By Christine Organ
“What’s your favorite thing about motherhood?” a woman asked me recently while we chatted at a book event. She had read some of my essays on parenting and, since she didn’t have children of her own, was legitimately interested.
It seemed like an easy enough question, but for some reason, I couldn’t come up with an answer. If I had been asked about my least favorite parts of motherhood, I could have rattled off a list. With two sons, at the top would be: lack of alone time, breaking up sibling fights, and the never-ending doubts. But unlike the challenges of motherhood, which tend to be more tangible, I couldn’t easily pinpoint my favorite parts. This scared me. Why couldn’t I describe them in specific terms—or even come up with one favorite thing?
Parenting is a thick stew of joys and hardships, with a bitter tang and a sweet aftertaste. But while the joys are more meaningful and long-lasting, the hardships are often more pervasive and unexpected.
Before becoming a mother, I knew it would be fulfilling and life-altering—at least that’s what I had hoped to gain from the experience. If that weren’t the case, why would people want to have children in the first place? I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t expect it to be hard and filled with uncertainty, but I didn’t truly appreciate just how close to the brink of madness those challenges would take me. I had no idea the depths of frustration, impatience, and anger I was capable of feeling. I didn’t know how quickly the whining and bickering could flip the switch of rage in me, taking me from silent seething to slamming doors within a matter of seconds.
Is it possible to love motherhood without knowing why we love it? Is it possible to feel joy, without knowing what brings us joy? We love our children, of course, but is that enough of a reason? Or do we need to love the specifics as well? And if so, what does that expectation say about the mother who isn’t sure why, exactly, she enjoys being a mother?
We are quicker to bemoan the hardships of parenting because we assume that everyone—parents and non-parents alike—are aware of parenting’s joys. I suspect it is also because as parents we believe we are together in our joys, but alone in our struggles. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We share our challenges and miseries in an attempt to ease that burden and to feel a little less alone.
But even more than that, it is far harder to name and to share our favorite parts of motherhood because even the most joyful moments and most meaningful bonds have a twinge of hardship and unhappiness to them. Doubt runs rampant in a parent’s mind, such that happiness can be marred with the fear that the happiness will soon end. Not to mention the fact that in early childhood, every moment—whether it is full of unfettered joy or punch-in-the-stomach agony—is so fleeting that it can be hard to hold any one long enough to discern what it is about it that we enjoy, let alone understand if we enjoy it enough to consider it a “favorite.” Sweet bedtime tuck-ins are often followed by countless pop-outs for water or a book or a nightlight. Cuddling on the couch as a family while we watch a movie is often peppered with complaints of “he’s touching me” from one sibling to the other. And even the milestones have a bittersweet tang to them as we are slapped in the face by the reality of the swift passage of time.
Would I have an easier time pinpointing the sweeter moments of motherhood if I allowed myself to linger in them a little longer, instead of rushing to the next task or focusing on the next lesson that needed to be taught? Would I be able to better describe my favorite parts of motherhood if, instead of worrying about whether I was doing what was necessary to be a good mother and raise good children, I spent more time simply feeling what it meant to be a mother?
As I talked around her question, and we talked about motherhood in general, looking at both the best bits and the worst, I suddenly realized my answer to the question. What is my favorite part of motherhood? It is the privilege of bearing witness to the evolution of a whole person, watching and observing humanity up close and personal, and feeling myself change as a result. Perhaps I had my answer all along. Like motherhood itself, I just needed a little time to settle into it.
Christine Organ is an author and writer who lives in the Chicago area. In addition to being a staff writer for Scary Mommy, her work has been published on The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Babble, among others. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.