It’s My Motherhood, And I’ll Celebrate It If I Want To

August 6, 2009

When I saw the headline, I rolled my eyes. “The Case Against Having Kids.” WHATEVER. Haven’t we heard this all before? That children are overrated, that parents have superiority complexes, that motherhood is an epic social scam, that children are more environmentally destructive than SUVs and air travel and Crocs combined, that life is just that much more pleasant without the stench of diapers and the din of Barney in the background?

Like I said, I rolled my eyes. These are not new arguments. These are not particularly interesting arguments. Some people don’t like the idea of having kids, so? They should just not have kids. I actually feel quite strongly that people who really, emphatically don’t like children and/or who believe themselves incapable of caring for children should not have children. And those who do like children – or who believe that they would like their own children – and who believe themselves capable of caring for them, well, knock yourselves out. To each her own.

But some people, it seems, feel quite strongly that the case for childlessness – and by extension, the case against parenthood, which, for all intents and purposes, is actually a case against motherhood – needs to be asserted more emphatically. Why? Because according to some, parents – which is to say, mothers – get undeservedly good press. Such undeservedly good press that unassuming individuals might actually get conned into motherhood without fully understanding what they’re getting themselves into. They might actually get tricked – by, say, seeing how good Kate Gosselin has it, or by noticing that Madonna became so much more likeable after becoming a mom – into thinking that this motherhood thing is the key to feminine fulfillment and social esteem. Because, you know, moms have it so awesome. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

This is where I stop rolling my eyes.

Moms (and dads) do have it awesome, of course, but not in the way that the ‘Children: Just Say No’ people think. The awesome of parenthood, the reward of parenthood, is the intangible and immeasurable joy of the children themselves. It is not increased social esteem (more on that in a moment) or some abstract sense of accomplishment (other than that which is contained in the aforementioned intangible joy); it’s the kids, dammit. The kids are awesome. Everything else is pretty much really f***ing hard. Maybe not for everybody, but for most of us, most of the time, parenthood is hard. Even when it’s awesome, it’s hard. Anything that involves cleaning up so much shit is hard. Anything that puts your heart so at risk is hard. Anybody who doesn’t have at least an inkling of this going into it deserves the shock that they get.

But the ‘Children: Do Not Want’ advocates must know this, right? I mean, they don’t want children, and they don’t want children, presumably, because they’ve looked in the parenting shop window and decided that nothing inside warrants the prices charged. Or they just don’t like children, full stop, in which case any discussion about the costs and benefits of parenthood is about as relevant to them as is a debate over cheeseburgers to a vegan. So why all the whinging about what good press parenthood – again, we should just resist playing coy and call it: motherhood – gets, and all the hard-selling on rejecting parenthood? Well, apparently, any positive attention paid to mothers, any social legitimation of motherhood, amounts to a delegitimation of the choice to not have children. Which is, apparently bad. Because this is a feminist issue, ladies: beware those who would praise motherhood, who would indoctrinate you into the cult of motherhood, for they would drag you back to the dark ages and shackle you to the hearth and force you to reproduce and bake bread until you die.

This, obviously, is where I call foul.

I call foul because a) motherhood is not, contrary to all appearances as represented on the covers of parenting magazines, revered in our society. It’s not, full stop. And b) even if it were, such a thing would not be bad for women. Any women. Yes, even women who choose not to reproduce.

To the first point: say what you want about ideals of motherhood and reverence for motherhood in the abstract – doesn’t everyone coo at pregnant women? don’t we all squee at the sight of mothers doting upon children? isn’t there a whole DAY for talking about how awesome mothers are? – that reverence, such as it is (and I would argue emphatically that it’s not as uncritical as some make it out to be), does not translate into social practice. Sure, we nod approvingly at Angelina when we see her and her brood on the cover of a magazine, but when was the last time you saw anyone nod approvingly at a mother dragging a gaggle of children behind her in real life? Never, that’s when. You try taking babies or small children on a airplane, on the bus, into a restaurant, to a shop, through a park (and let’s not get started on nursing those children) – anywhere, basically, that isn’t clearly marked CHILD LEASH-FREE ZONE – and see how many approving nods you get. ZERO, that’s how many. Not that you’d notice any approving nods, anyway, what with being all distracted by the stink-eyes and the grumbling and all. Public mothering doesn’t get a hell of a lot of social support, except from other parents. Most people would prefer that we keep our mothering private, just like they did in the good old days, when children were rarely seen and never heard and mothers kept quiet about nasty things like diapers and depression and Dora. (Is there an exception for representations of motherhood among celebrities? No. For every celebrity who gets what one critic calls the ‘motherhood whitewash,’ there are dozens of others who get their every maternal move scrutinized and deconstructed and held up as examples of their moral failing. Kate Gosselin, anyone?) Mothers, revered? Mothers, above critique? In what world does that occur? Because, seriously, I want to go to there.

To the second point: we would all -  women especially – be much better off if the art and craft and science and discipline of motherhood were better respected. Motherhood is women’s work. It’s the ultimate women’s work. Call me out for being a biological determinist, I don’t care: motherhood, in its barest biological outlines, is the only work that women do that only women can do. Making babies, nursing babies: it’s what we’re built for. Many of us don’t want to do what we’re built for, and that’s fine – but it doesn’t change the fact that women are built to birth and nurture children. To be mothers. Of course there is much, much more to motherhood than birthin’ babies – much that has little or nothing to do with pushing a miniature person through one’s parts – and so it would, in some respects, be fairer to talk about parenthood and to remove any elements of gender determinism from the discussion. But the fact of the matter is that when we talk about parenthood, we’re usually talking to or about mothers, and mothers – regardless of whether they birthed or adopted or foster – the people doing the work of motherhood – are usually women. So in disparaging motherhood you disparage women, full stop. And why disparage motherhood? Because it is so essentially feminine in so many respects? Is there something essentially problematic about anything essentially feminine (whatever that means)? Or is it just that nobody can help getting all Freudian and Leave It To Beaver and Carol Brady and apron strings and squick and – have I said this already? – Freudian when they think about motherhood?

There’s no reason, no reason at all, for motherhood to be inextricably associated with 50′s-style domestic servitude. There is nothing essentially retrograde or anti-feminist about motherhood. It’s attitudes about motherhood that are retrograde and anti-feminist. And I have news for you: the most retrograde and antifeminist attitude about motherhood is the one that holds that there is something limiting and unimportant and retrograde and antifeminist about motherhood. Mothers (and fathers, although I’m not speaking for fathers here) do the most important public work that there is: they raise citizens. We don’t always do it well, and we might argue about the choices that we make in carrying out this job, but it is nonetheless our job, as parents: to raise citizens, to nurture children into better-than-functioning human beings who will contribute to society. How on earth is that something that we should worry about over-respecting? In what universe should we be worrying about valuing that work too highly? Especially when the fact of the matter is that that work is, in our society, wholly under-respected and undervalued?

Excuse me while I catch my breath. Ranting tires me, after a full day of lashing children with my apron strings and reveling in my dizzying social status.

My friend Liz wrote, earlier this week, about feeling defensive about being a mom in a culture that so often turns up its nose at moms and the work of moms and – not incidentally – the discourse of moms. She said that being defensive about being a mom just makes her want to be a better representative of motherhood, that she wants all of us to be better representatives of motherhood. Which, yes. I wholeheartedly agree. But I also wish, wholeheartedly, that we didn’t have to be so defensive, that we didn’t have to say things like oh, I’m a mom, but! I’m also a writer! Who writes about being a mom, yes, but! Also other stuff! Important stuff! That may or may not have anything to do with being a mom, but still! Important! Important! That we didn’t need to worry about whether we were representing ourselves well enough (when was the last time you heard doctors collectively wring their hands about whether they were making it clear enough to society that they were useful and important and deserving of respect?) That we didn’t feel the need to constantly defend ourselves and justify our choices, to each other and to our communities and to the world at large.

Women have fought hard for the freedom to make their own choices. I chose to be a mother, and I’m happy with that choice. More than happy, actually: making the choice to have my children is hands down one of the very best things that I’ve done in my life. I’m proud of it. I’m deservedly proud of it. And I’m sick and tired of defending it.

I’m a mother, and I think that motherhood is awesome. I think that I am awesome, in all of my baby-slinging, preschooler-wrestling, breastfeeding-promoting, yoga-pant-wearing, diaper-bag-toting, bad-mothering, mommy-blog-spinning glory. Anyone who has a problem with that can suck it.

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    { 89 comments }

    Kathleen August 6, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Thank you.

    Anyone who thinks motherhood is revered should try having children and a career in academic science, if not academia in general. Having kids in my field is seen as the ultimate sellout. And it is a motherhood issue – the men are free to breed as they please. Until that view of motherhood and family as being in conflict with “seriousness” about one’s career goes away, women will not be fully represented in science. How’s that for a feminist issue!

    Again, thanks for this.

    Chantel August 7, 2009 at 1:14 am

    This whole concept is so weird to me.

    Just how do these “child-free” folks determine our species will continue? Do they have some grand, evil plan of growing these disgusting “crotch droppings” in a pod and then leaving them to be raised by robots? I mean, really. Come on.

    I’ve read before musing that they have some sort of deep seated self-hate or issues with their own parents and both seem pretty likely to me. You don’t want to have children? Sure, I think that’s a perfectly valid choice. I know some folks who DO have children that probably shouldn’t have done. And I can even see not liking kids. It’s not your thing. Noted. But the HATRED that seems to pour out at everything that has to do with children–having them, raising them, etc is just a little….I dunno. Off? Obsessive? Weird.
    .-= Chantel´s last blog ..The Boobies =-.

    Ginger August 7, 2009 at 2:52 am

    I love the dialogue here, I really do.

    I love finding community and discourse and I don’t give a dood God damn if other people are tired of mothers because people, I love being a mother even when it sucks beyond the telling of it and I need you, because you help me be the me I want to be (at least sometimes).
    .-= Ginger´s last blog ..She’s not disabled, we’re just visiting =-.

    Bokker August 7, 2009 at 6:56 am

    I’m currently incubating my first child- 15 weeks down- and enjoying the positivity that pregnancy seems to attract.

    I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised so far (SO FAR) with the way that mothers are catered for in the workplace and society in the UK. On top of the very decent mat pay and mat leave (a full year if you want it), employers also have to be flexible about accomodating your health needs etc during pregnancy and your commitments as a parent. You can even legally take paid time off to go to pregnancy yoga/exercise/massage. Once the child arrives, employers are obliged to offer you flexible working. Meanwhile the health service has been excellent so far too, and I’m looking forward to giving birth in a beautiful, state-funded birth centre.

    At the moment, the glorious prospect of having this baby, coupled with the support I’ve received, has left me feeling optimistic about my life and role as a mother in this country. I read enough blogs to know it will be hard. But I have experienced hard things (haaaard things, so the “you don’t know hard til you’ve had a kid” line doesn’t wash with me. Really.) in life thus far and I’m confident I can deal with it, given the joy which accompanies the hardship. There’s nothing wrong with confidence, eh?

    And at the moment, I feel like I don’t give a stuff about whether I’ll be revered as a mother- right now I don’t feel I’ll need validation, as long as I am respected as much any human should be. I don’t want any MORE respect than anyone else. Because after all, the judgement that motherhood is the most important job isn’t necessarily an objective one.

    But what I’m hearing from your fascinating post and the comments is that this basic level of respect often isn’t there. And I just hope that my rose tinted spectacles (and believe me, I KNOW they are rose-tinted) aren’t crushed by society once my child is here.
    .-= Bokker´s last blog ..A Blip on a Screen =-.

    ladybughugs August 7, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Brava. That’s all I have to say.
    .-= ladybughugs´s last blog ..Tweets of the Week, 8/3 =-.

    Rory's Mom August 7, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Nobody should have children if they don’t want them, bottom line. I feel that even those who make the decision and don’t have children, and no bullsshit here by those I mean woman, they are never truly satisfied because from the very beginning we are told that is what we are suppose to do. So even though they “know” they don’t want children, they always feel that they haven’t fulfilled some sort of obligation and become bitter, which turns into spite and nastiness towards those that do have children. Its unfortunate. People should feel free to make whatever choice they want with their life. But society dictates our roles from the beginning and its hard to go another path without guilt.

    tiddleywink August 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I am completely happy and satisfied with my decision to not have children, and I do not in any way feel as though I am not fulfilling a societal obligation. I feel no guilt, nor do I feel any sort of superiority. It is a choice I have made, and one that I’m lucky that I can change my mind about. (At my age, that is neither likely nor necessarily medically sound.)

    I have friends who think nothing more of my decision to remain non-mom than if I had said “I think my next car will be red.” I also have friends who treat me as though I have two heads whenever the subject comes up. THEY, apparently, are under the impression that I have an obligation, either to society or to biology, to procreate. I, however, prefer to leave parenting to people who are better equipped for the endeavor. Hell, it’s 11:30 and I haven’t even managed to pour myself a cup of coffee yet. Folks who tell me I should be responsible for another human? They’re the ones who are crazy, not me. :)
    .-= tiddleywink´s last blog ..working for free =-.

    Tricia (irishsamom) August 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Great post. Honest and cuts to the very chase of the great “debate”. I chose to be mother full time because that’s what I felt that I really wanted to do. I have been judged, commented to, critisised by many, many people and can so relate to this post. I have also been told by my (soon to be ex) husband repeatedly over the years that I have “never worked”. That to me is the hugest insult anyone could ever hand you. Outside of teaching, writing and having a small home business, motherhood is the hardest job I’ve ever held. And that’s a fact. Thank you for speaking so eloquently on the subject.
    Tricia :)
    .-= Tricia (irishsamom)´s last blog ..Grieving =-.

    Sylvia August 7, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Amen, Sister!

    Emily August 7, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I freaking love this post! Way to hit the nail on the head. Thank you!

    April August 7, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    a-FREAKING-men. i love this post. love love love it.
    .-= April´s last blog ..Flashback Friday! =-.

    Candace August 8, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I recently stumbled upon a “child-free” blog and two thoughts struck me:

    1. Huh? Why bother blogging post after post about something you don’t have and don’t want to have?

    2. The commenters, including the ostensibly female ones, were surprisingly misogynistic. They made it sound as if some crazed (hysterical, perhaps?) woman had forced a man at gun point to have kids and then refused to go to work, picked up the gun again, and forced him into hard labor to pay for “her” lifestyle. Actually, I’m not sure if that reflects more poorly on the woman or the man if you believe that tripe. At any rate, it was nasty.

    Excellent post.

    Motherhood may not be for everyone, but it shouldn’t be something we have to defend.
    .-= Candace´s last blog ..Marketing to Moms 101: Don’t Diss the Babies =-.

    Lindsay August 10, 2009 at 7:57 am

    My condolences to you and your family Catherine. Wishing you strength at this difficult time.


    .-= Lindsay´s last blog ..Is there anything grosser than the wet cough of a stranger? =-.

    Dawn August 10, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! I saw that Macleans article the other day while waiting in line at the supermarket with my three children. It was one of those days and I was feeling so tired and defeated, to read such an extremely biased and reactionary article about how people who have children lose their creativity, intelligence, etc…well, it just felt like a punch in the gut. Your words in defense of motherhood and women in general came at the right time and helped to pull me back out of my funk.

    I wrote my response to the Macleans article as well as linked to your post over on my blog: http://dawnspregblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/just-mom.html Thank you again for writing such an empowering and insightful blog!
    .-= Dawn´s last blog ..Oh Bryn! You see in the dark… Right past the fireflies that sleep in my heart =-.

    Jen August 11, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Wow…. thank you, thank you, thank you! I can’t thank you enough for so eloquently putting down my thoughts :)

    So glad I found your blog today… I feel a little more connected to a world I thought I was swimming alone in.

    and thinking of you in this sad time.

    Grizzly Kitteh August 11, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    I don’t have kids, but someday I would love to be a parent. Even though from all accounts I was a good kid, I would not wish half the things I did to my Mom on anyone, and thus I surely appreciate every mother out there who has to deal with it.

    That being said, I think an important point was missed here…

    People who are smug about being “ChildFree” and rub it in the faces of mothers everywhere are obnoxious and should go find a corner to hide in. On the other hand, I can kind of see how people could argue against the glorification of motherhood.

    Young people don’t see the “splattered half way up my back” poopy diapers and sleepless nights and colic when they watch shows like John & Kate or see news about Angelina adopting another baby. They see John & Kate’s new house courtesy of the networks, or Angelina brimming about the joys of motherhood and all the media attention she receives.

    …Which leads to shows like 16 and Pregnant. That show might not glorify motherhood, however, it does put those kids on television and for some kids that’s all they want. It sends the message that “if you get knocked-up at an early age, we’ll make you famous by putting you on TV.”

    Those kids don’t realize that the world is laughing at them, not with them, and they certainly don’t realize that their days of hanging out at the mall and being a kid are certainly over. These kids are grossly unprepared to be parents and usually their parenting skills beget more bad parents only a few more years down the line.

    The problem with the “ChildFree” crowd is that they don’t take their beef up with TLC or MTV, they take it up with their friends who are caring, loving mothers and should certainly be offended when someone tells them that the job they’re doing shouldn’t be glorified.
    .-= Grizzly Kitteh´s last blog ..COOOOOOORRRRRRRNNNNN! =-.

    anon August 13, 2009 at 7:39 am

    There are smug, rude people on both sides of the fence on this one. When I got married everyone kept asking when we were having kids. It was annoying even though we eventually *did* want them. In our society it *is* expected women will want to have children after getting married. I actually think the childfree by choice folks have it harder than us moms. Do we really have to be constantly defending motherhood? I’ve never had to defend my choice to have kids, but my childfree sister sure has had to.

    I love my kids, I love being a mom but if I didn’t I sure wouldn’t want someone telling me I was selfish for not having kids, that my life would be less than it could have been, that I would be missing out on life’s greatest joy, etc. THAT would get old.

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