Internet Roundup: Motherhood, Part 5

Heather Havrilesky wrote a NYT op-ed about motherhood that went viral. It’s one of those things that’s so right I just want to quote it at length. She articulates what’s oppressive about being a mom today and rants about how annoying and off-putting it is when anyone who isn’t her own child calls her ‘mom’ or draws attention to the fact that she’s a mother.

Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.

…at this particular moment in our history, some combination of overzealous parenting, savvy marketing and glorification of hearth and home have coaxed the public into viewing female parents as a strange breed apart from regular people. You might feel like the same person deep inside, but what the world apparently sees is a woman lugging around a giant umbilical cord….

You can love being a mother — and I don’t personally know a woman who doesn’t love it — and still hate being addressed as “Mom” or “Mommy” by someone who isn’t your child. You can love being around other women, or other parents, and sharing your ideas and emotions and experiences, and still not want the whole thing to be wrapped up in a big “Mommy” bow.

The Mommy bow chafes because it’s at once cloying and rife with contradictions…

I’m hesitant to throw myself into any high-maintenance child-related activity too enthusiastically lest I doom myself to becoming a specialist in an unpaid field that might cut into the time I spend on things like, I don’t know, making a living? Staying in shape? Seeing my friends occasionally?

The current culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time….

Somehow, as we’ve learned to treat children as people with desires and rights of their own, we’ve stopped treating ourselves and one another as such. But that’s not hard to understand when the reigning cultural narrative tells us that we are no longer lively, inspired women with our own ideas and emotions so much as facilitators, meant to employ at all times the calm, helpful tones of diplomats.

Of course, when things go viral people respond to it. Here’s a response that I feel kind of misses the point. It dismissively concludes that the pressure Havrilesky describes is just so much “keeping up with the Joneses” on facebook and Pinterest. But I think there’s more to it than that. Moms’ stress comes not from trying to one-up others, but from an unending struggle to feel barely adequate according to self-imposed standards that are unrealistic. It’s the insane expectations that are the problem, not silly competitiveness within moms themselves.

On the other hand, KJ Dell’Antonia has a great response. She zooms out and looks at the place of individual families in our society, concluding that the reason moms feel so much pressure is because they are not supported by our social structures and attitudes. American individualism tells families they’re on their own, and this is not natural for human beings, who have lived in more closely-knit communities until very recently. The responsibility for children used to be more dispersed among all the adults in a community, but now it all falls squarely on the parents, usually mostly on the mother. According to Dell’Antonia, the real problems are:

“The belief, embedded in nearly every element of our society, that families aren’t a national resource, but an individual cost.”

and

“The underlying assumption that I, and millions of other women, have made some kind of adorable lifestyle choice means that no one else need consider the needs of the children who result.”

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