Becoming a mother is often celebrated in society today, but hardly rewarded. Young women who choose to become mothers are basically committing career, social, health suicide. I say this as a young mother who never imagined I’d be facing the very real consequences and huge uncertainty of navigating life as a new mother in the 21st century.
I grew up having aspirations. I never imagined motherhood would be an obstacle, but rather an aspiration in itself; for me, a way of contributing to the world through raising children of my own whom I would nurture, teach and raise to be warm and kind to the world around them.
I imagined myself doing this while also continuing my education and working in my professional field. I never imagined that a time would come when I would have to consider ‘choosing’ between these parts of my life. I just thought I would take a break when my children were very young, then continue on my path.
As society embraces neo-liberal ideals, motherhood is now considered through the lens of choice and consequences. This has very real impacts on millennial mothers.
New mothers are being given conflicting messages: that their work as mothers is important, but also that they should be working in a professional field.
White feminism for the past few decades has been so focused on attaining equal pay and expanding roles for women in the workforce that the support structures which somewhat existed for new mothers are collapsing – and not even feminism is prepared to defend and uphold them.
I know many women who feel under-supported and isolated in their new mother roles, in a society where everyone who is not a mother is off doing other things. Mothers remain at home in the suburbs, alone. They are often immobile due to anxiety about leaving their home with a newborn, or not having access to a car, difficulty driving, or even having nowhere to actually go with young children (because they’ll destroy every place they enter).
These concerns, however, are often invalidated. These women chose to be mothers, so they should expect this.
What this does is send the message to women that their choice to have children was in fact a mistake. A disadvantage. A cause of problems for them.
Rather than value mothering as important work that should be supported and rewarded, the unpaid, unrecorded, and unacknowledged work of mothers is often considered a personal decision that these women should be able to bear without complaint.
The way we discuss motherhood is starting to sound the same as the way we discuss someone who goes travelling to a tropical country and can’t handle the weather change. It’s was their choice to travel to that destination, why are they complaining now?
This choice construct fundamentally lacks empathy and is a harsh, depoliticised judgement.
I am not suggesting that mothers should complain about how difficult their life is all day and that everyone else should just listen and sympathise. Or accept that motherhood is difficult, full stop.
Motherhood is different for everyone. Some women find it comes easily to them, while others struggle with different aspects of the experience. The response we mothers want to invite is not one of pity.
Entering motherhood can become a matter of balancing an act of complicity and an act of resistance. Mothers feel complicit to their new role, and try to embrace it wholly and authentically. They try to listen to their bodies, learn from their own mothers, enter and connect with online mother communities. At the same time, they resist the disempowering notions and harmful expectations society places on them as mothers.
Many mothers feel guilt and shame about asking for help for a life they chose for themselves. They have not fallen ill; they are not a patient. They were completely independent, autonomous women prior to giving birth and all throughout their pregnancy. And when they did give birth, they maintained this autonomy but now have to manage it subject to the needs of their newborn.
The degree and intensity definitely ranges between each individual experience, but I believe that many millennial mothers are forced to navigate and try to resolve this conflict between motherhood and autonomy.
As a mother of two young boys myself, I find myself often feeling stuck and out of options. I paused my life for four years to implement my ideal parenting approach which emphasises connection and presence in the early years, as well as breastfeeding and the co-sleeping promoted in attachment parenting. I entered into communities of mothers, and enjoy the friendships I have made with similar-minded, and similar-lifestyle people. I tried to speak exclusively Arabic to my children, to promote Islamic values and to teach them healthy habits.
I did all this while wondering when I would ever be able to focus on anything else.
I feel that each time I do want to focus on the studies I began this year, or work a few hours, my children’s needs demand that I give up and submit again to the expectations of intensive motherhood. I am reminded that to be a good mother I need to stop everything and focus on them.
The difficult part is that when I do try to discuss this with people around me, I am often told: Of course you feel this way – you are doing too much. I am told to cut down on my involvements. All this well-intended advice does is reinforce the message that I chose to be a mother, so why am I not committed wholly to it?
I feel that the notion of motherhood itself becomes damaging, because the expectation is that when a child or the home has a need to be met, it is the mother who is responsible to meet it.
Yes, mothers cannot abandon, deny or ignore their children; but do they hold sole responsibility for their children’s behaviour, habits, or performance just because they chose to pursue other aspects of their lives?
Women are told they have many choices and that this access to choice empowers them. But even though we’re told we have all these choices, we are also told we should not pursue them because there will be consequences on our families, consequences that we should avoid.
It becomes as though other ambitions are a form of self-sabotage and harm. As though it would be better if I spent all day, every day, with my kids. Connect with them, cook the best quality food for them, develop the most engaging, stimulating, caring environment for them. And if I choose to do something else, the gap I leave is my fault, my responsibility.
That really isn’t a choice at all. It suffocates mothers and prevents them from being able to pursue their other goals. And it assumes that all mothers have the privilege of not needing to work to earn a living.
In the case of mothers who don’t need to work to survive, abandoning their ambitions up as a sacrificial lamb to the monument of motherhood can be detrimental to those of them who measured their worth and value through their professional work, and who have gained much respect and self-efficacy from it.
I know when I say this some people will remark: Well, it is their fault they tied their self-worth to external factors.
But what is being ignored is that motherhood itself is limiting.
There is a limit to how much of your ability and skill can be invested in motherhood. I enjoy writing and maybe I can use this skill of mine to read stories to my children, to help them enjoy rhymes and learn to read through phonics. But I shouldn’t be made to feel that this is the ultimate opportunity that I have to invest my interests.
Society should not punish women for choosing to have children. It needs to stop considering motherhood through a lens of choice and consequences and invest more in support structures for new mothers who do not want to give up their ambitions and autonomy entirely. Society needs to stop expecting mothers to bear the full consequences of motherhood alone, as though children were a badly purchased product or the result of a solo activity and nothing more.