Sacrifice And The Mom

April 27, 2011

At the closing keynote session at the Mom 2.0 Summit the other week they showed a promotional clip for Oprah’s new network. In it, Oprah made a few remarks about why she never had children. “I realized that I didn’t want to make the sacrifice,” she said, “and motherhood is about sacrifice.”

Ugh, I thought. Sacrifice. I like the word sacrifice about as much as I like the word ‘goatspit’, which is to say, not at all. The word ‘sacrifice’ makes me think of ancient Spartan war rituals and that one Indiana Jones movie where that they tore out people’s hearts and flung them into pits of fire, which, sure, is maybe an appropriate analogy for parenthood some days, but still. And sure, the word ‘sacrifice’ can also be considered alongside the words ‘selfless‘ and ‘suffer’ and ‘heroic’ and we get into that vast, overwrought territory of saints and prophets (of the variety that Machiavelli called ‘unarmed’) and the characters of that particular brand of Canadian literary fiction that follows the lives of generations of prairie or Maritime women and that always features at least one rape and two deaths and endless pots of thin soup and I still don’t like those words. Especially as they are applied to mothers, which they so often are, because seriously. This ain’t no sacrifice.

Okay, so maybe in the strictly conventional usage of the term ‘sacrifice’ – to give something up in order to attain something of greater value – parenthood involves sacrifice. I gave up months of sleep, the freedom to spend an entire weekend on the sofa watching Buffy reruns, and C-cup boobs, among other things, when I had children. Under the very narrowest of terms, I suppose, you could say that those were sacrifices. I don’t really see them that way, though. They weren’t all that much to give up to have children, because I wanted to have children. Maybe if you’d suggested to me when I was 25 that I give up my marathon Buffy weekends in order to have kids, I’d have considered that a sacrifice – a sacrifice that I would not, at that point in my life, been prepared to make – but once I’d decided that I wanted kids, my choices were pretty clear, and not all that difficult to make. Of course I’d give up Buffy marathons, and sleep, and perky boobs. If I valued these things so highly that giving them up would represent a sacrifice – in the classic sense – I don’t know that I would have been so keen to have children.

I thought about this when I read this post at Jezebel last week – Life Without Kids Means More Arctic Monkeys Concerts – which considers an article at Details about a ‘growing social trend’ towards not giving up diners at Thai restaurants and Arctic Monkeys concerts in order to do something so costly, time-consuming and banal as having children. Which made my brain hurt. If going to Arctic Monkeys concerts is something that you value more highly than having children, or even if giving up Arctic Monkeys concerts is simply something that you’d find painful and difficult, don’t have children. It’s not all that complicated. And – this is important – it’s not the basis of a trend. Someone who wants to have children – whether that’s something that they’ve always wanted or something that they, like me, only realize that they wanted when they turned 34 and their doctor told them that their ovaries weren’t getting any younger – is not going to decide against having children just because they suddenly realize that the sacrifice is too great, if that ‘sacrifice’ consists in giving up concerts and weekly outings to Thai restaurants, or, even, perky boobs. No, no… I just realized after I read that Details article that I loved the Arctic Monkeys too much to give up just to participate in the miracle of creating life. I kinda always thought that I would have kids, but then I realized that I am just not willing to make that sacrifice.

Oprah’s notion of sacrifice was a little more robust, granted; she made her pronouncement regarding the sacrificial demands of motherhood and acknowledged her unwillingness to meet those demands as images of the set of her show and of her adoring fans flickered across the screen, and one couldn’t help but nod sympathetically. Yes, if I ran a vast multimedia empire and had a following of billions of women who laughed and cried and cheered at my every word, I might consider it a ‘sacrifice’ to give that up for motherhood, but then again, who says that I would have to give up those things – or, more reasonably, the possibility of those things, or things like them (like, say, a busy and fulfilling career) -  in order to become a mother? Does anyone ever ask presidents or prime ministers or captains of industry – of the male variety – whether they considered ‘sacrificing’ it all to become fathers? Don’t they just, you know, become fathers? Do we even talk about paternal sacrifice in the same way that we do maternal sacrifice? What is up with that?

It’s different for mothers, of course. I know that. There are all sorts of pressures and expectations and challenges that mothers face that fathers do not, and, yes, it would be a more complicated thing for Oprah to become a mother and maintain her empire than it was for, say, Bill Gates to become a father and maintain his. But it’s not an impossible thing, and I think that the rhetoric of maternal sacrifice – the rhetoric that tells us that we have to give up so much to have a family – just contributes to the persistence of the pernicious idea that motherhood is this all-encompassing, all-consuming thing that absorbs us completely and demands everything of us, everything, and to the corollary idea that women should be willing to give themselves over completely to the Mother Borg, and give everything up to have children, because otherwise, what are you, a unwomanly baby-hating monster? Sacrifice is what women do, y’all.

Motherhood can absorb a woman completely, if that’s what she wants. But it doesn’t have to, nor should we expect it to. Here’s a surprising fact: you can have babies and still go to Arctic Monkeys concerts. You can have babies and still go out and eat Thai food. You can have babies and still pursue a career. You can have babies and still go out and do pretty much everything that you did before you had babies, except maybe fit into the same size bra, and even then there’s still Victoria’s Secret Angels Secret Embrace cleavage-boosting underthings. Sure, it’s not as easy as it might have been before you had babies – it requires more time and resources, to say nothing of a babysitter or a nearby relative who’s handy with diapers – but it’s still possible. And here’s another thing: even if you have babies and discover that you are not, in fact, going to as many Arctic Monkeys concerts or eating at as many Thai restaurants or pursuing that career as aggressively, you will never, I promise you, say to yourself – and really truly mean it – I wish that I could turn back the clock and make a different choice, or maybe just trade these babies in for some more Thai food/a steeper career arc/more opportunities to see Arctic Monkeys concerts. Or maybe you will, but in that case I sort of suspect that you’re the sort of person who might have been swayed by the sorts of arguments that the Details article sets forward in the first place.

Motherhood simply doesn’t lend itself to a felicific calculus, because there is – to borrow from Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian measurements – no purity to the happiness that comes with parenthood. That is, we can’t speak of a happiness, within the context of parenthood, that doesn’t involve feelings and sensations of the opposite kind. Bentham’s utilitarian calculus of happiness held that it should be measured along that and other axes – how intense is the happiness? how proximate is the happiness? how pure is the happiness? – but parental happiness defies such measures, because it is a whole and complicated emotional condition in which there is no meaningful distinction between love and fear and joy and pain and exhilaration and exhaustion, between conventional happiness and its opposites. Our love and our joy are enriched and deepened by our fear and our anxiety, and vice-versa. And so it makes similarly little sense to speak of maternal/parental sacrifice in the classic mode, unless you are speaking of a mother or father’s willingness to throw themselves in front of a bus for our kids, which most of us would do, of course, even – yes – when the little badgers have kept us awake for nights on end and puked on our favorite shoes. Sure, we give things up, but the giving up of old things is part of the movement of parenthood, of the expansion of our emotional life (we might borrow liberally from Corinthians here: when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a mother, I put away childish things. Substitute ‘free-wheeling young woman who loved having the freedom to watch 12 hours of Buffy reruns’ for ‘child’ and you’ve basically summed it up.)

The rhetoric of maternal sacrifice obscures the complicatedness of maternal happiness. At its worst, arguably, it demands that we force our understanding of that happiness into an oppressive binary, wherein we calculate the costs of motherhood (the exhaustion, the anxiety, the ruined shoes, the pressures on any outside career) against the benefits (babies! squee!) and try to massage the numbers into an acceptable sum, rather than consider the whole thing holistically, as the rich and complicated tangle of experiences and feelings that it is, and accept that its rewards are entirely dependent on – are made meaningful by – those things that we want to call ‘costs.’ Like not being able to go to an Arctic Monkeys concert whenever we want, which, whatever. I’m not even sure who the Arctic Monkeys are. That probably invalidates half my argument here. Or maybe it confirms it.

Sub-Arctic Monkeys.

I know that these things are not true for all women, in all places, at all times. I know that my insistence upon the non-sacrificial character of motherhood is informed by my privilege. But I also know that most of the discussions about the whys and wherefores of parenthood and the supposed sacrifices that parenthood entails take place among the privileged – the Arctic Monkey concert-goers, the Thai food restaurant diners, the careerists, the Oprah emulators, all of us who freely choose or do not choose to have children – which is, I think, just all the more reason to interrogate it. Why call it sacrifice? Why not call it, simply, choice?

Answers to those questions are welcome and encouraged. Also, defenders of the Arctic Monkeys – speak your piece. Although maybe explain to me who they are, first. Are they awesome? Maybe I would trade my kids for Arctic Monkeys tickets. I’m open to discussion.

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    Margaret April 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I’m with you. I don’t see motherhood as a sacrifice. At my age and status, I consider it a blessing and privilege… and also a pain in the patootie. But like you said, yes, the bad and the good are not separate entities in the experience.

    I have no idea who the Arctic Monkeys are, but if you can score us tickets, I’ll pay for babysitting… OH YEAH! That’s right, I’m not the only person on the planet who can look after these little heathens 24/7…

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    @Margaret, a commenter below says that they’re a very good British band. So, yeah, lasso that babysitter and sign me up!

    Jaci April 27, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    “I know that my insistence upon the non-sacrificial character of motherhood is informed by my privilege.”

    As a lower middle class mom (yes, LOWER) with blue collar roots…massive student loan debts…a husband rolling in the big checks as a social worker *eyeroll*…and living on a total family income of $50,000 per year – for me, deciding to become a mom meant I sacrificed my career. (Such as it was or might have been.)

    I didn’t have a choice. I had to stay home because daycare costs were out of the question. I’m only working now because my inlaws retired and offered free babysitting in their home–and I’m part-time because they can’t physically handle more. My career is always going to have to revolve around their school schedules, unless I can make enough to “hire it out”. (After school care? Summer camps?)

    It’s a choice when you command enough of a salary to cover daycare and anything else your family needs while you’re gone. (Dinners out? Occasional cleaning lady?) It’s a choice when you’re upper middle class.

    Her Bad Mother April 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    @Jaci, can I ask, though, whether the choice to have children in the first place affects how we consider (whether we consider it) ‘sacrifice’, in the classic sense of giving up something precious, of incurring a painful and lasting ‘cost’?

    I think that for most women, unless they’re really privileged (privileged enough to have access to unlimited flexible childcare), there’s some compromise. I have restricted access to childcare, which limits some of my choices, but I guess I’m arguing that it’s important, for me, to think of them as choices rather than sacrifices in the classic sense – even if some of those choices aren’t particularly robust. End of the day (beginning of the day), I chose to have kids. And I didn’t give up anything that was even remotely comparably precious as what came out of that choice.

    But I *absolutely* agree that class/privilege/etc are critical components of this conversation, and I have to give them more thought. In another post, that is. This one ran over 2000 words as it was ;)

    Maija @ Maija's Mommy Moments April 28, 2011 at 6:20 am

    @Her Bad Mother,

    “I’m arguing that it’s important, for me, to think of them as choices rather than sacrifices”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    It is very important for me that my children grow up knowing that no matter the “sacrifice” I chose to have them and I chose to make them because my life wouldn’t be complete without them.

    No career, no concert, no bank account balance will ever compare to being a mom… to being their “mommy”.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    @Maija @ Maija’s Mommy Moments, how the language of sacrifice sounds to our children is a whole ‘nother consideration – would any of us want to hear a spiel on ‘THIS IS WHAT I SACRIFICED FOR YOU’???

    mom2boy April 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Oh, I don’t like the word sacrifice either. It totally makes me think of body parts or the sati funeral pyre. I chose to have a child. I had no idea how tired I would still be three and a half years later, no, but I wouldn’t trade being his mom for anything. Not even back stage passes to Arctic Monkeys (Crying Lightning is the only song on my itunes, so yeah, not much of a motivator).

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    @mom2boy, *searching Crying Lightning on my iTunes*

    Jessica April 27, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    It’s not so much a sacrifice, as a trade-off. You trade in your Arctic Monkeys (who?) tickets for the look on your kid’s face when you take them to the Wiggles.
    I can’t afford childcare and do have to be a stay at home mum, no matter what my preference; but I knew that would be the case. I considered and debated and planned and came to a decision. I didn’t “sacrifice” my career so much as I decided that having children was something I needed more. Besides that – children get older; They’re not always going to need me the way they do now. And really, I think that the unpleasant parts of parenthood make you appreciate the wonderful parts all the more.

    Sarah April 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Parenthood, it’s not so much a sacrifice we make, but a challenge we accept.

    Devan @ Accustomed Chaos April 29, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    @Sarah, LOVE this!

    Amy K April 27, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Wait, there are multiple books like Fall on Your Knees? One was enough for me, I think.

    It’s possible to have the exact same high-powered career after you have children, of course, if you’re able to hire a nanny or daycare and let someone else raise your children from infancy through school age five days a week. Some mothers are comfortable with that. Others aren’t. It’s a choice you have to make. Some women choose to put their careers on hold, even doctors and lawyers, knowing that it’s not a simple task to just bounce back to their professional worlds after several years of being away. Isn’t it a sacrifice to give up a career that you love and spent half your life working toward, even temporarily, in order to raise your children yourself? Isn’t it also a sacrifice if you choose differently and keep your hard-earned career but kiss your child goodbye in the morning and return after bedtime at night? It’s a choice, yes, but it’s a bit more complex and life-changing than giving up all those Arctic Monkeys concerts and Buffy marathons.

    Issa April 28, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    @Amy K, I have to say, I’m just a little uncomfortable with the idea that my kids being in daycare means someone else is raising them. Yes, they have all been in daycare since tiny little things. But for me (as the primary bread-winner and now as a single mom) I just don’t believe that my kids are being raised by someone else.

    Sacrifice is a hard word. Maybe people believe I should sacrifice my career to my kids. It’s not that easy in this day and age though.

    I just…I believe I can have both. I do. I have both. I don’t feel like it’s a sacrifice. It’s just life. You know?

    Amy K April 28, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    @Issa, If your very young children spend more time with a daycare provider during the week than they do with their parents…well, maybe saying that someone else is raising them isn’t quite the right term for it, but it’s not really wrong either, is it?

    Tam April 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    @Amy K, My kids are learning about society, cultures, friendships and life, at childcare. Nobody there is raising them, they are educating them. It’s no different to when they reach the age where they are expected in school, five days a week. And I’m pretty sure my living under a tree with them would not make me a better parent.

    Sacrifice is not the word I would use. I use compromise.

    Amy K April 29, 2011 at 2:56 am

    @Tam, The very early years when they are first learning to laugh and crawl and walk and talk and express themselves ARE different, at least in my opinion. There’s a little more time in the day with your children when they’re older and in school and not going to bed the second you get home from work (or before). I understand that staying home with young children isn’t always an option for everyone, and it’s not always what’s right for the mom either. I’m not sure what living under a tree has to do with anything. For me, not seeing my daugher for more than an hour five days a week would be a definite sacrifice, not a compromise. That’s my point of view.

    red pen mama April 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    @Issa, thank you for reponding to the questionable assertion that daycare = someone else raising my children. even when you break it down in hours, I still spend more time and better time with my children than anyone else. My hackles bristled a bit. Thank you for saying in part what I wanted to.

    Issa April 29, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    @red pen mama, I wanted to keep arguing. Yet…I know it does no good. There will always be people who believe I am letting someone else raise my kids. Sometimes it’s enough that I know it’s not true.

    That and I’m too tired at this point in my life to care what a random stranger thinks of me.

    red pen mama April 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    @Issa, Amen, sista!

    Penbleth April 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I don’t see motherhood as a sacrifice, my life wouldn’t be the same without them. I wanted them. It can have its moments, it is a challenge, but no sacrifice.

    red pen mama April 27, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    The other thing about the idea of parenthood and sacrifice is that the “not being able to” do whatever whenever part of parenthood is, relatively speaking, kind of short. I mean not that 18 to 20 years is nothing to sneeze at, but at some point when my oldest is old enough to watch my youngest unattended by me or my husband, I can head out for an hour or so to my favorite bookstore and browse in relative peace. Instead of hiring a babysitter, I can promise to take her to that concert (even the Arctic Monkey who are probably awesome live but who would probably be a bit on the loud side for the now 40yo me) she wants to see, and I can go have date night with my husband.

    I tend to sacrifice things like my own doctors’ appointments (planning to write about this on my blog soon), and yes, I can’t up and go to any concert or show that I want to because our financial situation is tenuous at best. And yes, that’s because we have to buy things like diapers right now. But given the chance to sacrifice these things again, I would do it. Maybe even quicker. Because those babies are my heart.

    Minka April 27, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Good lord, where do I even begin? I totally hear and agree with what @jaci is saying about needing to factor in the socio-economics of raising children, and I agree with you that the subject is more than deserving of a post by someone of your intellect and eloquenc. I also agree with @Jessica that the term “trade-off” is more appropriate, and one that sprang to my mind as soon as I read the post. For people who somehow didn’t “choose” to have children (rape victims, etc), perhaps the classic use of the word sacrifice is not too far off. But for those of us who voluntarily took this path? It’s an offensive notion.

    And by the way — here is a group of seriously smart, articulate women actually giving credence to this absurd, dumbass, f*ing insulting idea that people are weighing concert tickets and restaurant dining against the notion of raising kids. Frankly, people who even entertain this kind of thinking shouldn’t be ALLOWED to procreate. Seriously.

    I also agree with @red pen mama’s point, which is that this is one part of our lives. That children grow up. This is TEMPORARY. You are raising a HUMAN BEING. It SHOULD be somewhat consuming and a major focus of our time, energy and attention. And then… you send them out into the world… and hope you did your best to contribute good people to this exploding population.
    Because then you can go to your dinners and concerts or sleep in or watch good/bad/whatever tv, hit the gym, etc, and you will MISS having those kids around. Those symbols of “sacrifice” and “all the things you gave up,” blah blah blah. Cue the violin. (Not that we don’t often feel that way, but c’mon, didn’t we know that was part of the deal?)

    Not that raising kids isn’t difficult and draining (often), but again — you’re helping to MOLD A PERSON. It SHOULD be draining, because you’re giving of yourself, literally and figuratively; you are one of the best resources you have in making these little people.

    And as for Oprah? She should choose her words more carefully. What she should’ve said is “I like my life exactly as it is. I had goals, and I knew, or suspected, that I couldn’t achieve them while also raising children in the way I’d want to raise them.” Or some shit like that. Because who am I to say what Oprah should or shouldn’t have said. I’ll tell you who — I’m a MOM, dammit.

    zchamu April 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Do you “sacrifice” the ability to sleep with strange men you meet in bars after you get married? Do you “sacrifice” the ability to fly off to Tahiti at a moment’s notice when you get a job that requires you to be there every day?

    It’s the same thing when you have kids- or make any life choice. Making choices cuts off the other choices. Sad, but simple and true. And some choices involve not having the freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. In exchange, you get to do this other thing you wanted to do. Like have a kid. Which, in my case, was totally worth it.

    Loukia April 27, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Hmm. I think it is a bit of a sacrifice. In artificial ways – like the fact that I had had to turn down a positon as a radio news anchor just last month – and in the fact that forever, the worry and fear I have now that I’m a mom leaves me a bit insane at time. I can’t fully explain what I mean. My children are my life, my entire life. Without them I would die. I love them with my entire soul, and everything I do, I do for them. So yes, there is some sacrifice involoved there. Not in a selfish way; just… staying up all night, worrying. The fear. The unknows. The non-stop working, to teach them right from wrong. Maybe sacrifice is not the right word. But yes, in a way… I do miss working in TV and Radio. I did give up a radio job because I fear leaving the security of the gov’t and the money I make. I have to put my kids future first… therefore, sacrificing my career/happiness a bit. I hope that doesn’t sound horrible. It IS worth it, yes. But I find that… I can’t do it all…

    Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer) April 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Choice is exactly right. I quit my job at the time when I had my son. We’re lower-middle class right now (Oh my GOD do I feel your pain, Jaci — replace husband’s career with “retail” and our situations are identical). We choose to eat cheaply, though we’d be going into further debt to make any other “choice,” so it doesn’t really feel like such a free choice. We choose to do things that everyone, including those of us under 10, enjoy. We choose to not get each other many presents for most holidays, and focus on family/kid stuff. But we’re quite happy with all those choices. For us, at least, these things are immensely more fulfilling than whatever we used to spend our time and money on. Which isn’t to say that it’s this way for everyone, or even that it should be. But sacrifice? Nah. If you’re going to look at it that way, then EVERY choice you make is a “sacrifice” of some alternative, and I’m just not energetic enough to keep track of them all.

    Hillary April 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Not a great word. Adds to the picture of martyrdom–my motherly heart bleeding slowly as push away my dish to feed my children.

    When you have kids you make different choices. Sure you can still go to Arctic Monkey concerts (???) but it’s a hell of a lot harder and requires a lot more planning. In the end it’s just easier to rent a dvd, order take-out and drink wine at home.

    Pretty much I’ve sacrificed leisurely Sunday mornings of reading the NYT, brunching casually and having sex at a moment’s notice. And that’s okay.

    I have to echo Minka on Oprah–she should choose her words more carefully. Whenever I’ve heard her talk about children it’s very out of touch, which I guess is normal since she hasn’t a clue. And that’s okay too.

    Robyn April 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    You have the right perspective. All major life choices involve opportunity cost. If the cost of one path is too high, you simply choose the other path. Simple enough and no martyrdom necessary.

    Catherine April 27, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    One of the problems with the word “sacrifice” is that it encourages a kind of martyrdom rhetoric around mothering, which is not good for the mother and also not good for the children. I have known people who heard from their mothers in particular (because, as Catherine points out, fathers aren’t asked to choose in quite this way) that those mothers “sacrificed” for them — time, freedom, money, careers, whatever — thereby giving a huge burden of guilt to their kids, when in fact no one asks to be born and all children deserve a loving, nurturing upbringing no matter what their parents had to give up to do it. If you’re a mom and you think of your life in terms of the sacrifices you made to raise your kids, doesn’t it breed a kind of resentment? Which is not to say we don’t make sacrifices, like those days when all I want is to curl up under lots of covers all day and read a bad novel, and I can’t because I’m a mom, and there’s T-ball and playdates and oh jeez, again with the new shoes, because he won’t stop *growing*. But really as a few people above said, it’s a trade-off, because no day under covers with a bad novel (even with lots of chocolate chip cookies and *excellent* coffee) has ever given me anything like the delight I take in the crazy beautiful brilliance of being a mom to my kid, who makes my heart sing like a fool every day. Or almost every day. Of course not every mom feels like this but lots do, and some of us mourn the freedom more than others, and I can respect that, and privilege has a lot to do with it too, but I think the guilt-resentment nexus was my main point, and so I’ll stop now.

    violet streak April 27, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I must admit I didn’t know what I was really getting into when I decided to have a child. I knew i would be making life changes. I don’t think of my lifestyle and limitations as sacrifices i make, because let’s face it. I don’t have much other choices. I go out I perform in burlesque shows, I ditch my family to have fun. Perhaps if i was a guilt ridden selfless person i would be resentful and lament my “sacrifice”

    I do at times contemplate what a child-free existence would look like. It would probably be fabulous. I don’t wish to turn back the hands of time but i did choose to never have another baby.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 8:02 am

    @violet streak,

    “Perhaps if i was a guilt ridden selfless person i would be resentful and lament my “sacrifice””

    – love that. there’s an important point there that I didn’t address above – that ‘sacrifice’ so often involves ‘guilt.’

    Kelly April 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    I think it is sacrifice because to choose motherhood is to affect most every other choice that follows in a very profound way. Motherhood demands that you put your children first. Not always and not with every choice—as your recent post about “selfishness” beautifully articulates—but in the larger picture of their welfare and consideration.
    There is the myth of having it all, and I’m in the camp that believes you can’t really. With great time management and razor focus, you can have a lot, but not all. Yes, Oprah could have had children. But she has routinely worked twelve and fourteen and eighteen hour days to get where she’s gotten. Her empire would simply not have been the same had she had children, and she knew that.
    So, yes, you can have the baby and the Buffy marathon (Soooo with you on that one, btw—Josh is genius). But you can’t have the baby and the Buffy marathon LIFESTYLE. There’s a difference.
    If sacrifice is a measure of what you give up, then for some, it is a sacrifice. We get a lot in return, yes. Motherhood is amazing. But it’s a choice like no other. So to underscore that profundity, people use the word sacrifice. I think just to call it a choice has the opposite effect and minimizes its impact in our lives. Maybe motherhood needs its own word.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

    @Kelly, I think that you hit upon the key point – that it *can* be understood as involving sacrifice when the things that are given up *are* precious, when there *is* a real or perceived cost that affects us deeply. And there is an argument to be made that it takes a weighty word like sacrifice to express how profound are these choices, sometimes, and how dramatically our lives change; I thought about that, actually, while I was writing this (I just didn’t think that anyone would be interested in another 1000 words on that ;) ). But I still think that the overtones (and undertones) of martyrdom and selfless that come with a word like sacrifice are problematic.

    And what you say about Oprah is true – but again, why do we not say the same kind of thing about Bill Gates v.v. fatherhood? Why do we not talk about the sacrifices that men make for fatherhood, period?

    Erin April 27, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    I’m with you on this, though I think there are women who make sacrifices to have children… women who have children for other reasons besides wanting children. Women perhaps who have unplanned pregnancies that they keep, women who believe they must have children, women who are pressured to have children. I wouldn’t want to attempt to guess how large a portion they make up.

    But for those of us who want kids more than the other stuff? It is a choice, not a sacrifice. Every choice necessarily limits or eliminates the other possible choices. This is true of marriage, career, your college major… to become paralyzed by fear of losing *the other choices* is a sad way to live.

    Kim April 27, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    I have never considered motherhood a sacrifice. I always felt having children was inevitable, a part of a complete life. And yet I was 36 when I had my first baby. You make a great point about Oprah versus men in her position.

    You always make me grateful that I stopped by. You empower me as a blogger and especially as a mommy blogger. I am compelled to write about motherhood but it comes with the anxiety that people are judging me, that I’m telling too much.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 7:53 am

    @Kim, aw, thanks ;)

    Aimee Giese | Greeblemonkey April 28, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Right on, sister.

    Lisa April 28, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Okay, first, what’s your objection to this being a trend? And I don’t really understand why you are saying that it’s not. I do think more people are going child free than in last century.

    And it seems like you might be unaware the incredible flack they get over that choice – from family, friends, random acquaintances. And now a mommy blogger who is taking her own personal issues with a word – tearing out hearts! really? – and wants to forbid others from using it. I mean, that’s what I’m reading, that you feel THAT strongly.

    I’m scratching my head at this. You are usually such a ‘whatever floats your boat’ kinda person. You are usually the one defending another person and how she takes on life.

    We’re talking about other people who view it as a sacrifice and so that means they don’t want to do it. Can’t we allow for that? That those who view parenting as sacrifice should not be parents?

    I get that you are a writer and you luxuriate in agonizing over words. But something seems kinda off about this.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 7:45 am

    @Lisa, I’m not saying about the numbers of people having or not having children. I’m questioning the claim that there’s a ‘trend’ of people choosing to not have children because having children means that they don’t get to go to Arctic Monkeys concerts and eat at Thai restaurants. I’m not objecting to the ‘trend’, if there is such a trend – I think that I made it clear that choice is choice is choice (that is, in fact, the whole point of this post, that I think that ‘choice’ is a more robust and descriptive idea than ‘sacrifice’) – I’m questioning the claim that it *is* a trend.

    And I’m not questioning anyone’s choice about having or not having children. In fact, I think (and suggest as much above) that it’s more robust to call that choice a CHOICE, rather than fluffing it up as a deliberation about ‘sacrifice.’ I’m saying that I don’t like the word sacrifice, and explaining my reasons for that. I’m NOT saying that no-one should use the word sacrifice – where do I even suggest ‘forbidding’ it? – I’m just interrogating the implications of that word choice.

    I am pretty easygoing about other peoples’ choices, but that doesn’t mean that I checked my capacity for critical thought at the door, or that I gave up any interest in expressing my preferences and opinions.

    And the Indiana Jones joke? Was a joke.

    Christine April 28, 2011 at 7:54 am

    I think about this sacrifice/compromise thing a lot. I’m writing a one woman show about motherhood and this just keeps coming up. Funny, that. I’m still sifting through it because it’s just so fucking loaded. Every time I think I know what I want to say I see it’s opposite and say, “Yeah but that’s kind of true, too.” What is interesting to me about this post (ONE of the things) is that Oprah did not say it was a sacrifice NOT to have children. She may feel (who knows?) it was a compromise but not a sacrifice (apparently.) I have to go think about that some more.

    Clueless But Hopeful Mama April 28, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Damn. Your words and thoughts pack a punch.

    And then? At the end? You ca-racked me up. Because I have no idea who the Arctic Monkeys are either.

    NinjaMommers April 28, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I agree with you to an extent. But In some people’s eyes they are sacrificing the things they used to participate in for the things they will now participate in. I Like to see it as trading up. :D I’d rather be a Mother, going to the park and running around with my Little man pretending we are Aliens from another planet than obsessing over something so trivial as what color lipstick I should wear today… which was always a priority in my teenage life. :D I enjoyed this post!

    Mary Catherine April 28, 2011 at 10:40 am

    ‎”I know that my insistence upon the non-sacrificial character of motherhood is informed by my privilege.”
    Yes, but also by my exacting and extensive vocabulary. Motherhood was a choice, certainly, but by no means was it the end of my life. As you might know, I’m STILL astonishing and neither little Jack Hazard nor my pretentiously hip taste in music have suffered in the least.
    This was highly enjoyable, thank you!

    lozzi84 April 28, 2011 at 10:56 am

    I ‘chose’ to have my son, I didn’t sacrifice my childless life for him. I do the same things I did before I became a mother & that includes rocking out to the *Arctic Monkeys & eating Thai food.
    * the Arctic Monkeys are a band from Northern England (whose songs are about working class life) In my opinion they are pretty awesome & i suggest a search on iTunes for the song ‘mardy bum’ which is about dealing with a pisses off girlfriend.

    Miss Britt April 28, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I hate this idea that motherhood is synonymous with sacrifice because it sets us all up to be failed martyrs.

    Motherhood is a natural and necessary part of propagating the species.

    It happens.

    It’s life.

    It’s a freaking PART of life and has been forever and ever and will be forever and ever and dear GOD when did it become MOTHERHOOD=LIFE?

    You know what requires sacrifice? Relationships. Co-existence.


    Notaspanker April 28, 2011 at 11:58 am

    The following is from a recent post of yours,

    ” I would throw myself in front of a bus for my children – I would, no question, sacrifice my flesh-and-blood life for theirs, in an instant, without thought – but I will not sacrifice the full living of my life in the service of what might be their ‘best’ interests.”

    And I think that it is interesting to think of this within the framework of what you have written above. I think the main issue here seems to be the definition of “full living” of ones life, and it seems that there is a judgement call happening.

    Perhaps to one woman attending concerts and eating in restaurants is the full living of life, and to you it is writing or spending time with your husband. Personally I think all of this things are worthwhile pursuits of ones time and I bristle at the thought of judging other womens reasons for choosing to have, or not have children based on a simple phrase.

    Her Bad Mother April 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    @Notaspanker, I thought that I was pretty clear that I wasn’t judging anyone’s CHOICE as to whether or not to have children or why or why not someone might have children (although I admit that I might have adopted a somewhat condescending tone when discussing the Arctic Monkeys), but rather judging the way that we often talk about those choices, such that we don’t even call them CHOICES, but instead refer to them as sacrifices. It has nothing to do with the reasons – although I did react to how certain reasons were discursively framed (not being able to go to Arctic Monkeys concerts whenever one wants is a sacrifice? really?). It has everything to do with the language.

    Have kids, don’t have kids, make either choice for whatever reason you want – just own it as a CHOICE.

    Notaspanker April 29, 2011 at 11:30 am

    @Her Bad Mother, For me, the concern is that you seem to have determined that your “sacrifice” is greater/more important/more meaningful etc than anothers and that is my reading of this post relative to your earlier post on sacrfice.

    Alison April 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I apologize for not reading the posts before, but I just barely had enough time to read this wonderful entry. Please forgive me if I echo previous sentiments.

    I believe that being a mother has given me more opportunities and exposure to new avenues than I would have ever had otherwise. I have found other, like-minded, goal-oriented moms who are adamant about NOT sacrificing their dreams at the altar of motherhood simply because that’s what society (and Oprah, apparently) tells us we are supposed to do.

    Motherhood is not an excuse not to abandon your dreams. It is the chance to show your children how to pursue theirs.

    Miss Marina Star April 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you for this. My favorite part was your discussion that the rhetoric of the all encompassing maternal sacrifice gives permission for people to believe that we should, as mothers, allow every aspect of ourselves to disappear once we have a family. We should be so fulfilled that we need nothing except to be everything to everybody.

    I feel a constant internal struggle to keep my personal boundaries intact in order to remain a thinking individual that with my own basic needs and desires being fulfilled as well.

    Bravo! A must read for every mom who wants to do it all but doesn’t buy into the idea that she must.

    Natalia April 28, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    So true. I’ve been pondering with these issue lately, specially because my childless friends seem to look at me with pity when I tell them that I’m staying in *another* Saturday night. And I’m doing it happily. I still go out, I just can’t do it spontaneously when they call me up at 9pm to meet them across town.

    I don’t feel like I’ve lost completely my previous life, it’s been a transition. I miss somethings about my pre-baby life, but I wouldn’t go back, because I would miss soo many things of this awesomely exhausting post-baby world.

    And the Arctic Monkeys are really awesome live. I saw them about 5 years ago at a summer music festival. And there were kids there (it was 4 in the afternoon, after all), so I don’t get what the big problem is.

    Issa April 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    On occasion I think, I wish I’d waited a few more years (had my oldest at 21) and traveled a bit more first. But the truth is, would I have really done that? Probably not. I’d of sat around and played more video games and watched more TV. I’ve never really been that exciting a person. Also? My parents travel often. They are in their mid-fifties. I will travel then. Or I’ll play games on my phone and watch Netflix. Ahem.

    I have never regretted my choice to have kids. And while I do think I’ve sacrificed certain things…like sleeping in till noon…I don’t really care. There is time for that later. Time for sleeping in and reading books. Time for concerts and movies without animated characters. For now? I enjoy what I have. I enjoy being a mom, even though it’s dam exhausting.

    However? I don’t think anyone should have to defend their decision to anyone else. I have friends with no kids. I have friends with one kid. Friends with more than one. None of us should have to defend our choices to anyone else.

    roo April 28, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    That lack of purity of experience is a big… conundrum? crap, pregnancy brain… well, it’s hard to think of any experience in life that is pure enough to be measured in any meaningful way by utilitarian standards– it’s been an issue of mine with Bentham since long before pregnancy brain hit.

    And sure, your discussion of sacrifice as a mother is informed by your position of relative privilege– but so is a love of eating out at Thai restaurants or going to Arctic Monkeys concerts.

    Blllbgh. It’s good to be aware of one’s position in society, and how privilege or the lack thereof can influence a world view. But, like concepts of cultural relativism, it’s useful in a very limited way, and can be misleading when applied inappropriately.

    I have no idea how I’m going to finagle working while having a baby. We’re not rich, so at some point I’m going to need to. But then, we can’t really afford child care, either. I’m just trusting that we’ll figure it out as we go.

    And I suspect that this pregnancy brain that’s robbing me of my language skills has been developed though thousands of generations of human evolution to help me to just accept the unknown future with, well, surprising equanimity, considering all the giant unknowns that are about to punch my husband and me in the face. Metaphorically speaking. I hope.

    Maybe I’ve sacrificed part of my ability to reason well, in order to trust the fates enough to have a baby. Is that the first sacrifice of motherhood? If so, it’s not so bad. Hard to miss your mind when it’s already left the building.

    Haley-O (Cheaty) April 28, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Great post. Definitely made me think – mainly about how “sacrifice” really just isn’t the right word. Motherhood definitely feels something like sacrifice, but it’s not – for all the reasons you cite here. Thanks for this.

    Intraocular lenses April 29, 2011 at 7:34 am

    Being a mom is the most wonderful thing in the world and this feeling and sentiment has no comparison. The smile of a child, first step, first word worth any sacrifice.

    Renee April 29, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Great post (long, but great:-). I’m not sure I have much to add about the whole sacrifice vs. choice debate (having skimmed some of the previous comments). I do think that if you prefer Thai food and concerts to the joys and responsibilities of having children (there are plenty of both to go around, but sure, some days it feels like more of the latter), then by all means, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN. You and your kids will be the worse for it. But, I’m not sure why you need clubs to celebrate this choice or make it seem like your friends/peers who have made a different choice are somehow completely miserable. I would WAY rather go to my daughter’s ballet recital than to a restaurant any day of the week. And I don’t see it as a sacrifice in the least.
    And, try as I might not to be judgemental, I actually do think these people sound pretty sad and a bit pathetic. In the article, one woman compares not wanting to be an accountant to not wanting to be a mother. As an accountant, I can understand the first choice (!) but I don’t see how it is relevant in the least to the second choice. The article also links you to a quiz with 8 questions to help you decide if childlessness may be for you. I clicked just for kicks! So, apparently, if you consider yourself independent, that is one personality trait that means you might not want to have children. Really?!? It was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud. And the implication of the article and the quiz was that, if your focus was on your relationship with your spouse, then having children would ruin things. But a spouse can leave you and is much more likely to do before you do than is a child (barring tragedies). What do you do if you’re 50 years old, your 55 year old husband had a heart attack, your parents are elderly or deceased, and you have no children or grandchildren. Sounds like Christmas/Hannukah will be a blast that year! There won’t be any people to talk about how much they loved it when you took them to the ROM or baked chocolate cookies with them or roll their eyes about how their mom still worries about them even though they are 30. My aunt made a decision to remain childless and she is now 55. She regrets it every single day.
    Anyway, please forgive the diatribe. I know it’s not exactly what you were writing about, but I just had to say it! Have a great day and give your adorable kiddies some big kisses!

    Brittany {Mommy Words} April 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I was thinking the same thing as I watched that clip. It made me sad to think that being a mother was automatically equated with sacrifice by Oprah, who is such a powerful voice in media. I have been stewing over it since that afternoon and I am glad you posted this very eloquent piece because I was somehow unable to write about it without crying or getting a wee bit angry.

    There are choices to be made in our lives not just for children but a million other things that make us go one way or another in careers and life.

    I don’t think of it as sacrifice when my kids bring me more joy than I have ever known…and more than a billion adoring fans could ever give.

    verybadcat April 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    as much as i love your writing, i don’t often have something to add to the discussion, because i am not a mother.

    but maybe, just maybe, this is my moment.


    i would really very much love to be a mother in this life.

    and it isn’t because i wish to sacrifice myself at the altar of the next generation, or that i see it some altruistic or dutiful fulfillment of my calling as a woman. it isn’t even because my mother was not the maternal sort, to the extent that she casually told my little sister three weeks ago that if she had a chance to do it all again, she wasn’t sure she would have brought us into the world. though i think that’s how i started with it, newly married in my early twenties.

    i want to be a mother because when i close my eyes and imagine my future, nothing brings me as much joy as visions of a couple of kids running around, even if they’re raising hell in Victoria Secret while i am buying underthings that restore a once-renowned rack to its pre-motherhood glory. even if they’re writing on the walls and puking on my favorite shoes. certainly, i understand the requirements of the position, and the importance of proper childrearing (i’m speaking here of helping them learn to live and love, not flash cards and playdates), but from this side of the fence, it seems a privilege rather than a sacrifice.

    i have the me time and the bar hops and (fairly) perky boobs. it’s a nice life, lovely, really, and i’m enjoying this period of time as a free and single modern woman. but the secret hope in my heart as the wine fades and i drift off to sleep still in full eye make-up is trading all that in for a night spent in a rocking chair, wearing a dirty bathrobe, exhausted and weary and probably frightened but also content and fulfilled at a level that all the freedom in the world couldn’t provide.

    more simply put: i would give an eye tooth to make the “sacrifice” of motherhood.

    the only other thing that i desire with anywhere near the same urgency and passion is to see my name on the spine of a love-worn paperback in the library.

    i certainly don’t see those goals as mutually exclusive.

    why would i?

    Compassrose April 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I think often the use of the word sacrifice is not so much a Benthamite felicific calculation as it is a glass-half-empty rhetorical post decision self justification for not choosing what people who do make that choice call commitment. Same with the word duty. Is duty ennobling or a prison? Depends on your perspective. Oprah chose other commitments arguably more noble than Thai food and concerts. It does depend on what you’re comparing. And what you choose to love. Sacrifice is to commitment as duty is to love.

    Lauren April 30, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I see mothering as an extension of my life. Living far from friends and family makes most outings a family event, and weekends are no longer for sleeping in but for the most part we’ve traded one life for a new one.
    It’s a richer, broader, and more tiring life but also rewarding in amazing ways.

    Life can go on after children, and much easier going on with hired help as Oprah could easily get, but that’s her choice. You just need to know which life is right for you.

    Elizabeth Esther May 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I have a different perspective on Oprah’s comments about sacrifice.

    I’ve heard her talk before about how she couldn’t do the job she does and also do a good job raising children (“good job raising children” meaning: good according to her standard of that would mean).

    I don’t think she was saying that motherhood was this great, terrible, awful sacrifice. She was simply saying that if she were a parent, she wouldn’t be able to give her children what she wanted to give them if she kept her current job.

    I think she was being incredibly honest, not making some sort of universal, it’s-all-hard-terrible-sacrifice commentary about the state of motherhood.

    She didn’t choose children because she didn’t want to neglect them. She knew her calling in life and she followed it. I admire her for that and frankly, I’m grateful she didn’t start telling women: “Hey, you really CAN have it all! Look at me! I have this awesome, high-powered, super-intense career AND I have children!”

    Oprah knew a little something about childhood neglect and I suspect she wasn’t about to perpetuate that upon her own children.

    Lastly, Oprah HAS said that the girls in her South African school ARE her daughters.

    OK, I’m stopping now because I’m beginning to sound like an official spokesperson for Oprah! :)

    get going girly May 2, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I did not want children. I was having way too much fun skiing winters, golfing summers and partying always. I did not even want marriage BUT, my now husband then boyfriend did want marriage and kids and I wanted him to I ‘gave in. When they handed me my son my world shifted and so did my priorities. I have been home with that baby and his 2 sisters for 15 years. We still mourn the fourth almost baby, another girl born with anencephaly. We may sacrifice things to have kids, like spare change or spare time, but it is not a sacrifice to share our lives with them.

    Natalia May 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    What a beautiful and well written post!

    Sacrifice is not just a word, it has religious connotations, at least to me, something like to give up something in return of a gift. I guess mothers that feel that are sacrifying things in their live think that their children will reward them later by being what mothers are expecting for them to be. As you, I didn’t feel that I sacrificed for my son. I had him because I wanted it, so his life belongs to him. He doesn’t need to pay me back.

    By the way, sacrifice comes from the latin words “sacro” and ” facere”, so make something sacred and honoured it. Does it sound like put your children in an altar? I’m not definitely this sort of mother.


    Her Bad Mother May 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    @Natalia, love your comment, thank you! I had a digression in an earlier draft of the post that considered the etymology of the word, but then worried about getting (too) pedantic – thank you for re-introducing it. It does shed some important light on the implications of the word and how it shapes our discussions.

    Natalia May 5, 2011 at 11:07 am

    @Her Bad Mother,

    I love to search for the etymology and origin of the words. For example, motherhood is a late word that appear in the XIII century linked to the worship of Virgin Mary. Just to add another pedantic note :-)


    Linda May 3, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Motherhood IS sacrifice for me. I love these little human beings and their quirks and their accomplishments. They are amazing. I do not love motherhood and it’s hard for me to understand anyone who does.

    I worry all the time. I have no peace of mind. That is a HUGE sacrifice and was not part of my decision to become a mother. I did choose to become a mother. I did not choose to become this rolling ball of anxiety.

    Having a second (Surprise!) child made that worse. Having been conceived when we both had jobs and medical insurance and a fairly stable future in front of us. That all changed within a month of being pregnant. I can’t do what I want to do for my kids. It is a very small consolation that I can keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies when I am so acutely aware of what I cannot do for them.

    This is not their problem and I do my best to never make it their problem but that is a sacrifice in and of itself. One that I’m happy to make so that they can walk through their childhood as happy as childhood can be.

    Framing it in terms of blood and death is overly dramatic and terribly unfair in comparison. It’s the same as saying that my house burned down so you should keep that in mind when you start complaining about losing your electricity because you couldn’t pay the bill. You have a place to live, suck it up. Do you see?

    Your posts are always thoughtful and not meant to be hurtful. I just don’t think that your starting premise of what sacrifice is and means is valid.

    Her Bad Mother May 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    @Linda, I appreciate your comments. I didn’t mean to imply that no-one should use the word sacrifice, ever – I addressed that, a little, in my closing lines that were in effect a disclaimer about my own privilege, and an acknowledgment that a) my feelings about the discourse of maternal sacrifice *in general* were informed by that privilege and b) I recognize that, accordingly, these will not be everyone’s feelings. And as I remarked to someone above, my references to ‘blood’ sacrifice was meant to provide a context for my own reaction to the word (I’m a lapsed Catholic, a student of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and an Indiana Jones fan – the word ‘sacrifice’ involves some loaded implications for me.)

    But in general, my objective was to interrogate HOW we talk about what we do and do not give up in motherhood and how we talk about the choice to have or not have children, and to consider where and how ‘sacrifice’ fits in those discussions and whether certain uses of the term can muddy the discussion. Again, it was not my intention to suggest to anyone that the word should be forbidden. I’m sorry if you read it that way.

    Linda May 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Now I feel bad. I mean it, I keep coming back here because you are so thoughtful about your experience and do your best to be as honest about it as possible.

    I am tired. This is the 6th time in 3 months that the baby has been sick and my work is looking at me sideways and we’re still giving money to the daycare and it just feels like so much. It was, perhaps, not the most fair response to your post.

    I have the benefit of being an active Methodist and often think about parenting and how I perceive God. It’s a comfort to me to know that I’m there in the trenches with Him, parenting these unruly fellows that stole my heart. I can’t make the same sort of sacrifice that He did but it gives me courage to take my sacrifices and walk with them.

    Elizabeth @claritychaos May 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    A favorite and relevant quote:

    “I think there is choice possible to us at any moment, as long as we live. But there is no sacrifice. There is a choice, and the rest falls away. Second choice does not exist. Beware of those who talk about sacrifice.”

    - Muriel Rukeyser

    Agnes Glodich May 5, 2011 at 3:55 am

    Top-notch post it is definitely. Friend on mine has been awaiting for this information.

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