What if there was a metric of motherhood that we could use to gauge our level of “success?” We can probably all agree that we do measure ourselves, relative to one another, relative to the other’ mom’s in the mom group, the mother’s of Instagram, the SAHM’s at church, our mother’s, mother-in-laws, your mother, and those of myth and lore. But, there is not really any streamlined set of principles that we can even agree on as a society that defines what makes a good mother, is there? Motherhood is to each his own. Perhaps therein lies the issue.
Nevertheless, the comparisons begin with our birth plans and have no clear endpoint. Where does your experience of motherhood place you in the rankings? Where do we as individuals and as a society allocate success to one another? Is it having a natural birth compared to a surgical? Is it have one child versus many? Is it staying home compared to working? Or, having an immaculate home, with children living in it, that you also work in? Is it meeting the breastfeeding guidelines set by the Pediatricians of America recommendation of six months? Is it having a body that clearly conveys a subliminal message that we could easily be mistaken for anything but a mother?
A 2017 study by Welch’s of 2,000 mother’s found these women averaged 98 hours of work a week. In short, that is 2.5 more labor than a full-time job. Despite the lingering back ache and eternally unfinished tasks, this painstaking work I was not prepared for is not even the physical labor. I mean, everyone knows motherhood is the hardest job on the planet. But, how exactly do we prepare for the mental, emotional, and invisible responsibility of motherhood? It has become normative for today’s mother’s to work-full time in addition to mothering, running a blog, and keeping a home. In fact, before I met my first child, I was surprised by the nonchalant inquiries in relation to my expanding torso: “so, what are you going to do after the baby comes?”
“What do you mean?” I’d ask.
“For work?” They’d respond.
I quickly learned: motherhood (unpaid) is not good enough. Instead, we’re expected to do something better, more visible, more respectable, or highly rewarded to outline our post-partum plan (assuming that even goes as planned). I should have known better. While I was a doctoral student in sociology, I read plenty of statistics about unpaid labor. I read The Second Shift, Arlie Hochshild’s seminal work on the extra work mother’s do after they go to work. I suppose I had convinced myself back then that I would never, ever, succumb to the diminishing title of mother.
Now that I am one, twice over, I’m amazed at the rhetoric our society uses around motherhood. The lack of productive value we attribute to spending time with children, and consequently, how commonplace the expectation has become that we have better things to do but mother. In our highly visible society, we are practically expected to share the invisible, the private, tender moments of motherhood. Do we have to qualify our time as mothers by photographing it, sharing stories, and waiting for people to confirm it with likes? Yes, this must be what it looks like to be a good mother. I can’t help but wonder, is this how my daughter will learn to become a mother if I am not there to teach her?
If you are a stay-at-home mother, you have to prove your worth with clever DIY activities, nature-inspired excursions, and a perfectly curated play space. If you are a full-time mother, you have to secure your value with your monetary contribution while answering to every other stated expectation of motherhood: a clean home, healthy food, cutting-edge education, professional family portraits, etc. You probably have to work harder at work to counteract the exhausting reality you return to every waking night at home. Let’s just say it: it’s best to try not to look like a mother.
Despite my own commitment to motherhood, I have never felt so consistently close to failure at any other point in my life. I am often reminded of a poster at my alma mater, of an athlete sitting on a bench, looking dejectedly down with the phrase: “Berkeley: where your best isn’t good enough.” It terrified me as I began college, thinking I was embarking on the hardest chapter of my life. Little did I know, it would be more apropos to motherhood. I wonder how many mother’s feel like they would drop out of this gig called motherhood, if they could.
Whatever pathway you chose to motherhood: naturally, accidentally, artificially, married or unmarried, there is one thing that connects every mother: it is this impossible hierarchy of motherhood. We are all comparing what we have, don’t have, have done, or haven’t done, and assuming society is doing the same to us. It is this that ultimately makes motherhood so difficult; it is this invisible labor that consumes our internal reserves to push back against the incongruent metrics of motherhood. Sometimes I wonder if a law degree would have best prepared me for motherhood for the amount of advocacy I’ve had to learn in order to convey this message that no matter how much you feel like you measure up as a mother, like it or do it: motherhood is good enough.