form of enlightenment, too — it's made me open up and be more selfless, more compassionate, and broadened my perspective in ways going to Lima never fucking will. Nonetheless, I still want to go to Lima. Well, not "Lima" Lima, but "Lima."

Still, when it came time to decide if I was going to have a kid or not, I was already pregnant, and the choices were conveniently reduced to two. Have the baby or don't. That part was easy, once all the anxiety of the theoretical choices about it had already been eliminated for me. This has not made me an evangelist for having children, but rather someone who knows the choice is super complicated and real individual-like. I'm actually not sure I would have ever figured out the issue had I not become pregnant.

I wish we could talk about that gray area more. About how much more difficult making choices can be for women now that there are so many options. And maybe if we could try, sometimes, to call off the dogs a little. We're all pretty new at learning how to be this autonomous. Let's not bullshit ourselves that more choice has made it easier on us. You know, except when it has.