While many of the questions were about personal demographics and situation, a few touched on our outlook on motherhood. For example:
“Do you feel that society does a good job of understanding and supporting mothers?”
I pursed my lips together and clicked quickly. No.
Then: “How is today’s generation of moms different from your mother’s generation?” Are we generally more optimistic about motherhood than our mothers’ generation? More pessimistic?
I’m wasn’t certain. I could have checked the “neither/mixed” box. I am not a hundred percent sure what struggles or outlook my mom and her cohort encountered (in fact, I’m now inspired to ask!). But I can speak as a woman trying to parent in the information age: it’s freakin hard.
How is our motherhood different than our mothers’? I skipped past the canned answers and went for the blank box: “More options, more pressure, more exposure to judgement.”
Whereas mothers used to learn how to parent from their immediate community, now mothers are learning how to parent from the global community. With the internet comes the availability of endless information. Now, mothers have access to articles, studies, support groups, and podcasts that argue for different styles of parenting and parenting choices.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s helpful to know that there are different ways to do things; what works for some families may not work for all; what works for one kid may not work for the next. It’s comforting to know that there are multiple ways of doing things, and parenting is not one-size-fits-all.
The problem is, however, that with more options come more opportunities for controversy. Parents make choices out of a complex system of reasoning, and we don’t all come to the same conclusions or have the same opportunities. We don’t all sleep train, breastfeed, vaccinate, or have our children in childcare. We all have different personalities, different situations, different histories, different struggles, different values.
Parenting used to be more black and white, and now there’s a lot more gray.
Which can be problematic. Because now, when one member of our community parents differently than another, it can bring up the question, “Who is right?” And, even more frightening, “Am I wrong?”
This fear, which stems out of a black-and-white way of thinking, can led us to defend our parenting choices with nearly religious zeal. The fear of being wrong and the need to justify ourselves can lead us to tear down parents who choose (or chose) differently than us.
We get into arguments with those who disagree, not because we are open to dialogue and hoping to find a best practice, but because we feel the immense pressure to do The Right Things The Right Way; we argue because we want to believe that we have done The Right Things The Right Way and we need to prove it to the naysayers (whether real or imaginary).
The pressure we are under as mothers is immense. It comes from employers, partners, family, friends, our community, our children, ourselves.
Women, I believe, have always been expected to do all things and do all things well, but it seems that my cohort has now has the added burden of our parenting being made public and open to criticism. Whether we like it or not, our social media culture has put the fruit of our parenting out there for the world to see. And when it is more easily seen, it can be more readily judged.
Social media has heightened the pressure by presenting the false narrative of the Perfect Mother. We all want to do all things and do them well, but have not been given the grace or permission to accept that we can’t do it perfectly.
We can slip into propagating this Perfect Mother narrative out of fear of the judgement or out of our desire for approval. We can also rebel against it, trying to create a new narrative that often, unfortunately, celebrates shortcomings instead of simply confessing them.
But perhaps more significant than the external pressure we feel as moms is the internal pressure. The desire to be a good mom. The fear of failure. The reality of what we must accomplish. The weight of responsibility. The guilt that results from our shortcomings. The prison of comparison. The threat of judgement.
More Exposure to Judgement
I’m sad to say that the largest source of judgement is not from society at large.
It’s other moms.
I once heard it said that women are like crabs in a bucket: in order to advance, we drag each other down.
I’ll confess, I’ve seen, experienced, and done this myself.
Why is it easier to be critical of someone else than it is to be critical of ourselves? Why is it that our own insecurities drive us to put down another person? Why is it that we struggle to respect each other’s individuality and seek to empathize with their situation?
I think it’s because we are overwhelmed. I think it’s because the Perfect Mother narrative has yet to be debunked. I think it’s because we know we can’t measure up to perfection, though we strive to, and that is a source of grief and shame. I think it’s because having options has made us feel lost instead of empowered. I think it’s because we lack confidence in our role as mother. I think it’s because we fear we aren’t up for the challenges of motherhood. And when we look at another mom, we see her as someone to be measured against, for better or worse.
We don’t see other moms as sisters, friends, role models, companions; we see them as competition.
It’s to our detriment, truly. Because there’s nothing so lonely as being a broken, imperfect mother who is doing her best but still not measuring up.
We need encouragement. We need grace. We need each other.
We Need to Encourage One Another
Several months ago, after I wrote about having a particularly difficult week, a Mama friend of mine sent me a hand-written card. It’s been a long time since she had little ones like me; in fact, most of her grandchildren are older than my kids. But she remembers those difficult days, she said, the days when we feel like horrible moms. Thankfully, she wrote, her kids don’t remember those days, and neither will mine.
She went on to say: “From what I can tell, you are an amazing mom and are raising incredible humans. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Those words boosted my spirit in a way I can’t put into words. I needed that empathy, that wisdom, that encouragement.
Every mother needs encouragement. No mother needs unsolicited criticism.
We all, at the end of the day, are under pressure and encounter challenges, even though they look different for each of us. We may not know the journey another woman walks, but we may know the posture with which she walks it.
Now, there are times when we need to be challenged in our journey of motherhood. I would hope that if I were doing something problematic, someone would come alongside of me, help me work through my insufficiencies, and encourage me to do what’s best. But that difficult task would be best accepted at the hand of a trustworthy friend, not a stranger; someone who is looking out for my and my family’s best interest, not someone who is seeking to fulfill her own.
We need to find a way to care for each other, to see the other mothers in our lives as our teammates, not our competition. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
We need each other. Let’s not deny ourselves or each other of the gift of an encouraging, empathetic, supportive sisterhood.
Here are some things I’ve found to be helpful in my short jaunt of motherhood:
Ask mothers to share their stories, and share your own. More often than not, it’s our personal experiences that lead us to make decisions. Sharing our opinions without sharing our stories makes it harder for us to see the humanity in each other.
Befriend mothers who parent differently than you. We all gravitate toward people who are similar to us, but we all can benefit from a diverse group of Mama friends. Not only does it help remind us that there is more than one good way to parent children, but we can learn from each other.
Befriend women in a different stage of motherhood. There is much to be learned from mothers who have gone on ahead of us. There’s a lot to offer women who are new to the journey.
Know why you parent how you do, and if you feel good about it, own it. A lot of times, a judgmental attitude stems out of personal insecurity. The more secure you are in your parenting decisions, the less likely you feel the need to judge. If what you are doing is truly best for you and your family, own it.
Remember that it’s ok to make changes as a parent. I can’t tell you the amount of times I had to eat my words about my parenting decisions, and that’s ok. If something isn’t jiving for you and your family, change it; don’t worry about saving face. I think a lot of us can get stuck thinking that there is only One Right Way to do things, and that’s not always the case, even from kid to kid. Continually striving to do what is best and being adaptable are really respectable qualities.
Let go of the Perfect Mother narrative. Do it for yourself, and do it for every other mom out there. We can’t be perfect; we can only do our best. We all need grace for the times that we fail. We can all benefit from being real with each other.
Encourage another mom whenever you are able. Truett Cathy is credited with saying: “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they are breathing.” Whether a mom comes off as having it all together or as someone who is struggling, she will benefit from your encouragement.