A dear friend — and a good mother, regardless of how she views herself — has asked me for a favor I’m not sure I can deliver.
“If we meet in the next world,” she says, “hit me with a two by four if I talk about having children.”
I think she’s only half joking, a reaction to a particularly long stretch of apprehension over her kids’ choices. But let’s be honest here: I don’t know of any mother, even the most devoted, who hasn’t paused to ask herself if the sacrifice is worth it. Self-doubt is as old as motherhood itself, and surely as draining.
Anyone who has rushed a child to the ER or stared down a sullen teenager knows that being a good parent is about as glamorous as smelly sneakers. Or washing endless loads of laundry. Or teaching table manners. Or helping with homework.
No job, no duty, no responsibility is as demanding or as thankless as parenting. Societal expectations about how blissful we should be while diapering makes mothering that much more agonizing. Am I doing this right? Am I good enough? Am I messing them up forever?
And then that heart-wrenching suspicion: What’s the big deal about kids anyway?
Wading into this ageless debate, a new book by a young mom resurrects the old qualms that have dogged mothers since I can remember. Seems every generation must write its own chapter of the Mommy Wars, if only to ensure sanity and to balance that cultural ideal that is as unrealistic as returning to your pre-baby body as soon as you leave the hospital.
In the controversial and much talked about Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness, author Jessica Valenti takes on the sacred cows of motherhood and the lies (her word) women are exposed to repeatedly. You’ve heard them, of course, spoken aloud or slyly implied: Having children will fulfill you. Motherhood is a true calling. Creating a family is your duty. Yadda yadda yadda.
Spoiler alert for those who haven’t become parents: This is, to a great degree, false advertising — not unlike the political ads that have flooded our airwaves lately. There’s a truthiness to these beliefs, a wishful thinking founded on myths and rewritten history. Leave it to experience to convince the uninitiated otherwise.
The bedraggled reality of motherhood, of parenting really, is so much more complicated than the fantasy, of course. And it’s the gulf between these two extremes that contributes to the second-guessing, the unhappiness. That disconnect, Valenti writes, “is making us miserable.” (If my own experience is any indication, sleep deprivation probably contributes to the misery, too.)
Valenti’s got it right, but I’m not sure mothering is any different than other roles we play in this complex, contradictory society where success is measured by the size of your bank account, spiritual leaders protect pedophiles and athletes earn millions while teachers get peanuts. To wit: My expectations as a young reporter proved different from my day-to-day work life. My vision of homeownership died an early and ignominious death. And the illusion of marriage as the coupling of soul mates — well, can I sell you a buildable acre in the Everglades?
Now that my kids are grown and the relentless drudgery of raising them rests in the rearview mirror, hindsight has made me cherish certain rare, bright moments. I will forever treasure the smell of just-bathed children, the intimacy of bedtime reading, the wet kiss, the lingering hug, the look of gratitude across a school auditorium.
Yes, examples of sweet joy in motherhood exist— maybe not many, but enough to keep us going.