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The Lies We Tell Mothers
Parenthood isn’t supposed to fulfill you
Becoming a mother was one of the most destabilizing times in my life. In part because of how my daughter came into the world, amidst illness and fear, but also because I had bought into the lies that society tells about motherhood.
I believed something was deeply wrong with me because I didn’t immediately feel the all-encompassing love everyone told me I would have for my baby. I thought I was a failure because I was only able to exclusively breastfeed for a short while—and that I was selfish for “giving up”, even though I was physically recovering from a life-threatening disease and in a deep depression. I felt guilty when I traveled for work, sure that I was interrupting precious bonding time.
For mothers, these lies shape our lives and self-perception; what’s worse is that they’re often delivered as cheery platitudes. Breastfeeding and bonding is “natural,” giving birth vaginally and without medication is “what we were built for,” staying home with our children and caring for them 24/7 is the “most important job in the world” (so important that men never seem to want to do it).
One of the most insidious lies about motherhood, though, is one that doesn’t end when you give birth, when your child takes a bottle, or when they head off to school—it’s a myth that follows you, determining the way you live your life and what you teach your children. It’s the lie of fulfillment.
Believing that parenthood will fulfill you—not just your daily life, but your broad goals and happiness—isn’t just a lie that hurts mothers, but children as well. I’ve seen mothers with ambition and purpose oozing out of their ears who, instead of directing that energy out into the public sphere, aim it straight at their children.
No child needs the level of parental involvement that is currently framed as the mainstream best. Your 3 year-old will not remember that you spent hours putting together homemade Valentine’s for their classmates; your 10 year-old doesn’t care if their after-school activities are all ‘enriching’. Most of all, your children will not benefit from being the center of your universe or the source of all your joy—they are individual human beings who do not need that kind of pressure.
Besides, expecting children to fulfill us is an exercise in futility. Yes, they can bring us joy; yes, watching them grow and learn can fill your heart. But telling smart, engaged, interesting women that their most valuable contribution is mothering—and that they will be most satisfied doing unpaid and unappreciated labor—only serves patriarchy and capitalism, not families.
And while parenting is hard work, it’s a relationship, not a job. If it was, it would be illegal. What other kind of job has no pay, no hours off, no sick days, no vacation, and mandates the emotional work of pretending that you're happy and fulfilled all the time? Any one who has raised a kid knows that’s not the reality. There is exhaustion and resentment, boredom and despair.
There is a reason nannies and babysitters do not work for free. In fact, childcare is generally an underpaid profession—one known to be difficult and grinding. If we don’t expect taking care of children to be a joyful and rewarding experience for nannies or sitters, why would we believe it to be one for mothers? Because the children are our own? I promise you that a shitty diaper smells the same no matter who’s wearing it.
You know when parenthood got truly fulfilling for me? When my kid was old enough to go to school. When I had the space to be a person outside of motherhood, and could see my daughter as an incredible, independent individual. She still needs my care and guidance, but she knows that she is not responsible for my fulfillment or happiness. That I am complete without her. And that she will thrive one day without me.
That’s the best gift I can give her: A vision of motherhood that she would be happy to have for herself in the future.
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