Being a mom is better than you think
The vital fight against maternal dread
Motherhood has a marketing problem.
As this recent piece by Rachel M. Cohen in Vox claims, millennials have learned to dread motherhood.
Motherhood, among my aging millennial ilk and the young Gen Z’ers, is a tedious identity, one robbed of any “fun” and freedom. The plummeting American birth rate reflects this dread. If given the choice, many millennial and Gen Z women are choosing not to procreate at all. And who can blame them? Entire subsections of literature and media are now devoted to these grim portrayals of the life of a mother. Novels about moms are almost always domestic horror novels. If mothers occur broadly in the news, it’s most likely a story about how they’re stranded and angry and helpless. The moms are not OK! the headlines shriek. If you want to talk about mothering, the primary narrative must be that it is impossible and awful—lest you be accused of being a tradwife.
It is hard to be a mom, both now and at every prior time in human history. We do feel stranded and angry and helpless at times. But when we make this the central message of motherhood, I believe we do a great disservice to current and future mothers.
There’s a particular skittishness about talking about the joy of motherhood among progressives. Cohen writes about the political divide that often spurs this messaging about moms:
The positive messages young women hear today about starting families come almost exclusively from the right. Democrats haven’t abandoned pro-family messages wholesale, but the rhetoric they use to muster support for family policies nearly always emphasizes crisis and precarity, not strength, stability, or happiness.
“The way to get people to care, to get people to have the most attention, is to frame things as ‘people will die,’ or ‘this is an emergency,’” one progressive lawmaker from Minnesota told me. “You can’t just say it would improve people’s lives.”
Moreover, in response to attacks on abortion rights, most progressive politicians, writers, and activists stress the real risks of pregnancy and the toll of parenting that no one should be forced to experience against their will, rather than any upsides to having children. This makes sense, but the result is that for many, the very act of becoming pregnant sounds harrowing, and giving birth less a choice than a potential punishment.
A consequence of this marketing is that women, especially left-leaning women, are choosing not to have children at all. Nothing about it sounds good or fulfilling. A man isn’t going to help you. Childcare sucks. The government’s purported safety net is full of gaping holes. Motherhood sounds like a wasteland, beset by evils and traps for the vulnerable, isolated woman.
I heard this message loud and clear when I was debating about whether to have children. Everything I heard about parenting, both from the news and from friends, looked and sounded horrible. The sleepless nights, the marital spats, the expenses, the illnesses, the schedule wrangling, the tantrums, the physical and emotional tolls: These were the central messages. The negativity about motherhood I kept hearing, over and over again, contributed to my very long delay in choosing to procreate, even though I was happily married to a helpful, progressive, egalitarian man.
I’ve only been a mother for four years, but we’re in the thick of it now—those intense, needful days, with another baby on the way. Even with everything, collapsing into bed at 8:45, hear me when I say that motherhood is profoundly joyful.
Moms often don’t talk about their happiness because it can sound like bragging. We also worship at the altar of stress and busyness, so a mom who says she’s not stressed and actually pretty content is regarded as extremely suspect/a straight-up liar. Talking about your joy is regarded, by our culture, as kind of gross.
I long for this expectation to change, especially among my fellow mothers. Let’s not give each other medals for our repeated testimonials of our busyness. Let’s help each other instead. Many of us are stressed out, in acute, practical ways, but many of us are also going to be OK. Our kids are going to be OK. Our families are going to be OK. We have the bandwidth to help those who are actually in need, instead of continually broadcasting how exhausted and angry we are. Rehearsing and repeating our misery only cements it in our hearts and minds. Gratitude can work wonders on the anxious heart.
Cohen concludes with a moving paragraph, which I wholeheartedly endorse:
“We should have the courage to reject the all-encompassing crisis frame — which frankly isn’t working, anyway. We can’t expect to fully eliminate dread or even regret over having children. Rather, this is a gentle reminder that people can thrive doing the hard stuff, and we can build each other up without fear that we’ll sabotage prospects for bolder change. That’s a world that brings me hope. That’s a world I don’t dread.”
People can thrive doing the hard stuff. Moms, even moms, can thrive. And we are! Motherhood is such a rewarding state. Its joys are necessarily private and difficult to discern, and vary from woman to woman, but as a vocation, I see ripples of contentment lying just beneath the surface.
Let’s not let our younger sisters labor under the delusion that motherhood is all pain and misery. Let’s have the courage to talk more about our joy.
The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk
The Book of Silence, Sara Maitland