A Long Overdue Attack on the Worship of Motherhood

We need to feel important sometimes. I get it. Feeling great about being ME! counts as one of the basic needs on that whole Maslow hierarchy thing that I didn’t pay attention to in Psych 101. It was right below Food and just above Scratching Where It Itches. Or the other way ’round.

This primordial drive manifests in myriad ways in today’s modern context. You’ve got your classics. The career-driven go-getter. The person sitting next to you who talks six of the seven hours of your non-stop Honolulu to Denver redeye about her job, her vacay in Kaua’i, recent dental exams, groceries, etc. and never once makes eye contact or asks you a question that she expects an answer to. And then there’s my personal favorite: the one-upper. He’s the guy who’s never impressed by your stories but always expects you to be suitably animated about his. “Wait, wait, this is even better….”

None of that’s news, generationally speaking. We’ve always had these folks around us — hell, we’ve all been these people at least once — and I think they’ll continue to avoid the endangered list.

By contrast, I’ve noticed the slow creep of a waxing cultural crescendo. It was conceived in the womb of Women’s Lib, way back in the day, entered its toddlerhood in the backlash against the roaring 80s and Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, and it’s now awkwardly gangling into the preteen years. It blights our schools, befouls our suburbs, and infects Facebook with smarmy ecards and faux woe-to-me humblebrags.

You know of what I write. It’s the nemesis of the lazy afternoon and the slayer of general contentedness, the bane of all that is good and holy about being in the treasured demographic of 35-55 year olds with $5000 or more in disposable income: Motherhood.

Well, not motherhood per se. Rather, it is the worship of the trials and tribulations of motherhood, the deification of this most ancient and basic act of species-preservation. In particular, it is the apotheosis of the struggle of motherhood that concerns me here.

Some time in the last fifteen years everyone has bought into the cultural creed that admits — nay, proclaims! — freely and without reservation, that motherhood is the hardest job in the world. More than that, we seem even to enjoy fixating on and relishing the difficulty that accompanies the most visible and long-term consequences of sex.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Being a mother is hard. (So, is, not-so-incidentally, being a father. A good one, anyway.) And it’s perhaps the most important job in the world. But it is not the hardest job in the world.

Being a coal miner is a hard job. Accompanying Lewis and Clark on an expedition is a hard job. I was in Mexico not so long ago, and there was a bent-backed septuagenarian woman who cleaned nasty toilets at a working man’s marina everyday. That was a hard job.

After giving birth (which is so hard it does not even look possible), you have two jobs as a mom, or as a parent, really. One: Keep your kid alive. Two: Love your kid. (Chris Rock put it differently, but the idea is the same. Warning: NSFW.)

Task One is doomed to failure. One hundred percent of parents cannot accomplish this for long enough. One hopes to be lucky and see one’s children grow into old age, and you do what you can to mitigate unnecessary risks. But ultimately, every parent fails this sisyphean task. Failure here is not hard to accomplish; it is inhumanly hard to endure. Above all, though, it is inevitable.

Task Two can be achieved by anyone, with varying results and quality. Though anyone can do it, it is on this task that we so often fail, and for no good reason. I think we fail on this task because we have a generally terrible and incomplete understanding of what it means to love.

As readers of this blog know, I gave up my faith in god some time ago. Nevertheless, I remain grateful for some of the moral training I received via the Church. At the top of the list of moral insights is this:

Your life is not about you.

The attitude embodied in the “last shall be first and first shall be last” maxim of Christian faith represents perhaps the most valuable and least understood keys to happiness. The whole point of life is to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures.

And the way to maximize your own wellbeing is to forget about doing so and to focus on maximizing someone else’s.

Being a mother presents a prime opportunity for doing the latter. Of course, “maximizing wellbeing” creates a constant conflict between our present and future selves. We sometimes have to give up happiness now for more later. Or vice versa.

This isn’t just high falutin’ philosophy talk. It translates into real world applications.

When your daughter cries and whines and begs after you denied her a piece of candy, you have to decide. Do you give it to her anyway? That would increase your immediate happiness and perhaps hers. But you may be giving up some measure of future happiness for both of you as well. Leaving aside the health consequences, your daughter will be more likely to cry and whine and beg in the future in order to get her way, which begets misery for all in the vicinity, including that selfsame child.

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A great mom.

In such circumstances, in the heat of the moment, when you’re tired or cranky or distracted, I grant you that it is hard to always know what to do and how to act. It is difficult to know how to love in every circumstance. And what do I mean by “love”? I mean that it is hard to know how to give of your life so that someone else may have a happier one. This act of sacrifice, I argue, is no sacrifice at all. It is the surest path to our own happiness.

But the context of motherhood does not make the task any harder than it usually is. Indeed, it makes it easier. Consider: Would you rather focus on increasing the happiness of, say, a co-worker or the precious child you live with? From which of these do you receive the most love in return?

Let’s not forget that some moms have it pretty easy. They’ve got easy kids, easy lives, healthy relationships. Yes, this is possible, and we need not pretend that it isn’t.

Of course, some moms have it unimaginably hard. They may live in poverty, in squalor, in slavery, or in an abusive relationship, religion, or state. These are not features of motherhood, however. They are features of difficult life circumstances that exacerbate the challenging task of being a good mother.

Women who must endure the worst that life has to offer while also trying to raise good children deserve our utmost respect and admiration. To pretend that the suburban mom whose family has a steady income and a comfortable life and psychologically and physically average kids has struggles on par with the most difficult jobs out there is to demean the plight of those who don’t.

So how about we do this: Let’s talk about motherhood soberly. We can recognize its challenges while also acknowledging that some women have it pretty easy. Let’s be honest about our own situations and let’s not focus on the ME! factor. No one-upping, no faux suffering, no fabricated drama. The real suffering and drama will suffice.

Being a mom can be hard. Being a good, honest, healthy person — mother or not — is harder. Let’s strive for that.

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