When Mothering Isn’t What You Thought

les-baladins-mother-and-child
Les Baladins (Mother and Child), Pablo Picasso

Let’s face it, nobody knows exactly what they’re signing up for when they become a parent. Surely, if you’re from a family of somewhere around a million kids, then parenting might be a skill you grew up with. Many of us aren’t, and…it isn’t.

With that said, it seems that there are two types of “pre-parents” out there. The first are the over-the-moon-in-love with every chunky baby they can get their hands on, swooning over all those extra rolls and chubby cheeks, dreaming of the day when they will have ten of their own. The other pre-parent types are the ones who scowl at the unruly children in the pew, become nauseous at the sight of a kid digging for gold in his nose, and each time resolve that if ever they should produce a human being, it will be nothing like these vulgar sorts they seem to encounter. Perhaps some of us even fluctuate constantly between the two.

And then one day, you’re a parent…and you don’t know how (well, hopefully you know how you became a parent, but you don’t know how to BE a parent!) It’s not like you can rehearse this whole thing before it happens. You can’t get a loaner kid (of your exact kid’s temperament and personality) and just try it out for a while. There is no job interview, orientation, or trial period. Oh, and you also can’t ever quit.

And so I ask you, who in their right mind would sign up for this sort of thing? Well, clearly I did, and perhaps you have as well. If so, then you may have also found yourself wondering if this was the right decision for you after all. Lately, I’ve heard over and over again that, “Mothering isn’t what I thought it would be.” To their dismay, many woman find that they don’t like who they have become in the role of motherhood (crazy screaming lunatic lady). They also discover that they can’t stand being around their kids all day. And most discouragingly, that they feel detached from the life that at one time made them happy.

This has been something I have been deeply reflecting on, asking the Lord for his guidance on the heavy role of motherhood. Three areas struck me in particular:

Mindset

If you have grown up for many of your formative years in America, or a similar society, then you have been conditioned to be very goal and self oriented. As Christ diminishes from our cultural practices, communities, and families, our mindset becomes focused on, well…us.

When you were school aged, you were constantly asked what college you were going to attend, what you were going to study, and ultimately what you were going to do with the rest of your life. In college, the pressure is even more magnified. After college, you can expect to be greeted with (and judged by) the phrase, “So, what do you do?” for the rest of your life. Even in retirement, the question will follow you.

Every one of us wants to have an answer that will impress. It’s the only way to get respect, a spouse, a decent group of friends, and a social position, after all.

So, let’s reflect. We all have parents. Some of those parents even stayed home with us as children. Those of us who were lucky enough to have a parent stay home with us, most likely value that sacrifice. However, even if we held out hope to one day pass along that gift, we want to “live a little first.” This way, we can one day join the conversation, saying that we used to do this or that before having kids.

We are oriented toward accomplishment, self marketing, and pride. It’s just who we’ve allowed ourselves to become, and it takes an act of the will to turn against it. Self-sacrifice is not natural. Laying down your life is not comfortable. Love is not easy.

Preparation

Again, looking at other cultures, children are given household tasks from a very early age that prepare them for a future family of their own. There is often talk in the family of preparing the child to be a parent and have a household of their own. In our culture, it seems taboo to assume that a child will get married or have children. It is almost beneath them to be expected to fold laundry or cook dinner. How can we expect them to shoot for the stars after all, if they are busy doing menial jobs like cutting grass?

I remember hearing a threat all throughout my childhood, from almost every single adult, as if it was some sort of grown-up conspiracy. “Wait until you have kids of your own…then you’ll see!” It was a threat, a looming doomsday curse, something I hoped to escape with every fiber of my being. There was a general consensus among adults; parenting was a mistake. Yet, it was also one they wished their own kids would one day suffer. Confusing. The connotations were never good. I never heard, “Wait until you’re a parent, and you’ll see how beautiful love really is.” No, it was always filled with a terror, that left me hoping for any other vocation.

Then came the single years, and for some of us those linger on many years after college. During those years, I found myself bumbling along; over-working, eating poorly, over-committing, and hoping for direction. I didn’t take the time to prepare for a future vocation to marriage; perfecting my planning skills (particularly meal planning), working on balancing my temperament and decreasing my vices, serving others on a regular basis (through charity work or other). No, I erratically jumped from one commitment to the next. No one but me noticed if I didn’t fold the laundry, do the dishes, or make the bed…so I didn’t. I didn’t have to wait to use the shower in the morning, or cook extra eggs, or wait for anyone else (ahem, everyone else) to be ready before I could walk out the door.

I also didn’t often choose to hang out with families, considering that I didn’t have one of my own. I guess this was chalked up to being at different places in life, and feeling more comfortable around other single friends. But, I know now that there is an unquestionable value in participating in family life, even if it’s not your own. The family is the domestic church, and drawing nearer or even serving a family can have great value for both.

Isolation

The hardest and most isolating points of motherhood for me, were the long winter days before any of the kids could speak a word. Not being able to go for a walk around the neighborhood, or even chat with another mom at the playground for days at a time had a way of withering me. Sometimes I would find myself going to a coffee shop with the baby carrier in tow, just to be around the noise and hustle and bustle of other people. And I know I’m not alone, scouring the library schedule for kids activities, even if the moms are singing itsy-bitsy spider louder than the kids.

We are isolated. When I went through the tough postpartum period with my second son, all I wanted was company. I didn’t want someone to drop a meal at the door and run (although that was really nice), but I wanted them to come in and talk, or watch a movie with me, or go for a walk. I wanted their time. I wanted their presence. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to assume that a new mom wanted to be alone with her baby, and so I was alone.

In certain African countries, a new mom is surrounded by support from all the women in the community for at least the first few months. She is cared for as if she were a queen. Her household tasks are handled for her, her other children are cared for, and she is given both company when she needs it, as well as alone time to rest with her child. These cultures are sending a clear message; motherhood is the most important thing a woman can do, and the entire community recognizes it.

Likewise, my husband and I have befriended a Christian community called the Bruderhof When they found out I had delivered our third child, they asked if they could send a young single woman from the community to come for the summer and serve us. She would help with the children, the chores, cooking and cleaning, and most importantly supporting me and the baby. We were shocked and overwhelmed. Yet, in their community this is very normal. In fact, every postpartum mom is served for months and even years by a single sister. As you might imagine, postpartum depression is also extremely rare in their community.

Conclusion

So what is the answer? We can only change our society through first changing ourselves, our families, and our communities. In doing so, it is imperative to keep Christ in the center. We must look to the crucifix and in doing so, see love and self-sacrifice, which should be desired and emulated. Young people need more service, not less. They not only need to serve in their own household (and in every area), but they should serve others in their community as well. Let the focus be on who they are and not what they will accomplish. Bestow joy on them in presenting the idea of a future family and children of their own, filling them with confidence in their ability to serve and raise others.

Single people who feel called to marriage and family life should spend time with families, serving them and sharing in their joys and sorrows. They should also seek to conform their life to one preparing for the vocation to marriage, beginning to more intentionally focus on skills which will serve them best in that vocation.

Finally, community is at the core of who we are. Outside of our own family unit, our local Christian community is the most important family we are called to serve. Be intentionally present. Commit to a group of families who seek to serve one another and the community, despite character flaws and strife, all for the greater glory of God.

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Comments

  1. Blanca says

    I come from an Asian background. Mothering over there is very different than here in the US. It is not essentially better than here, but there are good points and bad points. The very prominent good point is that you would hardly find a mother with depression over there. Even the impoverished and destitute mothers are not depressed! For me, the most isolating experience here in the US is this thing called privacy. Everybody is so private about everything. And everybody seems to believe and rely in different experts about everything and you can’t dare challenge any of that. A community of bubble wraps is hardly human. I firmly believe that motherhood is meant to be a learn as you go thing. There is plenty of room for mistakes, and plenty of room to grow and plenty more room to build each other up primarily with our presence in each other’s lives. Be intentionally present, as Kim puts it. So, anybody up for a karaoke somewhere? 🙂 You don’t have to sing, you can just bear with those of us who will regardless of talent.

    • says

      I have noticed this same thing about privacy, yet in the end it often just divides family and friends. And, yes, there seems to be experts for everything in this country, and their authority trumps even basic common sense. We are all struggling in different ways, why not put pride aside and admit that we need each other? Thanks for your perspective Blanca!

  2. Jenny says

    This is fantastic. The first paragraph of explanation especially resonated, that drive that we’re steeped in towards individualism and accomplishment and a real orientation toward selfishness that makes parenthood fairly traumatic, to be honest. And I was raised with 6 younger siblings. I still shudder when I think of how unhelpful and entitled I was towards my parents when I was a teenager at home.

    • says

      I hear you Jenny! It is embarrassing when I look back on myself as a teen. The truth is, at the time I was motivated by one thing; becoming famous. That seemed to be the most important thing, sadly. I would sum myself up then, as “drowning in first world problems.”

  3. AnneMarie says

    I love this post so much!!! I think it’s really cool how you point out the negative connotations in the phrase, “Just wait till you have kids of your own…” I had never before really thought about that, but it does put a rather negative spin on the whole parenting thing!

    I think it’s neat that you bring up other cultures. In America, we can get very narrow-minded about motherhood, and we can easily slip into thinking that the way we’ve always seen mothering is “the only” or “the best” way to do it, which just isn’t true. Recently, I read a book about motherhood in France, and it was far different than a lot of American parenting I’ve seen-but I really enjoyed the book, and learned a lot that I want to incorporate after I give birth later this summer.

    On a final note, thank you for mentioning the importance of single people spending time with families! As a young adult who is married and pregnant, I have noticed a weird divide-when I spend time with people who have children, the only people present are parents with little kids; and when I go to a gathering with other young adults, there are mainly single people, and no kids in sight. A little more integration would probably be good!

    • says

      Fabulous points and observations AnneMarie. I have certainly noticed how much we separate ourselves in this country, based on age and current vocation. While it’s great to have support and friendship with others in a similar experience, we can lose a lot of the wisdom and experience from those who have been through it, as much as isolate those who aren’t there yet. It’s great that you took it upon yourself to read about another cultures parenting styles, and to incorporate methods you like into your own methods!

  4. says

    I’m curious as to the root of America’s PP attitudes. It’s almost like you have to be some sort of superwoman, losing all your baby weight in the first six weeks and going back to normal life at less than a week postpartum. Maybe it goes back to pioneer days?

    You are right. We do need to change. And talking about it like this is the first step.

    • says

      Maybe it’s the emphasis on productivity in our culture? Motherhood is acceptable only if it temporarily interferes with being a size 6 and cooking a continental breakfast, all while winning a Pulitzer prize! The saddest part of my PP research in this country, has been discovering how often it was “treated” with a lobotomy. Sad.

  5. Sarah says

    Thanks Kim! I enjoyed reading this!

    One of the things I’ve found most challenging is feeling like you are the “only one” who is experiencing these feelings. Knowing others share these experiences really helps to put things in perspective!

    I especially enjoyed the “pre-parent” part of the piece … I know I was an obnoxious pre-parent! I thought I would create the developmentally appropriate haven that would produce perfect children … And of course I’d shed every ounce of baby weight, never have a laundry pile, and cook a gourmet organic meal every night.

    Sometimes, instead of recognizing that our expectations have been unrealistic, we cling to our preconceived notions so we feel inadequate and think we’re failing. In reality, we’re right on track! God is giving us the opportunity to experience humility and turn to him for the grace we need just to get through the day.

    • says

      So true Sarah! Sometimes I wish I had never formed any pre-parent, preconceived notions at all. You make a good point in saying that we look back on them and feel that we’re failing. But alas, the children we would have imagined would have made our path a little too easy, our egos a little too big, and quite frankly, our lives far more boring!

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