Years ago, long before I had children of my own, a friend who was a few years older than me made a confession. I hadn’t seen her in months and we were only able to get together once or twice a year, so perhaps that made it a little easier for her to tell me her secret.
“I never really wanted kids,” she said, staring at her plate of half-eaten chocolate cake. “I just figured it was what I was supposed to do, but I’ve never felt very good at it.”
I must have stared at her like she had two heads because she quickly added, “But I love my kids! I can’t imagine life without them now! I just don’t know how to be one of those moms who are happy being moms.”
I had no response. Not because I thought her confession was all that terrible—I’d long suspected that very few moms are happy being moms 100 percent of the time—but because she seemed so upset by what were very normal feelings. I didn’t have kids, so I couldn’t really speak from a place of experience then, but I can now. I'd tell my friend, whose kids are now grown and have lives of their own and who has lived a very full life that includes them and all of the interests she had to put aside when they were younger: “It’s OK. Most of us feel like that at least some of the time. And some of us feel like that most of the time.”
Being a good mom doesn't mean sacrificing ourselves on the altar of motherhood, but we also know that focusing on ourselves too much will get us criticized for being selfish.
My mother grew up believing being a mother was the greatest accomplishment a woman could achieve. She didn’t seem to realize that her discontent with her day-to-day life, her constant disappointment in her family, her borderline obsession with having perfect kids and a perfect house were not fulfilling her. She’d bought into the idea that motherhood was the end-all-be-all of womanhood. And she was desperately unhappy.
“Don’t have children,” she told me when I was in my twenties. “They steal your life.”
My relationship with my mother was difficult and unhappy, and for many years I didn’t want children because I knew I could never be one of those moms. Over the years, I’ve known many women like my mother and my old friend, women who will never admit that motherhood doesn’t fulfill them, who won’t even bring themselves to offer a confession over dessert that they love themselves at least as much as they love their children. Because to say such a thing is to be a Bad Mother and no one wants that, right?
Current motherhood culture demands we gush over our children on social media and share memes about our kids being our greatest accomplishment, our entire world, our reason for living! “Like and Share if you love your children more than anything!” “Like and Share if you have a daughter who is your greatest blessing!” “Like and Share if you would do anything to make your children happy!” I roll my eyes when I see these things, but obviously a lot of women don’t and feel compelled to share it, as if not sharing it is somehow a reflection of how much you love your children or how good a mother you are. Even when venting over the pitfalls of motherhood, women feel compelled to add, “But I love my children!” as if someone might question our devotion to our children if we don’t announce it.
A lot of us moms go about the business of having and raising children without all the fanfare of being (or trying to be) the World's Greatest Mom. We don’t want the title or the imaginary trophy, we just want to be good moms and also be true to ourselves. We love our children (of course!) but also appreciate the days they’re in school and the nights when they go to bed easily and the house is quiet and ours for two to three hours until we fall into bed. We might not be counting the days, but we look forward to the day when our kids grow up and leave the nest. Being a good mom doesn't mean sacrificing ourselves on the altar of motherhood, but we also know that focusing on ourselves too much will get us criticized for being selfish. So we’re quietly making our lives our own and rejecting the idea of motherhood being our only pursuit.
The women who are vying for World’s Best Mother are probably less happy than you are because they bought into the idea that motherhood is the end-all-be-all of their lives.
Seven years into this motherhood gig, I can tell you this: You can love your children and love yourself. It’s OK to want things for yourself—whether it’s a satisfying career, a hot sex life with your husband or a hobby that excites you—and none of those things make you a bad mother. I can also say, without a doubt, that the women who are vying for World’s Best Mother are probably less happy than you are because they bought into the idea that motherhood is the end-all-be-all of their lives and are now so caught up in their children’s lives and being the perfect mother that they can’t admit they aren’t happy all of the time.
But they aren’t. No one is. And if they try to tell you otherwise—or try to make you feel bad for taking a vacation without your kids or taking a class at night instead of being home to put your kids in bed—know this: They are jealous and envy the fact that you have bucked the system of oppression that is placed on mothers. Bottom line: They wish they could do it, too.
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We all want to be happy. The hard part in finding that happiness is ignoring the critics—both external and internal—and finding our own voices. Once you find your own voice, uninhibited and strong, it’s easy to say, “This is what I want from my life. I love my children, but being a mother isn’t enough to make me happy all the time. This is what I need.”
Waiting to have kids until I was in my 40s meant that I never felt caught up in the Mommy Wars, never felt the need to be a certain kind of mom. I love my children (of course!), but I had a full and happy life before they came along and rather than being my only happiness, they contribute and complement my happiness. And on days when I just can’t Mom anymore, it is the happiness that infuses the rest of my life that takes the edge off the difficult, exhausting and often frustrating job of raising little humans.