The “Shoulds” of Motherhood

There is a reoccurring theme that I see in articles about motherhood that always makes me cringe. Many of them say something to this effect:

Motherhood is the most fulfilling, enthralling, special, exciting, wonderful thing you will ever do. Sacrifice everything about you, because nothing is as important as bringing up your children. Be an example of a mother who loves her kids in a world of people who see children as irrelevant worthless inconveniences.

I used to believe this line of reasoning. In many ways its true. Being a parent will change your world and sometimes it is enthralling and fulfilling, even exciting. But sometimes it’s not. And when it wasn’t, I felt incredibly ashamed. Over the short time I’ve been a parent I’ve begun to realize that while parenthood is an amazing part of your life, it is not everything.

First off, what about people who never become parents because of either choice or circumstance, are they never fulfilled? Is nothing they do as important as people who do have children? Also, I have never seen an article like this written for dads. Many of them will say that being a father is a wonderful amazing opportunity, and that good dads should spend time with their kids. But none of them seem to have the all-encompassing guilt-tripping language that the writing for mothers does. I haven’t ever seen article saying that a father should be completely fulfilled by only the parenting aspects of their life. I’ve never seen an article that says that fathers should sacrifice everything about themselves for their children, or they aren’t good fathers. Why the intense pressure on mothers?

There seems to be an incredible amount of “shoulds” attached to being a mother, but does the real day to day really feel like that? As time has gone on I’ve found that parenthood doesn’t always fit those shoulds, but I’ve also found that I don’t have to be ashamed of that. It’s OK to feel that parenthood is fulfilling, enthralling, special and wonderful. And it’s OK to feel that sometimes it isn’t.

I have had moments when I cuddle with my nursing baby and feel sleepily at peace, as if nothing could ruin this moment. I’ve marveled at how my body is so uniquely capable of producing such amazing nourishment, everything my baby needs to survive and thrive. I have been thankful that I can feed my baby anywhere anytime, because the means to feed them are literally attached to my body.

I have also cried from the pain when my milk lets down again into my already engorged breasts. I have fought the urge to scream when my baby demands to nurse for what seems like the millionth time that day (or night). I have gotten mastitis and been bedridden with fever and pain. I have wanted to pull my hair out when my toddler still preferred me over solid food, and still woke up at night to nurse.

And all of that is OK.

I have had moments when I rock my baby in the middle of the night and I want it to last forever. I breath in their smell, my nose buried in their sweaty curls, their hand clutching my shirt. My heart catches when I think of them ever growing up, I want them to stay this way forever.

I have also had moments when I stagger out of my bed sobbing because the baby is awake and screaming again. When I pace the living room in delirium hoping against hope that sleep will come for this child again. I’ve had mornings where I wake up after a night that was anything but restfull and I wonder if I will ever know what a full nights sleep feels like again.

And all of that is OK.

I’ve had times where I know exactly what to say to a tantruming toddler or I am thrilled by how strong the connection between me and my child is. I’ve had moments where everything I’ve studied about gentle discipline makes perfect sense, and moments where people exclaim over how well –behaved my children are.

I’ve also had times where I storm into my room and slam the door so I can scream into a pillow because I am sick of dealing with a demanding pre-schooler, times where I fall into bed at night and feel like I was not present enough or patient enough. I’ve had moments where I have no idea how to deal with a behavior problem, and moments where people scramble out of our way at the store and say things like “you have your hands full” over my child’s screaming.

And that is OK too, because I’ve come to realize that I DO have my hands full, parenting is hard work, this job is no picnic.

I’ve had times where I feel on top of the world. Where I cannot imagine a single thing I would rather be doing than being a parent, or a single place I would rather be then here with my children.

I’ve also had times where I would give anything to just have a break from it all. And days where I cry after they are all in bed and wonder if I am going to fail my kids despite my best efforts.

And none of that means that I am a bad person or a bad parent who doesn’t love my kids. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be a parent or that I am making children look like irrelevant worthless inconveniences.

Why do there seem to be so many of these types of articles out there, glorifying motherhood with misleading idealization, and causing shame among parents who just don’t feel fulfilled and exhilarated all the time, or even most of the time. I worry that all these articles do is make parenting harder than it already is, because they make parents feel like they will never be good enough, when most of the time, they already are good parents. Parents who sacrifice, parents who are caring and compassionate and involved. Parents who are gentle and try to be there for their children. Why can’t there be more articles saying “you are not alone”, “the kids will be OK”, “all parents are exhausted”. Why aren’t the articles offering good practical advice (instead of guilt-tripping perfectionism) the ones that get linked a million times on Pinterest?

Every person is amazing and has the potential to live a fulfilling wonderful life, whether they are a parent or not, whether they are happy every moment or not, whether they see having children as exhilarating or exhausting. The idea that to be a good mother you must sacrifice everything about yourself is a myth. You are valuable too. You deserve care too. You have interests and ideas and gifts and talents. You have so much to offer the world and your children, and that doesn’t involve giving up everything that makes you you.

Life is amazing and wonderful, and it is exhausting and terrifying.

When has your experience of life not fit the “shoulds”?

Rather Dead Than Queer
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  • Anonymous

    Yay I'm the first to comment! Good post! I still struggle with guilt like this when I think about maybe I dont want to have kids ever…

  • Liz M

    Well, I'm a 33 year old who went back to school to get a PhD and I don't have kids. I could see having them, but my husband never wants to. He's quite religious (Orthodox Christian) and part of his worldview entails feeling like if we do bring children into our home, he'd like them to be foster children. Some days, my feelings on the subject are really complicated… but publicly I maintain that I don't want kids in the slightest, because it's easier to present a firm position on the subject than a muddled and confused one.

    I think if I really did have kids though I'd be awfully resentful of them, as I am a total workaholic and my dogs even take away from work I wish I was doing.

    And it's not as though remaining childfree is an anomaly in my family. Out of 6 aunts/uncles only 2 had kids.

  • Karen

    Good heavens, even I, childless/childfree at 52, do not see children as irrelevant worthless inconveniences. They can be very interesting people in their own right, if one takes the time to really *listen* to them. I have no children because I've battled depression most of my life; even being treated, I always feel as though I'm living on the edge and a child would push me over it. That's not a responsible state of mind with which to take up parenting.

    Husband has never been all that keen on parenting, either.

    So I have cats…

  • elbereth32

    Thank you. Yes to all of it. In abstract, I agree with all the wonderful things of motherhood. In reality, it's a bit more complicated. Close family gave me the idea that "Hey, this is how I raised my kids. You need to do it this way, too." So I did. It was nuts. My kids were not their kids, my problems weren't theirs. One of the things that saved me was finding moms who told me that life can be crazy, every family is different and that's ok. The other was my husband insisting I take breaks and have interests outside of our family, even though I fought him on it for the longest time. He also gave me the space to say "I've had a hell of a day. Can you take over so I can have a bath?". I look back on the times I tried to keep it all together on my own and realize how foolish I was not to ask for help. Some people can do it all, but I'm not one of them and that's ok, too. Four energizer bunny kids can run circles around you, but I wouldn't trade them for anything. In the end, there's more laughs than tears and I'm happy to live with that.

  • Cassidy

    After a rather tough day, I needed this reminder. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

  • Anonymous

    I am reminded, as I read this, how much I struggled as a young single mom raising two kids, with no help, (divorced from abusive spouse when kids were tiny) and how I resented it a bit when my father told me, gently, that my kids WERE my responsibility (main one) when I shared one day with him that I felt there was something more out there I was supposed to be doing. And here he had only earned the income when I was growing up, my stay at home mom did the rest. So what did HE know about raising and earning the income for a family…with no help (because I did it all as a single person). I wanted to remarry and have help but never found 'the right one'.

    So, I totally applaud your post!!! I needed to read it 30 years ago!

  • rollforpainting

    such a lovely post. as a guilt-ridden mother it brightened up my morning and made me feel more at peace :)
    Thank you :)

  • November

    Very good points. There is an incredible amount of pressure put on mothers (as you said, not so much on fathers). When I am feeling the 'shoulds' pushing in on my world I try to remember that really our whole job with our kids is to make them independent from us. The whole point is to make it so they don't need you, and in 18 years or so these little people we care for will be other people making their way in the world. Somehow this give me a little more perspective, remembering that my kids are just regular people who I happen to be raising. Granted, guiding them through these initial stages can often be quite trying, but ultimately they will have to make their own choices in life.

    Another thing that I try to remember is that I am my parents' kid. This may sound weird, but it really helps. My parents raised me, for which I am grateful, but now I am totally separate from them and their work with me is essentially finished. I am a finished kid so to speak! And most of the time I think I do alright at life even though I know my parents were not always perfect parents. The same will be true for my kids.

  • Becca

    Great article! I agree about the different tone of a lot of what people say to mothers, compared to fathers. A lot of people will use the phrase "full-time mother" to mean "a mother who is not employed outside the home", but I have never heard anyone call a father, no matter how much his job separates him from his kids, a "part-time father"! I sense a lot more pressure on mothers than fathers, although in other areas of life there's more pressure on men than women.

    Sometimes I think the main task of my adult life is getting over the "shoulds"! For me it's not so much about parenting (though I do feel them there sometimes) as about my appearance and housekeeping. I grew up in a smallish town with one main employer, not much diversity, and a sort of overall vibe of, "There is one right way to be, and if you aren't, you're inferior and everyone will talk about it." My family and I never fit in so well, and although I loved myself and loved my family and appreciated the sanctuary of non-normativity that was our home, I was crippled with anxiety over feeling judged–what if they were right about my being wrong and bad? It's been almost 21 years since I left for college. First I got over the idea that I "should" wear make-up and a bra whenever I went outdoors. Slowly I got over the feeling that I was being watched all the time. I am still working through the idea that "everyone" judges me–not the other members of the family, just me, as a BAD WOMAN–for every bit of my home that does not look like a hotel or Sears-catalog diorama. It's hard! Those "shoulds" are strong! But getting over them is very freeing.

  • Lara

    I just posted this on my blog:

    This post about motherhood makes me feel freedom from burden. It makes me feel peaceful. It makes me want to engage with my kids instead of run away from the whole endeavor of motherhood. This is the kindness i need to continue a calling that is very very difficult for me.

    Thank you Melissa.

    Here's the link to my blog if you're interested:

  • Mrs. Searching

    After a recent episode with my 5-year-old in the Target where he refused to leave, and another mom offered to push my stroller for me while I carried him screaming through the parking lot, *deep breath* this post is very encouraging. As I struggled to keep him in the car while he sobbed "Let go of me! Get away from me!" and I was sure the police would show up any second to stop the abduction, she assured me that every mom goes through it sooner or later. I do find that hard to believe. But she convinced me that at least enough of them go through it that I needn't feel like a colossal failure.

  • Rosa

    There is a special little corner of the internet (and in a lot of real life mommy venues) for the moms who try to let go of the shoulds. A lot of these women seem to embrace the label Bad Mom as a kind of gallows humor joke – we're doing the best we can, and there's no way to achieve Official Good Momhood, so screw it. There's another group who are feminists actively taking apart the shoulds without wearing the Bad Mom badge, too. If you go to the park and there's a mom napping on a table while her baby eats sand.

    I don't understand quite why the smug judgemental parenting talk gets such a big share of bandwidth – maybe because the culture is so interested in convincing people have more kids? Maybe because we're afraid of being vulnerable? It's not just from religious folks, by a long shot, it comes from all directions.

    I don't know if you read this blog but Bluemilk has two awesome posts on this, one about the discourse and one just a story that's awful and hilarious and reassuring at the same time:

  • Liberated Liberal

    Thank you so much for this. I am childless (and not married) by choice – I have never wanted children, mainly because I grew up witnessing so many unwanted/resented/abused/neglected children and realized that if I were to ever want a child, I would adopt one in need. I have yet been ready for that, though, and I'm at peace with never being so.

    However, I am consistently invalidated and almost abused by parents (mostly mothers) who call me selfish, entitled, a child hater (so not true) and many, many other names. Fathers? They usually react positively to my childless life! They say "never have children!" or "awesome!" Yes, mothers assume (or want to claim) that those of us without children have pointless lives, that we will never know happiness, fulfillment or satisfaction. However, as I said before, I know so many mothers who are MISERABLE! Ones who've happily given up their kids, abused their kids, resented them openly, even telling their children they regret having them, etc. Even these women will dare to tell me that I have no right to not have a child. A few months ago I met with an acquaintance of mine who gave up her kids to her ex-husband, because she claimed that children after three years old don't need "mommy time" anymore, that the only influence they need is their father; she then turned around and told me that my clock was ticking and I'd better hurry and have children. When I insisted I didn't want any yet, she said it was better to have them and regret it than not to have them and regret it!! :o. Scary.

    My mother has openly admitted that we children were distractions for her horrible relationship and directionless life. She said she was so busy with us that she "forgot" her problems… except she didn't. They are still there and we children inherited every single one of them. My parents' relationship is horrible and now that we're out of the house, they are going insane. My mother has no point to life except mothering us and she refuses to get involved in ANYTHING in case we might need her. She insists that I, too, need a child to "fix" my life.

    This culture is so dysfunctional. You are an amazingly insightful, open-minded and accepting woman. It just felt nice to hear a mother such as yourself openly accept we childless heathens :D.

  • saraquill

    Many years ago on Mother's Day, PBS ran a special profiling different mothers and their circumstances. In between the segments were quotes. My favorite was from Roseanne Barr, who said "If the kids are still alive by the end of the day, I've done my job."

  • Diane

    As someone who has had to recently come to terms with the fact that she should never have children, reading this was a balm for my soul. Thank-you for putting voice to what I've slowly come to realize on my own.

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