On Mothering

I have dedicated this piece to mothering as a specific category of parenting.  Parenting is an inclusive word and I like it very much.  It’s helpful when I am speaking to people who don’t divide neatly into “mom and dad” sorts of paradigms.  For instance, transgendered parents and same gendered parents use the word parenting to good ends.  It separates the role of parent from the gender of the person and can eliminate a sense of “this doesn’t fit”, were such folks restricted to mom and dad as their options.

However, I’m using the term mothering here because I want to gender it. I want to talk about the experience of mothering from the perspective of a female gendered person or a person inhabiting the role of a female gendered person. I don’t want to idealize it. I want to complicate it.  I want to give it its full due.

It’s hard to figure out how to say what I’d like to say.  Mothering is the most profound, grounding, growth inducing journey I have ever embarked on. It is necessary.  It is to be honoured. 

It is also the most limiting, disempowering, resource sucking, emotionally dangerous journey I have ever embarked on.

How can I reconcile this? Does it matter?

There are some givens I’m working with, some things that, in another forum, I’d  passionately deconstruct and critique.  I haven’t the space to do that here.  I will therefore state the givens, so you know what I mean.

It is a given that women are culturally expected, and in some cases mandated, to be the primary caregivers to babies and young children. It is a given that affordable, reliable, quality child care is not universally available or accessible.  It is therefore a given, that many, many, many women, whether professional, blue collar or pink collar have to interrupt their participation in the work force to take care of children. It is a given that interrupting participation in the workforce creates economic and social disadvantages for women that, in many cases, can never be regained.

That’s some harsh truth. Most unfortunately, it is a harsh truth that many of us are either not aware of or consciously ignore as we embark on the mothering path. Our cultural narrative says that we can do anything, be anything, accomplish anything we want.  Another chapter of that narrative goes on to be profoundly puzzled about the lack of participation of women in higher echelon jobs (board rooms, law and accounting partnerships, heads of state etc.), or generally higher paying jobs (consulting, commissioned sales work that isn’t retail, trades etc.).

It’s not just discrimination based on gender.  It’s structural barriers.  It’s things like, “I took five years off to be a good mom and now I’m out of date” and “I can’t work a 70 hour work week because I have to pick them up from daycare every day” and “I can’t travel because I don’t have consistent reliable overnight child care”.

What has this to do with therapy? Okay, I admit it. I went off on a little rant there, a little passionate deconstruction.  I’ll leave that task unfinished and get back to my point.

Sometimes, feeling better about our situation results from understanding the full nature of the reality of what has happened and why.  We are then acutely aware of both how it all happened and our choices going forward.  We can weigh our choices and focus on what is really important, acknowledging that because of all the social/structural/cultural constraints I ranted about just now, our choices may be limited. I rant about why they are limited but, when I work with my clients, I need to focus on the post-rant, where the rubber hits the road.

What does the average stressed out, depressed, bewildered-at-how-this-happened-to-me mom need to know?  What does she need to do?

First of all, motherhood is a necessary, honourable, skilled, contribution to the world, the economy, the social fabric, the future, the present and the past.  When we don’t honour ourselves, others have trouble seeing what we are worth.  Do not undervalue your role!

Second, if you feel like someone stole your brain, body and soul, you are probably correct.  However, there is some hope to take at least a portion of those things back.  It takes work.  You will need to find or create your own networks of support.  You may need to demand things of a partner that he or she didn’t expect.  Children are, by their nature, selfish beings.  It’s a survival skill.  However, that does not mean your needs as a person are no longer relevant. Your wellbeing is important, not selfish!

Third, be proactive. Plan to reengage in the world. If you are not going back to a career, plan for other kinds of reengagement.  Volunteer. Take up a cause you are passionate about. Organize support for moms in your neighbourhood. Anything that makes you think, plan or achieve something beyond what may have become a very small world, is good. You have a future as a human after your mothering role diminishes, plan for it!

There is a fourth point.  It’s touchy and not in a touchy feely way, more like a please-refrain-from-identifying-this-horrible-reality way.  I think I have to make this point because I see the consequences of not paying attention to it every darn week.

Don’t become completely dependent on your partner, socially or financially. There are two reasons for this.  First of all, relationships are healthier when both parties have strong connections and resources other than their primary partner.  It’s better for the relationship and so it’s better for you and your children too. The second reason is the tough one.  While parenting is much easier when there is another parent, single mothering happens to nearly half of us.  And while that doesn’t mean that the other parent always up and disappears, you, the person who sacrificed her career, social and professional contacts, will be expected to reengage with the world whether you are ready or not. Even if you’ve never had a career, if you maintained your social and familial supports, you will have a leg up on getting back out there and starting one.

If all this has turned you off mothering, well, that’s understandable.  Mothering isn’t actually an imperative we all have to follow (see my previous post).  However, those of us who do engage in that adventure rarely regret it.  It’s my hope that more of us engage in an eyes open sort of way, having in mind points similar to the above.  I think they can be summarized like this:

  1. Be Proud of Yourself
  2. Take Care of Yourself
  3. Plan for Yourself
  4. Don’t Abandon Yourself

Wow, that sounds like advice I’d give to my children.  Mommy’s wisdom. That’s good stuff.