It’s the season for heart-shaped lockets and sappy cards, for orchids and chocolate and brunch. Though Mother’s Day arrives every May without fail — no excuses for forgetfulness, boys and girls — the rules of motherhood have changed considerably in the decades since I first took the job.
Sometimes for the better, sometimes … well, let’s leave it at that.
When Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, recently confessed that motherhood can be “lonely” at times, moms everywhere shouted collective amens. One can be surrounded by people and noise and activity and nonetheless feel the weight of isolation and unreasonable demands.
At its core, a mother’s role is as predictable and obvious as the sunrise. We’re tasked with nurturing and loving, teaching and guiding, pushing and prompting. We are a child’s first love and, if we play our cards right and our health holds up, we become the longest-lasting love, too, even as we can never claim to be the least complicated one. (Though my mother has been dead for almost 15 years and I miss her every single day, a cauldron of conflicting emotions still bubbles up when I conjure certain childhood moments.)
The goal of mothers — to raise independent, conscientious children — is so essential, so primal that it holds true across generations and cultures. Yet, how we accomplish this in a world disrupted by technology and inequality has grown increasingly complicated. There seems to be so much to worry about now, so many milestones to track and so many commitments to juggle. Simply watching my daughter and daughters-in-law is enough to exhaust me.
Mothering, I’ve often joked, is a test of endurance, but now it has also turned into a contact sport. Mom-shaming has become something of a national pastime, and while parenting advice is easily accessible online, it also can be confounding. To add to the stress, homework help has developed into a parent’s part-time gig. And all that running around for extracurricular activities? An absolute must, if you want your child to be accepted into a decent college, however many years away that might be.
A pressure cooker. A fishbowl. An obstacle course. All these are, more or less, accurate descriptions of the job.
Why? For one, more mothers are working outside the home and more are doing this full-time, some because they want to, many because they must. Yet societal attitudes and workplace norms, not to mention our own hang-ups, haven’t kept up. One third of Americans feel NOT working outside the home is best for mothers, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, while nearly half (47 percent) believe working part time is ideal for women with young children. This ideal, however, is unrealistic for most.
What’s more, the number of single mothers is way up as a result of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. The share of households with married parents, in fact, has declined across the board, but especially so among the poor. Without another pair of hands to share in the hard labor of child-rearing, mothering can be a Sisyphean challenge.
I have no doubt the role of mothers will continue to evolve, in part as a reaction to forces beyond our control, as well as to the individual choices we make. Transformation, I know from experience, can be simultaneously sudden and gradual, visible and imperceptible. It’s also never-ending. After 35 plus years of parenting, I’m still fumbling, still learning, still adapting.
I’ll let you know, though, if and when I figure it out.