How to embrace life as a main character mommy (without the guilt)

By Stephanie Sprenger

“Mommy, you have main character energy,” my fifteen-year-old told me. It wasn’t a compliment. 

“What does that mean?” I asked her. She clarified with, “It means you’re a total main character. I mean, even your Myers Briggs says so. ENFJ is the protagonist.” She threw her hands up, emphasizing my status as a cosmic lost cause, me and my main character energy. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Mothers are not supposed to be main characters. We were built for a supporting role. Mom is not the lead actress; if she’s lucky she’ll get recognized for her role supporting the main characters, but most of the time, those people hand her actual trash. 

I didn’t really need an explanation of what being a “main character” meant; I’ve always been self-conscious about my maternal personality. Namely, I refused to abandon my identity, even if it was embarrassing or uncouth. I refused to shrink. I was loud. I laughed and danced in the kitchen and I did not contort myself into a cookie-platter-holding, full-time support staff waiting in the background to appear when summoned. I was the “fun mom,” a role that had occasionally stung me. 

I knew all too well what novels and movies and gorgeously crafted New York Times essays had to say about moms with main character energy. Why was it, exactly, that quirky, effervescent mothers always had either drug addictions or personality disorders? Where was the middle ground? It seemed there was no script calling for the leading role of a free, fun, joyful mother who wasn’t also a toxic anchor to her hapless offspring. Huh. Puzzling. 

By the time I became a single mom of twelve- and seventeen-year-old daughters, we were marinating in feminist energy. We worshipped the Barbie movie for its subversive, nuanced narrative and Taylor Swift for her bold evolution, for reclaiming her own voice and words. All our water bottle and laptop stickers proclaimed us Pro-Roe Wild Feminists, encouraged the Patriarchy to go fuck itself, and featured numerous floral uteri (can we agree this is the appropriate plural for uterus?) and the revolving door of my best friends, aka the Wild Aunties, filled our home with wisdom and empowerment. 

“So, when are we starting the Mommune?” my divorced friend asked me when I told her about my separation. I snorted at the ridiculousness of such an inspiring, practical, functional idea (insert raised eyebrow here). I had a handful of close divorced friends, and we had always joked about how great it would be to live together, long before TikToks showcasing Mommune households who made soup for their sick roomies and watched Netflix together on the couches in their sweatpants became a thing. My children enthusiastically endorsed the idea when my single college besties—all mothers of daughters—and I daydreamed about renting a huge house and cohabiting together. 

So with all this female empowerment, why is the idea of a mother as a main character so distasteful? Even amazing feminist movies like Barbie toe the line; despite featuring a badass mother who turned out to be, rather than her daughter, the actual heroine of the film, there was still a quote at the end that made me cringe: “We mothers stand still so that our daughters can look back and see how far they’ve come.” 

My teenage daughter and I grabbed hands and locked eyes at that line. It was a testament to her understanding that my experience of being a girl and woman in the world had been full of entirely different hardships than hers. It was an acknowledgment that we have fought for them to come this far so they wouldn’t marinate in the same patriarchal, oppressive, rape-culture dumpster fire we had. But I flinched at “standing still.” 

Because I have always refused to stand still. I will run alongside her, with her but not for her. My children have been fierce feminists their whole lives, and have always been surrounded by high-achieving, creative, passionate women. They know that women are their safety net, the path out of the mess, a foundation they can rely on. And yet there is still this tiny little stigma, a resistance to the idea that a mother can and should be the main character. 

Women may be strong and fearless, but mothers exist to serve, to nurture, to teach, to support. A mother’s purpose is to be subsumed. We tell women to dedicate themselves to their children and then we crucify them for their enmeshment. We tell them they can go back to work and dream big and have it all, and then we degrade them for their selfishness. America Ferrera was right: It is literally impossible to be a woman. But to be a mother is next level impossible. 

We are supposed to inspire our children to be more than we are, but we aren’t supposed to show them that we are trying to be more. Because to imply that we want to be more than a mother is to betray the flaw we are all bound by: the admission—whether a quiet confession or bold proclamation—that we actually are the main characters of our own fucking lives. 

I am well aware it makes people uncomfortable when mothers take the stage, outshine their partners or occasionally upstage their own children. But I’ve never been the kind of mother who throws the game and lets her kids win to feel good about themselves. I’m the mom who actually enjoys the game, the one who talks shit and plays to win and ferociously cheers her kids on when they come close to catching her and is prouder than anyone when they do win. 

And maybe there’s where the standing still part comes in. Despite my refusal to be an understated mother or a martyr, it brings me so much joy to see the contrast between my daughters and my 1990s self. I marvel at their self-awareness, confidence, and outspokenness, the injustices they perceive that I took for granted as part of the backdrop of my Gen X coming-of-age. When we watch old movies, my girls notice things like, “Did he just kiss her without consent?” 

Their own lives shine with main character energy they cannot quite claim through the insecure fog of adolescence. But I see it in them, both of them, a glimmering force to be reckoned with. 

Mine, too, was hidden until I came into my own, and it grows stronger every day. “I like myself better every single year,” I tell my kids on my birthday. I know they don’t feel that way yet, but they will, I promise them. 

The fact that I love my children more than any other human beings on this earth and would not trade being their mother for anything does not diminish the truth that I am and will remain the main character in my own story. And as I cultivate that role, I will teach them how to nurture their own main character sparks; I see them glowing brighter by the day. I do not need to extinguish my light, nor will I outshine theirs. We are learning this, that we are stronger together, and maybe Moira Rose had it right all along: “When one of us shines, we all shine.” And at least my Main Character Energy isn’t quite as bad as hers. Yet. 

Stephanie Sprenger is a writer, producer, podcaster, and single mom of two fierce feminist daughters. She is working on her first memoir and can be found on Substack.

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