My older brother likes to do this bit from a comedian whenever I tell him how tired I am from parenting. It’s about idea that being a mom is the hardest job in the world. The comedian lists off occupations requiring backbreaking and dangerous labor and then says, “Do Moms REALLY have the most difficult job on the planet? Bending at the waist to put those DVDs in DVD trays?”
So when I plop in a heap on the couch at the end of the day, my brother will tease me, “Exhausted from putting DVDs in DVD trays?” I usually remind him of the time when he babysat just one of my kids for five hours and then needed three days to recover.
But we laugh because it really is funny. Motherhood doesn’t look that hard! So you fed some kids snacks, you wiped a butt, you swept a floor, you put a bandaid on, you answered a thousand questions about Star Wars. None of it alone seems terribly difficult. But this gig is nuts.
While I believe that the family is where many of us are called to practice God’s generous love and is where we learn to give of ourselves til it hurts, I think something twisted is happening to many modern moms. The expectations have changed and the support has evaporated.
The longer I’m a mom and the more women I know who are struggling through this journey, the more convinced I am that something is seriously broken. No one claims motherhood is ever easy, but should so many moms be suffering from anxiety attacks and depression?
And where is this shift in expectations coming from? The factors are many, but I think being plugged in 24/7 is one of the culprits. Instead of comparing myself to the moms in my neighborhood, I get to compare myself to every family on the internet–people I would have never known existed!
And the internet always knows more than you, or at least it wants you to think it does. If you’d asked me, as a first time mom, how to get a baby to sleep through the night I would have had an answer ready. I would have had suggestions, nay principles about babies sleeping through the night that I was desperately devoted clinging to. I would have tried to convince you there was one way to do it and that any other methods were terrible parenting. Why? Because I was terrified about my new role of mother and I needed to be right, or else my insecurities would have crushed me. I wasn’t confident from clocking enough hours in this motherhood gig or worn down by my kids yet until I really don’t care where the baby sleeps as long as she sleeps, or whether I use a wrap or a stroller as long as I get to leave the house every few weeks.
While most moms grow out of their insecurities and loosen up, the internet seems to be perpetually in the stage of the terrified mother–the one who hasn’t figured out what she’s doing yet and needs to believe she’s not failing. There’s always more articles ready to screech at you and guilt-trip you. Then the internet adds that artisan baking, toddler hairstyle couture, and enrolling your preschooler in STEM classes are moral obligations of parenthood. You get to hear from everyone in the world who wants you to know you’re doing it wrong and then see everything on Pinterest showcasing how they’re doing it right.
No wonder family sizes are shrinking and people wait so much longer to start a family! Instead of being a natural season of life that’s supported by your community, having a child is embarking into a land full of judgement and insane expectations with very little community to speak of.
In a stage of life when women desperately need support and community, American moms get the mommy wars of ugly competition, cliques, and criticism. Go back to work and you’re vilified. Stay home and you’re told you’re wasting your life. Or get torn apart on social media for just going out to dinner with your husband without the baby.
Then there’s the matter of the overwhelming expectations for pregnant and nursing moms. While baby stage is only going to last for a few short years with one or two kids, if you want a larger family, it can feel like you’re never out of the baby stage. Breastfeeding in public?! Nobody wants to see THAT, we’re told. But for those of us who are breastfeeding year after year, we’re not supposed to go anywhere for a decade or two without being judged for…wait for it…FEEDING OUR KIDS? It’s just insanity.
And then there’s the guilt of taking care of ourselves. We’re faced with the pressures of getting back to our pre-baby bodies immediately, staying fit, and continuing self-development while simultaneously being told it’s selfish to do things just for us. You’re supposed to be pouring ourselves out on our families, not selfishly working out at the gym!, we’re told. Think of the children pining for you at home while you do your cardio, you monster.
For most of us (including me) it’s not until things start breaking down that we really take self-care seriously. I had my first anxiety attack a couple of years ago and couldn’t figure out where the anxiety was coming from. What do I have to feel anxious about? I have healthy kids and a happy marriage! No complaints! I don’t THINK I’m unhappy or worried. Then my autoimmune issues all started flaring up again, too. What is happening to me? I’m not even 30 and I’m falling apart! So I took stock of my days.
I was getting up at the crack of dawn to get writing and blogging work done–partly because I love it but partly because it helped pay our grocery bill. Then rushing around feeding three kids, changing diapers, homeschooling. Grocery store, library, ballet, karate, playdates. After lunch I’d frantically try to get everyone down for a nap so I could answer emails and get more work done before dinner prep. Dinner, bedtime, crash. No minutes for just relaxing. No minutes for me. Who else works from 5:00am-9:30pm with no breaks? Moms!
But I still didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I think when two-income family emerged expectations about motherhood shifted, all the moms ended up with too much on their plates. You go to work all day AND do the housework, AND cook the meals AND volunteer at school AND maintain friendships, marriage, etc. It’s too much for one person! When I was working full-time when my oldest was a baby, I could barely function. Baby awake all night, working all day, and then there’s laundry to do when I get home? Dinner has to get made? When do I deposit checks or go to the dentist? There is NO TIME.
And staying home has it’s own unreasonable expectations. If you get to stay home you should have time to do all the things. But you don’t have any more hours in the day than your mother or grandmother did. You can be wiped out by noon because it’s been the mom show non-stop since one of the kids woke up at 4am! You’re home during the day so as soon as you pick up one room, the kids have destroyed another. Showers? What are those? And how long has it been since you saw another human over the age of 7?
The neighborhood moms don’t all hang out together and talk over coffee while the kids play in the yard. The community that mothers have always had to mentor, support, and encourage them has evaporated. We’re alone all day with no adult interaction. It’s not normal! We’re exhausted physically AND mentally. And no matter what our day looks like, we’re beating ourselves up that we didn’t do more. Clean more. Read more. Engage more. Go out more.
I have a shocking claim to make, moms. Maybe we are not super heroes. Maybe we are not robots. Maybe just maybe we are human women who need good food, exercise, occasional silence, friendship, a night out, a creative outlet, help with the housework, and to finish JUST ONE cup of coffee before it gets cold in order to feel like thriving human beings.
We cannot spend the last minutes before that precious soon-to-be-interrupted sleep at night telling ourselves we didn’t do enough when what is really true is that technically we could have done but it would have killed us. Our kids will always want MORE of us. Our house always could be cleaner. The work email inbox refills as quickly as we empty it. But are we so overwhelmed with what’s on our plates that we are no longer the mothers, the women we want to be?
I’m not saying we should all hire Mary Poppins, check out, and neglect our families. Although sometimes I think what I need to make mothering easier is the entire household staff of Downton Abbey. I’m not saying we should forget that this motherhood thing is a spiritual practice of generous love. It’s about self-giving, that’s just the nature of it and it’s beautiful, transformative, and redemptive. But we are running ourselves into the ground until we have nothing left to even give our families?
Let’s be kind to ourselves, moms. Let’s be gentle in our expectations. Let’s admit that we need to treat ourselves like human beings who deserve to thrive. Let’s get more sleep and unplug. Let’s find a community of moms who encourage and inspire us–be it in our neighborhood or inside our laptop. The village has disappeared, so it’s up to us to rebuild it. And it is possible, I’ve seen it happen–little pockets of women who are choosing to make life easier and more beautiful for each other.
Let’s do all of this and watch the joy of motherhood come back into our lives.