Women can love being moms and still demand change

By Jillayna Adamson

I hear about it first, almost always with anger. The fuming. Its own animal entirely, a life force with nowhere to go. Sharp eyes and lips. I hear the spent energy and exhaustion. There is resentment, suffocation. No help. Overwhelm. 

And then I hear the loneliness. The sadness, the surprise. It’s much quieter, almost hesitant to make a sound.

I had no idea motherhood would be like this.

Why is it like this? How does this make sense?

As a mother and a mental health clinician, I have seen the many faces of this phenomenon. Motherhood: the loneliness. Motherhood: the anger. The surprise. We enter motherhood and realize that we are in an unchartered territory of feminism that is painfully dated and disempowered. Mothers remain overwhelmed, and it brings particular disappointment that is afraid to show its face.

It’s not that women don’t love being mothers, or that they don’t love their children. It’s not that communities that are supportive for mothers don’t exist—it’s that these kind of communities are not the majority. We are an independent, individualistic society that doesn’t prioritize mothers. We face so much societal disempowerment, lacking accommodations, and experience so little coming together that the job is untenable. The pretty independent American dream with its little plots of land, sunflowers and fences is killing our mothers.

At least once a week, on a local mom group I’m in on Facebook, someone posts about themselves. It sounds like a dating advertisement. From New York, love to go to the park, have 2 kids. Looking for mom friends. 

Haven’t been able to make friends. Looking for like-minded moms to hang out with, maybe do playdates with? Love wine and going to the pool! 

Exhausted! Don’t know how to make friends as a mom! 

Again and again, mothers come to me for therapy, and they are painfully lonely and isolated. They are resigned and exhausted. And I began to wonder, how did this happen? These women are each experiencing this same thing, so quietly. 

Except now, mothers are dipping their toes in the waters of change. Putting little voices out there to see if anything echoes back. 

Is this just me? Do I just totally suck? Am I doing it all wrong?

A mother I work with says her life revolves around when her partner returns from their work shift, so she “can breathe.” Another mom has brought on an au pair from overseas and confesses “at least I won’t feel like I’m doing it all alone.” And these musings aren’t to partner-bash, they are instead to assess how exactly women got here.

So many of us. This exact spot. Disproportionately weighted, exhausted, emotionally spent.

There is so much mental and emotional weight on me, I can hardly function.

Everyone has their lives way more together than I do.

I have no idea who I am anymore.

I quickly realized that the phenomenon of the isolated and overloaded mother—feeling lost, sometimes worthless and struggling with their sense of self—was enormous. This wasn’t the few and far between. Motherhood is often portrayed as put-together and beautiful. But when a mom actually finds herself there— she is alone, shocked. She struggles to find her people, to feel supported, to find herself. And she is so, so exhausted. She teems with obscene levels of anxiety and guilt; she cannot keep up, and she cannot do enough.

And so she says, I guess it’s me.

We have been hearing about this for a while. In 2004, Susan Douglass wrote in The Mommy Myth about the unattainable expectations and norms of modern motherhood in the West. She channeled the ways in which the expectations of parenthood were trapped by outdated norms, and how the weight of this was falling disproportionately on women. Other scholars and writers have continued to echo this sentiment.

In Forget “Having It All, Amy Westervelt likened motherhood to a time machine, “shooting women instantly back to 1950.” People have noted the dated expectations, the “honey-hued ideals”—a ‘perfect’ motherhood that we previously saw displayed on sitcoms. These images echo a history of the stereotypical Mom—a girl raised most often to proceed politely, with a smile. A woman told to discreetly bleed each month, to stay quiet about her third degree tear. Mom, effortlessly doing all things with a smile. Douglass noted then the expectation was that “to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children…[is a] highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet.” Other writers have noted the idealized selfless mother—the mother who does only for others, at her own expense. Mom doesn’t need anything. You know why? Because she is amazing. Sure, motherhood is hard, but mom is strong. She is so good at this. She can do it all.

As a psychotherapist, the stressors and identity shift that come with motherhood are one of my areas of specialty. The need for support is increasing. But it’s not because moms are loving being mothers less—it is not because they are deficient or inept—it’s because we are bound up in a system that is still, sometimes covertly, oppressive.

In my practice, I have found that women become mothers and are surprised at the ways that it feels untenable. We have heard that “Things are so different for women now! and “Mom can do it all!” and we believe or hope this is true. But the realities of the distribution of labor become blaringly obvious in motherhood. The assumptions and norms haven’t budged nearly as far as women think they must have, or should have, when they first enter into this role. We can’t help but think, “But wait, things are different now, shouldn’t I be able to hande it all?” It’s subtle gas-lighting, and it’s taking its toll.

We are seeing these issues, more than ever, out loud in the world. In the visibility of maternal mental health struggles, in post-partum depression and anxiety. Discussions about motherhood are raging around us, about the weight of the mental and emotional load. It’s everywhere now—books and TV shows. Women are expressing hard truths and the less than pretty realities of motherhood at a notable rate. The days of keeping things quiet for women and mothers are hopefully coming to an end. We have Ali Wong, and Workin’ Moms, after all. We have heart wrenching memoirs, and creative exposes channeling feelings of identity loss, confusion, inadequacy, and invisibility.

It’s not you, I tell the moms I work with.

You are not failing. You do not suck.

It really is impossible.

It is a sad reality to admit to. To say “Welcome!” and also “I’m so sorry.” It is one I can only try to empower women through. To encourage them to raise their voices honestly, to connect with other mothers and create community, to push for their own needs and care. These are radical things. These are our greatest seeds of change.

As mothers, we are so good at keeping things beautiful and bow-wrapped—at keeping quiet. It has always been our job. We have grown to fear any negative thought about how hard, how draining it all is. As if that means we don’t love our children or being moms.

The ability to care for ourselves and to have a community are basic necessities for mothers. But we are told we don’t really need these things. We hear that we are strong, that we got this. And when we aren’t able to keep up, we blame ourselves rather than the patriarchal residue that still exists in society.

The Mother is the giver, the caretaker—her very existence seemingly contradicts advocating for the self. Mom is in dire need of a new understanding that allows for radical honesty. In order to harvest a new depiction of motherhood, we have to allow ourselves and our experiences to be truly seen, which often goes against what we have learned of the Idealized Mother. We must strip the shame and silence we have internalised. To make it okay to have actual needs, and okay to press for real change. 

Times have changed, and yet so many things have not actually changed for women. Our outdated beliefs about motherhood must change now too.

Jillayna (said Jill-anna) is a mother, psychotherapist and writer. She specializes in individual identity development, motherhood, teens, and cross-cultural mental wellness. She is a Canadian transplant currently living in the US with her partner and kids, and is a firm believer in letting your freak flag fly. 

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