I’m a few years into this motherhood thing now – long enough to have some thoughts about what motherhood is. Turns out it is difficult. More so than I thought it would be. It’s relentless, confusing, and isolating. It’s exhausting to the marrow. It empties me of all I have and then empties me some more, forcing me to scrape at the bedrock of my endurance and find what I didn’t know was there to give. Motherhood is helpless. My heart on wobbly legs navigating stairs. I get it. This is why we honor moms. They’ve earned it.
It’s also, in my experience, multiple daily dopamine hits. It’s wonder. It’s encountering the world all over again. It’s being the very first Most Important Person in someone’s life. It’s the quickening in an infant’s eyes at the sound of my voice and the dirt-stained tears on my chest from a preschooler’s cheek. Because that particular spot on my chest, the spot with the sun-damage mole that he loves, is his home. His safest place. It’s being trusted beyond what I’ve earned. It’s being loved simply and forgiven instantly (my kids aren’t teenagers yet). It is sheer privilege.
On Mother’s Day, I feel like we hear a great deal about the struggle and sacrifice of motherhood, and we even hear some about the privilege. But we hear almost nothing about the socially privileged position of motherhood. We live in a society where motherhood is the norm for women, and any woman of a certain age who isn’t a mother is reminded of her noncompliance with this norm in a thousand different ways. Some of them are subtle; some are astoundingly obtuse. Mother’s Day happens to be a day when her noncompliance with the norm is rubbed vigorously in her face. This is why, every year, I like to hold a little bit of space on this day for what motherhood isn’t.
Motherhood is not automatic. About sixty percent of us can schedule babies between vacations and waxing appointments, but one in eight of us will for some period of her life be suspended between a desire to become a mother and an excruciating uncertainty as to when or if that will happen. This can last for years or decades. It can last for a lifetime.
Motherhood is not always visible. About ten to twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. About one in one hundred pregnancies ends in a stillbirth. Some mothers lose their children when they are older. Still others have had to give their children up. I promise you that you know women who have carried children in their wombs but do not hold them in their arms. You don’t necessarily know who we are. We don’t slap a bumper sticker on our car for each loss, and we might not stand when they’re handing out flowers to the moms in church. But we are mothers. And we will always carry those children.
Motherhood is not biology. Shoutout to all the adoptive mothers who constantly field questions about their child’s “real” mom. (Let’s just stop it, shall we?) And to all the nurturing and fierce women (and men) out there who are guiding people through the world, regardless of who bore them. I have been mothered by many people, some of them infertile peers, some of them women with kids, one of them a quirky Argentine lady, and, yes, one who gave birth to me. I am thankful for all of them.
Motherhood is not a requirement. It’s hard enough to be a woman in the world without being constantly fed the bullshit that we have not completed our life cycle until we have spawned. While it really seems like at this point I shouldn’t have to say that a woman is a complete human of her own right, I’m going to say it, just in case: no woman owes the world children. Full stop.
Motherhood is not yo’ damn business. I’m just going to posit a mad theory here: let us suppose for a moment that a woman is capable of communicating her reproductive plans with all of the people in her life who need to know – say, her partner (if applicable), her doctor, her inner circle. Are you with me, here? Do we think women are capable of doing that? Great. It logically follows, then, that if a woman has not told you her reproductive plans, then you are not a person who needs to know. Crazy, huh? I encourage you to ask yourself, the next time you want to ask a woman if or when she is planning to have children, “Does this woman owe me this information?” (Hint: the answer is no.) If the answer is no, then go ahead and ask her something less loaded, like how much she weighs.
Motherhood is not womanhood. I was not a mother, and now I am. Guess what? I’m the same person. I have not unlocked secret levels of humanhood. I did not grow lady parts I didn’t have before. I did not suddenly access emotions of which I was heretofore incapable. Can we please stop belittling the life experience of women who do not have children? There are precisely as many ways of being a woman in the world as there are women in it. If we spent less time measuring each other and more time honoring each other, we’d all be stronger for it.
Today, by all means, let us celebrate mothers. But let us expand our idea of what motherhood is, and please, let us remember what it isn’t.