Sex & Relationships

What’s Harder Than Being a Mom? Dealing With the All the Cultural Baggage That Comes With It

When my son was born, I co-slept, used cloth diapers and made my own baby food. I did it out of love, but I also did it out of fear

Obsession with Motherhood: Mother holding a briefcase and pushing a red stroller-inline

(Photograph: Getty Images)

When I was pregnant, one of the things people loved to tell me (along with horror stories about childbirth), was how unprepared I was for the reality of parenthood.

“You have no idea what’s it’s like,” they’d chuckle smugly. “You think you’re ready, but just wait.”

They were right, of course. In spite of all the books I’d read (at least a dozen, including three specifically about breastfeeding, because apparently I thought breastfeeding was a thing you could learn from books), I was not ready. No one is ever ready for the extreme learning curve of figuring out how to care for a tiny, fragile human while simultaneously getting by on two hours of sleep per night. It’s like slapping a pair of rollers skates on someone, blindfolding them, then pushing them down a hill while shouting “Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of it soon!”

Lots of things felt overwhelmingly difficult in the months after my son’s birth. Recovering from major abdominal surgery while caring for a newborn was difficult. Being chronically sleep deprived was difficult. Breastfeeding was really, really difficult—thanks for nothing, books! But out of all the the things I had to adapt to in my new life as a parent, the transition from being myself into being a mother—and accepting all the cultural baggage that comes along with that title—was by far the most challenging.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with motherhood and, like many obsessions, this one veers between idolizing and denigrating its subject. Little girls grow up with the myth that being a mother is greatest feat they can achieve; they’re taught to feed, soothe and change the diapers on their baby dolls before they’ve even outgrown diapers themselves. As they grow up, they’ll notice pregnant celebrities proudly displaying their “baby bumps” on the covers of magazines; a few months later, those same celebrities will appear in those same magazines, perfectly coiffed and airbrushed to pre-baby slimness, smiling down at their child with all the radiance of a Renaissance madonna. When these girls hit their twenties, they’ll field constant questions about whether they’re going to have children—far, far more questions than they will ever be asked about their careers or their hobbies or their interests related to literally anything that’s not baby-related. As they hit their thirties, those questions will be accompanied by awkward jokes about ticking clocks. They will spend their entire lives hearing about the valour of motherhood, the nobleness of its sacrifices, its near-magical ability to fulfill a woman’s deepest desires.

Even as gender roles loosen and women are experiencing increasing choice and freedom in many different spheres, it feels like societal expectations on mothers are only growing stricter and more exacting. When my grandmothers were having kids, things like formula, disposable diapers and jarred baby food were seen as tools of liberation, allowing women to return to work more easily and reducing the amount of manual labour they had to do at home. But I became a mother in the Age of Attachment Parenting, a time when parenting techniques and tools from the mid-20th century are seen as not just outdated but dangerous and traumatic to children. In 1953, pediatrician Dr. Donald Winnicott wrote about the Good Enough Mother, a mother whose failure to exactly attune herself to her child’s needs helps them develop autonomy. In 2018, there is only The Best Mother, an impossible standard none of us can meet.

I approached motherhood with all the enthusiasm of a religious convert, with Dr Sears’s parenting books as my bibles. I tried (and failed) to have a natural birth because I knew any medical intervention increased the risk of adverse outcomes for babies. I breastfed because I thought breast was best (and because after my C-section, I was bound and determined that my body was going to do something right). I cloth-diapered because it was better for the environment. I used baby carriers instead of strollers because I wanted my son to develop a secure attachment to me. I co-slept. I made my own baby food. If someone had told me that standing on my head for five minutes a day would make me a better mother, I probably would have done that too.

I did all of these things out of love, of course, but I also did them out of fear. The flip side of the idea that there is One Right Way to be a mother is, of course, that every other way is the wrong way. And everything around me—the clickbait parenting articles my friends shared on Facebook, the hive-minded online mommy communities, the strangers who loved to randomly offer me unsolicited advice on the street, at the park, at the baby song-circle—had convinced me that I was always one slip-up away from ruining my son’s life. When I say that I lost myself in motherhood, that’s not an exaggeration; I literally didn’t feel like my own person anymore, just a vessel for my child. How can you feel like yourself when you spend every waking moment anticipating or filling someone else’s needs?

It’s not that I feel like any of the tenets of attachment parenting are bad, exactly; I certainly don’t regret breastfeeding or cloth-diapering or making baby food. But all of these things involve a more time and labour than their store-bought counterparts, and that labour is expected to come almost exclusively from mothers. This cycle is perpetuated through social media, where mothers upload edited versions of their lives that make this kind of intensive parenting look fun and hassle-free (while also contributing to the idea that parenting is not a private activity, but rather one that exists for public consumption and criticism). Admitting that motherhood is sometimes challenging and unfulfilling is not allowed; to do so is tantamount to saying that you don’t love your child.

Seven years into this parenting gig, sometimes motherhood still feels like a no-win situation. The other day a woman scolded me at the park for being on my phone while my kid was happily playing on the climbing structure. She concluded by saying, “When he’s a teenager, you’ll regret all the time you didn’t spend with him.” I hear this sentiment frequently—“you’ll miss this, someday!”—as if there is no greater satisfaction in life than watching your kid zoom down the slide for the eighth time in a row. At the same time, I see endless fear-mongering about so-called helicopter parents, whose over-attentiveness is apparently creating a generation of entitled children who can’t do anything for themselves. It’s impossible to navigate a world that calls mothers selfish and neglectful for spending 10 minutes on Facebook at the park, but also castigates them for being “helicopters” who have over-parented their children. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

I continue to struggle with wanting to be a super-mom. As ridiculous as it sounds (and I know it sounds very ridiculous), every parenting choice I make is accompanied by the thought, Is this what he’ll bring up 20 years from now in therapy when he’s describing how impossible I am? I know I can’t be perfect and yet I want so badly to be perfect, both for my own self satisfaction and because I want my kid to be happy. But I also know that the healthiest thing I can model for him is to be my very own self: a loving and flawed mother, like any other mother. Someday, I hope, he’ll know that I was Good Enough.

More from Anne Thériault:
I’m Tired of the ‘It Was All Worth It” Pregnancy Narrative
Treating My Depression with Magnets: Not Cured, But Cautiously Optimistic
I Have More Empathy for Wild Wild Country’s Ma Anand Sheela than I Probably Should