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The One Pressure on Moms We Never Talk About

Photograph by Twenty20

I can’t remember the first time I locked myself in the bathroom to cry and rage over the challenges of parenting. Eleven years into parenting, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve done it.

But each time I’ve placed that locked bathroom door between my children and me, the following refrain has run through my mind: Fuck this shit.

"Parenting is so hard," I say to myself. "I thought it was supposed to be different.”

In my calmer moments, I’ve realized that it wasn’t so much the experience of parenting that had defied my expectations. Parenthood itself has been just as difficult as anyone else has made it out to be. Instead, my own feelings about parenthood have defied my expectations. And I think that’s because, as a mother, I parent under the specter of motherhood.

Motherhood is not simply a biological experience. It is also a social experience that carries with it a dizzying (and often maddening) set of social expectations. These expectations pertain not only to the way one dresses or speaks or relates to one’s child(ren). They also pertain to the depth and transparency of mothers’ emotional lives.

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Yes, as mothers, our emotions are subject to social expectations, which means that they are subject to social judgment and disdain.

I like to think of it this way: On the day a person gives birth, tucked inside their newborn baby’s blanket should be a note with the following message: “Welcome to motherhood. From this day forward, gratitude is your only acceptable emotion.”

Or at least it’s our only acceptable public emotion.

... [A]ny mother who expresses an emotion deviating from the gratitude-norm is likely to harm her all-too-fragile children.

This expectation of maternal gratitude encompasses more than mere feelings of gratefulness, too. It also encompasses joy. Playfulness. Wonder. All feelings for which we can, and should, be grateful. They operate under an umbrella of gratitude. And to “do motherhood”—to perform modern motherhood—is to perform these, and only these, emotions. It is to be eternally grateful and in the literal sense. Grateful for the messes. Grateful for the sacrifices. Grateful for each and every moment, no matter how mundane, no matter how disgusting, no matter how noisy. Grateful even for the times that we need to lock ourselves in the bathroom to keep from losing our damn minds.

It is to be grateful for everything. It is to exist in a permanent state of gratitude.

And yet, in no other human experience do we expect people to express such superhuman gratitude. Not when it comes to careers. Not when it comes to adventures. Not even when it comes to fatherhood.

But it is what we expect of mothers.

The concern, I think, is that mothers who give voice to their regret or despair—to their “non-gratitude” feelings—must also be “bad mothers.” Here, I do not mean the “Bad Moms” of the film variety. Those moms were so bad they were good. They didn’t so much give the finger to motherhood as they gave it a drunken wink and a nudge. No, the bad moms to whom I refer are the ones who supposedly wreck their children’s emotional lives. And according to the myth of modern motherhood, any mother who expresses an emotion deviating from the gratitude-norm is likely to harm her all-too-fragile children.

People who are mothers are not mothers who happen to be human beings. We are human beings who happen to be mothers.

As with any social expectation or stereotype, it’s important that we ask: Is this truly the case? Is it true that mothers who express anything but gratitude harm their children? It is true that giving voice to our non-pretty feelings always has equally non-pretty results?

Might it be the case that there are perfectly fine and loving parents who sometimes express anger or despair and nonetheless raise perfectly fine and loving children? (The answer, I think, is an obvious yes.)

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People who are mothers are not mothers who happen to be human beings. We are human beings who happen to be mothers. And as human beings, we experience a broad range of emotions: most of which do not fit neatly under the umbrella of gratitude.

To suppress those feelings is, I think, to suppress something of our humanity. It is to deny the full range of our experiences.

And so, if I could revise that imaginary newborn note, I’d do so as follows: “Welcome to motherhood. From this day forward, you will feel a broad range of emotions. All of these emotions are acceptable. Find a way to express them all judiciously and compassionately.”

And find at least one awesome, open-minded person to let you feel those feelings on the other side of the bathroom door.

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