I am known through my writing of being committed to keeping it real about parenting. Don’t come at me with flowery perfection of motherhood descriptions and expect me to buy it. I’ve talked to enough women and received far too many “me too” messages and whispered confessions from the “perfect to the outside world” moms to believe that ANYONE is getting through parenthood with nothing but joy in their hearts at every single second. “Isn’t being a mommy just the best thing you have ever done in your whole life?” Well yes, and it’s also one of the hardest, at times least enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my whole life. Motherhood is not either/or, it is a whole hell of a lot of and/also.
Through my writing I’ve also been introduced to a strange concept, one that continues to catch me off guard every time I receive a message about it. It started with one of my very first blogs about being a mom – someone messaged me about my “post-partum depression.” Later I’d receive messages (very benevolent messages I should add) encouraging me to talk to my doctor about getting on antidepressants. It happened multiple times from multiple people, and each time I would respond kindly and move on. Because I don’t have depression. I have the graduate education in mental health and my good old friend the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to assure me that I don’t meet the criteria, even on the worst of days. There is no shame and absolutely nothing wrong with a diagnosis of PPD, but I was not writing about depression. I was writing about parenting.
But then something happened recently when I was talking to my husband about parenting. He looked me in the eye and said with complete frankness that he couldn’t imagine doing what I do every day as a work from home mom. He lay down his reasoning – but what it came down to more than anything was – he couldn’t be with the kids all day every day, he’d go crazy.
And that’s when I had a genuine, certified, Oprah A-HA moment.
My husband, my sweet, patient, loving, playful, affectionate, encouraging, generous, hard-working husband, could not do what I do every day. Or at least, has no desire to do what I do every day. My husband, the world’s best daddy, who is literally leaps and bounds above many others – can’t imagine a life doing what we expect many mothers to do every day.
And not only that.
He isn’t afraid to admit it. He could exclaim it loud and proud and without shame and none of his friends are going to bat an eye. None of them are going to suck in a little air when he says it and then call their best friends later and say “Oh my god, don’t you feel so bad for his kids??” His friends aren’t going to police his experience as a mother, analyze it, critique it. There isn’t an army of social media daddies ready to openly criticize him and there aren’t doctors concerned enough with his feelings that they want to get him on medication.
As a new mom when I would talk to new dads, I felt significantly “safer” being real. I found they had almost no problem admitting having a hard time controlling their anger, difficulty bonding, and being more than ready to step away from the baby for some space to breathe and just not be needed for five seconds. They didn’t speak about parenthood the same way women do, and nobody saw anything at all wrong with that.
My concern is that we are pathologizing women’s experiences as new mothers. That we are setting up an unhealthy dichotomy of “happy, swooning, My Life Is Perfect” mom = normal, and “I am not always happy, swooning, sometimes I am crying and angry and burnt out and My Life Definitely Isn’t Perfect” mom = something is wrong with you, you need to be “fixed”. That the painfully real expectations put on mothers in our culture and generation (love every single second, get your “body back” in record time, keep your husband sexually satisfied, continue to chase your career dreams, be actively engaged with your children every second you are with them, provide evidence on social media or to the outside world of your success at being super mommy) are inarguably a deep root of this discontentment, this feeling that something is wrong with you. And asking new mothers to “just stop listening” or “just don’t care” what the outside world has to say is to ask many women to undo years and years of conditioning at the same time you are asking her to care for a brand new life and seamlessly adjust her own.
Nobody would stop for one second to tell my husband he should consider getting on antidepressants because he can’t/doesn’t want to spend 24/7 with his children. It’s totally acceptable and normal in our culture. But if a woman expresses her frustration and exhaustion for the exact same situation, the situation where she actually IS providing that care 24/7, she needs medication. Something isn’t right here.
Pardon my feminist, patriarchal-oppression-heavy theory, but I often wonder if we as a society push this narrative onto otherwise healthy women because we want woman pleasant and docile to deal with, what we don’t want is a woman who is angry. And not angry without cause, but angry because she is paying attention. A woman who isn’t effortlessly falling in line, as she is expected to. This isn’t what you expected motherhood to feel like? Well no kidding- we aren’t giving a voice to anyone who is less than glowing about being a mom, and the only ones we let talk about the bad stuff are the ones who end their stories with a diagnosis and everything makes sense. Wouldn’t it be easier if that mom who is overwhelmed got medication every day to make her enjoy doing the job her husband doesn’t want to do? Wouldn’t it be easier to convince her that she is the problem, her hormones are the problem, her feelings are the problem? Wouldn’t that be easier than fundamentally changing the way our society does parenthood?
I need to put a disclaimer here that I am NOT talking about actual, clinically diagnosed depression. For women and mothers and people in general who have depression, anti-depressants can be a literal life-saver. What I am talking about is pathologizing normal experiences of motherhood and the feelings of frustration, anger, exhaustion against a culture that does so little to support mothers.
But what if – what if new mothers were better supported? What if there weren’t magazine covers celebrating returning to a size zero six days after giving birth? What if our country guaranteed paid parental leave to all new moms AND dads, for longer than just a couple weeks? What if our culture expected that men carry the burden of childcare or household tasks equally? What if our culture valued honesty in speaking about our experiences as new moms rather than praising only those with glowing experiences? What if mothers had more help from extended family or had more resources to hire help? What if the expectation for the mother to reach out for help wasn’t there and instead EVERYONE JUST HELPED. What if the weight of expectations didn’t sit solely and squarely only on the mothers shoulders?
What if we told a different, fuller, truer, more inclusive story about motherhood? How would our lives change?