How We Talk About Motherhood Matters
When you think about motherhood, what words come to mind?
Do you think things like, “hard,” or “exhausted,” or “work,” or “piles of laundry” and “no sleep ever”?
Or do you think something more along the lines of “joy, fulfillment, and life purpose”?
In a riveting op-ed for the New York Times writer Diksha Basu made a compelling case for “rebranding motherhood” and I have to say, her words were incredibly refreshing to hear. Especially because as I read them, I felt the tiniest twinge of guilt that quickly grew to a larger feeling of guilt. I am very guilty of painting a difficult portrait of motherhood, one I'm not always proud of.
I am quick to point out the exhaustion, how difficult it is to get even small, basic things like brushing your teeth or eating a meal, done. I am one to lament the gender imbalances of parenting that can threaten even the most progressive of marriages. I am here to bemoan the judgement that mothers face, the inequalities that still exist, and the sometimes crushing burden of getting it all done and living a life that is a good example for our children.
But the joy?
I am also quick to forget the joy.
In her piece, Basu pointed out that for a lot of women, motherhood is a choice, (I feel like this needs a disclaimer, because, of course, for some women across the world, motherhood isn't always a choice, nor do some women have a full choice to become mothers if they face infertility or other obstacles to having children) and as a choice, choosing motherhood inherently means consciously letting go of other things in our lives. If we choose the sprinkle donut, we are skipping the chocolate; if we choose to go on the bike ride, we are forgoing the run.
Choosing one thing doesn't mean we are necessarily unhappy about letting go of the other thing; choosing one path doesn't necessarily make that path better or worse than the others; it's just the one we happen to choose. But in motherhood, the “choice” to become a mother is also one that has become synonymous with a life of sacrifice, of drudgery, of a constant laying down of self.
“Why was motherhood such a sacrifice when I was doing what I wanted?” Basu mused in her piece. “Why was the popular narrative all about the misery?”
One could argue that Basu is still relatively new in her motherhood; a mother to a baby, for instance, may not have dealt with the shock of that baby then growing up and learning to talk back to you or slam doors or roll her eyes at you; she may not have dealt with the struggles of trying to juggle the needs of 4 children and work and a husband and a house and not drown under the literal piles of laundry bursting out of her seams.
But still, the woman has a point, which is simply this: can we rebrand motherhood? Can we change the way we expect motherhood to be and thus maybe change the way it actually is for a lot of mothers? If we go in thinking it's not supposed to be misery, are we more apt to look for things other than misery?
I can definitely see the argument going both ways: more experienced mothers like myself (and I only say that to mean experience in years, not skill, let's be clear) may feel the urge to warn new mothers that it's OK if motherhood isn't all bliss and rainbows and sunshine; that it really can be that hard sometimes and that's normal and it doesn't mean you're not a good mother. But on the other hand, my experience is not theirs and in setting the expectation that motherhood is so hard, maybe I am doing them a disservice by encouraging them to go into motherhood with jaded eyes.
I don't know the right answer (if there is one) but I will say that Basu's piece helped me to look for the joy a little more. Like last night, when my four-year-old called me outside, where she said she had a surprise for me. I took her hand, fully expecting the “surprise” to be a special leaf, or one of her prized rocks, or a new trick on the swing set. Instead, she led me to the backyard and down the hill. “Ok, open them!” she exclaimed. I opened my eyes and gasped aloud.
In the middle of a busy night, when I had been stressed about sick kids and deadlines and dinner, my four-year-old had led me to the very spot in our 74 acres where the sun lined up between the trees in a dazzling sunset. “Look at it, Mama!” she shouted, spinning around in circles in pure joy. My eyes pricked with tears and I said a silent prayer of thanks for this moment and this reminder, that there is so much joy to be found in the gift of motherhood.
How do you find joy in motherhood?