It is hardly shocking anymore that some women have mixed feelings about motherhood. Blogs, books, TV shows, and social media have given us access to an outpouring of the general meh many women feel about breeding. The problem is, it's changed virtually nothing in terms of the expectations on women to be perfect moms.
This leaves women in the precarious position of finally feeling that they can bitch a little about the modern demands of work-life balance with children, which still fall more heavily on them, and yet still face an onslaught of cultural pressure, shaming or prescriptive, about how to perform it. Proof of this is in the reactions anytime any woman says anything about how she feels about motherhood, or breeding, or staying at home all day with her kids, or working all day away from her kids, or not having any kids at all, or having too many kids.
Even just talking about how you feel about the word "mom" or "mommy" is to risk a landmine of missteps that inadvertently signals everything wrong with women today. Take this NYT opinion piece this weekend, in which Heather Havrilesky (aka Ask Polly) wrote about "Our Mommy Problem"—the insidious view of motherhood as so all-consuming that any women who breeds cannot escape being identified as a mom or mommy in every arena of her life, even when it is scarcely relevant. She notes:
Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman's life.
"Bunch of mommies cutting loose, huh?"
Some female friends and I were having a drink at a bar recently when a male stranger hailed us with this line. A bunch of mommies. That alien race unnaturally invested in high-end strollers, one-pot-chicken meals and carcinogen-free sunscreens. His expression suggested that it was odd that women charged with ushering kids from Kumon lessons to soccer games might be out on the town, sipping beers just like regular humans sometimes do. (How did he know we were mothers in the first place? Was it the extra-large sippy cups with MOMMY! bubble-lettered on the sides that we poured our beers into?)
We smugly shake our heads at the backward attitudes of "Mad Men," but at this particular moment in our history, some combination of overzealous parenting, savvy marketing and glorification of hearth and home have coaxed the public into viewing female parents as a strange breed apart from regular people. You might feel like the same person deep inside, but what the world apparently sees is a woman lugging around a giant umbilical cord.
And frankly, that can feel pretty fucking gross. I'm a mother now, yes, and of course it's a huge part of my life, but I spent my first decades honing a personality and life and career unrelated to breeding.
So it's still strangely odd to me when someone says, "What're you up to lately, just being a mom?" Yup, JUST BEING A MOM. Just MOMMING IT UP. As if people can't reconcile that being a person is a complex interrelated set of roles that are on and off at any given moment and often overlap, and that this is true for everyone ALL THE TIME, not just women! It's almost always said to me by men, by the way, who are almost never pigeonholed in this way. They are men, and people, who happen to be dads at various moments when they are actually doing dad stuff.
In my Facebook feed, the father of a toddler often remarks quite openly on how reluctantly he came to fatherhood—how much he didn't want it, wasn't ready, and had to be basically threatened by his wife to leave if he wasn't ever going to come around to it. The response? Celebration and praise—bordering on lunacy. How big of him to eventually come around to fatherhood, how noble and generous and kind. How totally normal to not be sure if he wanted that kid, to avoid it altogether, to have to be pressured and finally succumb. If only there were more like him!
Can you imagine if society gave women this kind of space to feel their way through parenting? No fuckin' way. We still think, no matter what women do, that her most important calling is mother and that's absolutely reflected in the language of marketing and culture and attitudes from most people. Sure, you can be a scientist or a politician or an artist or a thinker, but if you're a woman, there's still a mechanism that defines you more fundamentally than those things, and it's your presumed ability/desire to breed.
Many women have correctly pushed back about this notion. But the pushback doesn't beget praise, it begets more pushback. On Havrilesky's piece, for example, the comment section is full of every kind of comment you would ever expect on a piece where a woman dared wrestle with the insidiousness of mommy culture foisted upon women whether they like it or not. A sampling:
• How hard is it to ignore what someone else is doing and go about it the way you feel keeps you in charge?
• There's billions being made selling gear that will make our investment — sorry, our baby — safer, smarter and more attractive. And our lives more miserable.
• I can whip up a fitted Captain Hook coat without the need of a pattern in a weekend, if I can focus. Yet I feel insanely inadequate for not ever making my daughter home made play dough.
• But is it so hard to just ignore and even make fun of the images of perfection and the (supposed) demands to be a crafty, over involved homemaker? That's what I do. I am not even convinced that these expectations exist outside the media.
• I practice in a big-city Emergency Department. The reason we call mothers "Mom" in the ER is that the eccentricities of modern families mean that it is very dangerous to look at the child's name at the top of the chart and call the mother "Mrs. Smith" on that basis.
• The entire piece reeks of elitism. The real problem is women with Ivy League degrees who feel that the word "mommy" is a derogatory label that must be deconstructed and discussed as if it were a topic in Gender Studies 101. Stop second-guessing yourself and stop reacting to what other people say.
• If one is a "mom", who cares if someone calls you a "mom".
• Thanks for reminding me of the joy of being child-free!
• Quit inviting your children to boss you around. You are the adult: run the show. Women who insist on treating your children as your masters: you have brought it on yourselves —- and worse, on the rest of us.
• "Society" has not done this; mothers themselves have. As someone who has struggled with infertility for years, I have unfortunately developed a keen sensitivity to the way women change when their baby is born. In my anecdotal experience, the minority remain their pre-mother selves who now just happen to have a child.
• Women are their own worst enemy. They put themselves into these prisons and then complain that they can't get out.
HAHAH, luv that one.
Look, real freedom is the freedom to reject the script without penalty. These comments remind us that every time we try to do so, we'll be scolded back into the corner and told we did this to ourselves. What's even sadder is that Havrilesky's complaint is actually nothing new and not quite the oh-so-modern predicament everyone claims it is. For instance, take this passage in her piece:
I like violins and knitted tea cozies and themed birthday parties as much as the next Earthling. But before I get to that stuff, I need to clear a path through this dirty laundry so I can get to the dishwasher. I'm hesitant to throw myself into any high-maintenance child-related activity too enthusiastically lest I doom myself to becoming a specialist in an unpaid field that might cut into the time I spend on things like, I don't know, making a living? Staying in shape? Seeing my friends occasionally?
Just for kicks, compare that to this quote from Betty Friedan's famously reported look at Stage 1 Motherhood Meh, The Feminine Mystique:
Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question— 'Is this all?'
Ahem: that was in 1963. In that light, Havrilesky's passage is ultimately the same question, only not so silent, and not so alone—and this time, the answer lies within the question. The answer, when it comes to motherhood in 2014, though Wonderful and Fulfilling and Lovely and Fun and Life-Affirming and Certainly All the Things™ it is, is: "God I hope not." It is great and all, but I still want to do some other stuff. I'm still me. The problem is the same: Motherhood for many women is not the end-all-be-all, and that's just fucking fine.
But as Havrilesky notes, "the culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time." And it does. I've certainly seen some parents reject that notion and do it their way, but we're all aware of "The Ideal" and we all struggle to make our peace with it. Even as the choices expand, the pressure remains identical: Be all in, all the time. I know fathers feel this, too. I also know they leave the house and meet for drinks and no one is asking them if they are a table of "dads on the loose," and to my knowledge, there is no "Daddy Juice" Wine.
So for now, mommy is still a much more automatically assigned identity and lifestyle designation and much more potent identity marker than daddy, and there are still actual consequences for this. If you don't think it affects anything about women's lives to be reduced in this way in every arena of their lives, catch up on some of the latest legislation affecting women who are viewed as just mommies and see how that plays out.
Of course, some things have changed—parents of yore were less pressured to pay attention to their children and treat them as actual people with a say that mattered, and certainly less obligated to craft it up all the time:
Forty years ago, my mother and her two friends drank coffee, ate homemade cherry pie and chain-smoked their way through lively debates over whether a popular author was daringly frank or a chauvinist, while their children were expected to play nicely outside and rarely interrupt. Today, all three mothers might instead be engaged in some elaborate craft project, with each woman stopping the conversation every few seconds to open a little jar of paint or to help glue on some tiny eyes.
But I have to wonder whether either set of mothers was any happier. I don't think it's really about crafts. Some traps may be packaged differently but are timeless at their core. For many women who still struggle to be treated like people with identities outside mommyhood, it seems like the only thing that has really changed in 40 years are the outfits. Maybe the cigarettes. Definitely the cherry pie.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.