Throw June Cleaver to the Curb
I was scrolling through Facebook a couple days ago and saw it. A post in bold, block text screamed “How do you feel about motherhood?” A riff on how motherhood isn’t all ponies and rainbows? A prompt to begin an honest exchange? Not quite. From the poster and the visible comments, I immediately understood it was an invitation to climb on the motherhood cross and try to outdo one another with tales of sacrifice and examples of exalted motherhood.
These posts make me grimace. They pick at a scar that was a bothersome scab when I was a young mother. More on that momentarily; first let me summarize the comments I found when I ignored the voice that told me to keep going and clicked on the comments:
I live for/love every minute with my kids.
My kids are my life.
My kids are my everything.
If I couldn’t be a mom, I’d be nothing.
Now, onto the grimace. The scar was once a feeling of inferiority. What’s wrong with me? Where’s the magic? The glow? Why do I feel like I’m fumbling and everyone else is screaming how blissful motherhood is? Why do I need me-time? Does that make me a bad mom? Why am I so excited that my youngest is finally in school? Shouldn’t I be a puddle on the floor at the thought? But I’m an older mother now, my children are grown, and time and its experiences bring clarity. So while the scar may have been born of insecurity and worry, it’s now more aligned with an undercurrent of anger and frustration because I remember how these portrayals of motherhood made me feel when I was in the thick of it. And I’m guessing there are moms out there, knee deep in diapers, vomit, or the question “Why?” a million times a day who might share those feelings.
I could venture forth into many subjects (patriarchy, anyone?), and my opinions on those subjects, that lend to the grimace and cringe. But I’ll just explain my initial reactions to the above summarized comments.
Live for and love every minute? I can’t even relate to that. Perhaps more aptly, I find it hard to believe on a large scale. This was a worry of mine when my children were little. I had to force myself to play toddler and little kid games. Barbies? Dump truck smash-up? Don’t even get me started. I wondered what was wrong with me. Other moms appeared to love playing dolls and cars and blocks. It took years and hindsight to know and accept that I wasn’t damaged or not cut out to be a mom. Or how about when you’ve been alone with kids all day and think if you hear “Mommy!” one more time, you’ll lose what’s left of your mind? I call this sentiment nonsense. Not that I believe it’s universally untrue, but I think it’s a hyperbolic mantra of motherhood.
The remaining three sentiments found repeatedly in the comments: let’s just lump them together and call them a false narrative of female purpose.
Do we, as a species, carry a biological imperative to reproduce deep in our collective psyche? Of course. Does that mean that if a woman doesn’t become a mother, she is somehow lacking or abnormal? Absolutely not. Do I think parenting is the hardest and most important thing I’ve done? Yes. But not because it was important to my self-esteem or ego, not because it defined me or explained my existence, but because I had a hand in shaping the people my children would become, how they would view the world and treat others. And I don't underestimate how serious that responsibility is. But is that all I am, all I was made for, my only reason for being? No. And I have a visceral reaction when I hear that record being played. On repeat. For mothers in all stages of their mothering. And especially for women who cannot or choose not to have children.
I might be singing a different tune if it were 1950. Almost certainly. But it’s not. And I’ve known too many mothers who embrace this way of thinking become empty shells when their mothering of dependent children has come to an end. I may be mislabeling, but one new empty-nester said to me, “Who am I supposed to be now? I’m nothing now.” In her world, purpose was gone. Her identity flew away with her children.
Is this a lecture stating that a woman is broken if she doesn’t have some fabulous vocation or passion in addition to motherhood? Not in the least. Just my thoughts about why these kinds of statements make me cringe a little. This is not for everyone, but maybe some woman feeling like she’s losing herself in mothering, and afraid of what that will mean for her when the children leave, will spark to these thoughts.
- A woman is, regardless of maternal desire or lack thereof, regardless of whether she has children or does not, whole and worthy just as she is.
- If a woman neglects self-care or neglects to nourish herself outside her role as a mother, what an unfortunate lesson for her children. And what an unfortunate notion they will carry into their own adult lives.
- If a parent’s identity or ego is dependent solely on their children or the world’s perception of their children, the children may one day feel like objects, like props in the parent’s performance. And maybe it’s even sadder if the children don’t realize it and repeat the cycle.
- And lastly, what a burden to place on children. Of course my children mean the world to me. But if I make my very identity dependent on them, predicate my worth and happiness solely in them, what a load to carry that would be for them. I want them to feel unconditional love from me, not a calling to fill me up, not a constant need for meaning, not a burden.
I am in no way criticizing those Facebook commenters. I’m happy that they love it and it’s their right to scream it from the digital mountaintop. Bristling at their words is my deal, not theirs.
It’s worth noting that maybe the newer generation of moms don’t encounter this as much as my generation. When I was a young mother, it was a little too close to June Cleaver days. I do hope the younger generation feels less pressure to embody some impossible, rigid, unrealistic notion of motherhood.
But for those mothers who may question themselves when they hear or see such strong declarations about motherhood, those who may worry that they’re not all aglow in a saintly state of motherhood, there is nothing wrong with you. You are not lacking some mysterious mom gene. There is nothing wrong in needing alone time, time away from your children, or something outside your role as a mom. Tend to yourself! Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish; holding something outside your children as important doesn’t make you a bad mom. Nurturing the non-mother parts of yourself and being a good mom are not mutually exclusive.