I guess it’s become a tradition for me to write a kind of rant for Mother’s Day. Here’s this year’s tirade.
A few months ago, I saw this viral mom essay that made me sick. A new mom named Jensy goes on about how while she was pregnant people kept telling her she was going to be miserable when the baby arrived, but really they should have warned her instead about how happy she’d be. Everything went perfectly for her, and she should have been warned that that would happen, because the love and joy she’s currently experiencing is just so overwhelming it’s scary.
Jezebel has done a thorough take-down, and I appreciate that. As Tracy Moore aptly points out, “Absolutely no one is hiding the fact that parenting is great. No one is suppressing that story.” People have baby showers for the sole purpose of telling expecting moms how happy they’re going to be when the baby arrives. The fact that we’re talking about PPD and the difficulties of early parenting now is good because there are women who need to hear those messages. But that life-saving discourse doesn’t begin to drown out the rose-colored messages we also receive about how mothers of babies “must be over the moon” and need to “enjoy every moment.” Jensy seems to have this backwards, and that means she’s fighting on the side of people telling depressed moms everything is wonderful and they just need to cheer up.
But my objections are somewhat different than Moore’s: they’re aesthetic as well. I read this essay and wanted to barf. It’s saccharine. It’s fake. It’s boring. It’s smug. It’s bad writing. There’s a good reason Jensy hadn’t heard any women saying things like this before: because no one wants to read boring saccharine smug fake tripe about motherhood.
She’s mostly just bragging. She can’t resist shooting down all of the naysayers’ warnings one by one: she found breastfeeding easy, she lost the baby weight without trying. Because she is convinced that she is so superior to women who struggled with these problems. I understand feeling proud of yourself, and wanting to celebrate, but when you toot your own horn on the internet in full hearing of people you know are struggling with these issues, you come off as smug and oblivious. My first writing on this blog after giving birth was about straddling this fine line–searching for a way to express gratitude and pride without implying that I somehow ‘earned’ my uncomplicated birth and easy recovery, and therefore women who were less lucky than me ‘deserved’ their emergency C-sections. My conclusion was that the important thing is humility, and Jensy is anything but humble here.
The essay’s other problem is false equivalence. She says she needed to be warned about how happy she’d be. As if being warned about happiness is equivalent to being warned about PPD or breastfeeding or marriage issues. As if a lack of warning about happiness would have the same effect as a lack of warning for any of those other problems.
She makes “They should have warned me…” into a chorus or a framing device as she lists all the good things that have happened to her since her baby’s birth, but in the process the phrase becomes meaningless because she uses it in a way that has no relationship with the way anyone has ever used these words. Jensy ignores the fact that no one uses the word “warning” to talk about advance notice of something good. That’s because everyone knows that it’s worse to be blindsided by misery than by happiness. “Warnings” are for bad things. If you’re going to be surprised–and surprises are inevitable in parenting–a happy surprise doesn’t hurt you the way a nasty one does. This is all so obvious to me, I feel silly writing it out, which makes it amazing to me that Jensy didn’t take any of it into account when she wrote her essay. I think she meant this reversal of reader expectations to catch attention, and if that was the only goal I guess it accomplished that, but in the process she made the entire thing nonsensical and repetitive.
I understand an expectant or new mother being overwhelmed with negative messages and warnings about how hard parenting is. I got those messages too. They’re no fun to hear, and they don’t tell the full story any more than Jensy does. But Jensy seems to be reacting against these messages by going to the opposite extreme, which is just as idiotic. It’s one thing to say that the joy of a new child far outweighs the struggle, but to say that there is no struggle, that nothing about this is hard, that life with a newborn is sunshine and rainbows and that’s it–I call bullshit. When someone says their entire parenting experience is 100% positive or 100% negative, with zero twinge of ambivalence, I don’t believe them. Without that authenticity, a blog like this one becomes mere self-aggrandizement, a thousand times worse than a carefully curated facebook page that makes you look awesome by omitting everything bad. Jensy’s stepping onto a pedestal she built for herself, rubbing her heels in the noses of less fortunate mothers on the way.
I say all this as someone who totally understands the feeling of being in love with a soft, cuddly baby and a hilarious, affectionate toddler. And I have indeed written my share of sentimental, heartfelt stuff about my little boy. In many ways, I’m the intended audience for pieces like this. If it backfired this badly for me, imagine how much worse reading this would be for someone who struggled with real postpartum depression or had trouble bonding with a child.
In fact, becoming the person who would be so over-the-top in love with my child to the exclusion of all else that I would write something like Jensy’s essay was exactly what I was most afraid of when I was pregnant. Becoming one-dimensional the way that Jensy presents herself here, even if happily one-dimensional, seemed like a kind of brainwashing to me. Thankfully, it’s not an inevitable consequence of motherhood, comparable to lost sleep and stretch marks. I don’t even believe that Jensy herself is this one-dimensional. It’s just that she thinks presenting herself this way is somehow edgy and will win her some online followers. Maybe she more than halfway believes her own story. I bet the truth is that there have been some hard moments, but they have been so vastly overshadowed by happy ones that she’s already forgotten them. It’s just a speeded-up effect of what happens to all parents as the newborn days recede into memory (a phenomenon thoroughly discussed in All Joy and No Fun).
That doesn’t mean that this level of boasting is tolerable. Jensy’s oblivious gloats are not victimless. She’s making things harder for other mothers who love their children just as much as she does, but are having a harder time for whatever reason. When she chooses inauthenticity and vanity over honesty and humility, and then publishes her bluster online, Jensy contributes to a culture that says mothers who struggle have only themselves to blame. That culture, more than anything else, is what I wish I’d been warned about.