Growing up, I never dreamed about becoming a mother. Instead my fantasies revolved around bylines and books. As I got older, I dedicated much of my energy to getting my writing career off the ground—waking up at 5 am to write fiction before turning to my paying work, and sending submissions to literary journals. My husband and I talked about having a child one day, but in the meantime I concentrated on my career. I didn’t yearn for a baby. I yearned for a book deal, an artist’s retreat, a plum writing gig.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to be both a mother and a writer. But once women give birth, they’re expected to identify as mothers first and foremost. We’re pressured to move whatever we were before—artist, executive, scientist, ski bum—to the backseat. And so motherhood completely razed the landscape of my identity when I gave birth to my son at age 33.
Parenting in isolation
“When I see pregnant women, I want to take them by their shoulders and shake. I mean really shake,” the protagonist of Elisa Albert’s 2015 novel After Birth reflects. “Are you ready? No, not have you decided on your child’s name and gender and aesthetic! No, not do you have every possible medical procedure lined up! I mean are you ready!? Like spiritually, bitches. Spiritually.”
I was not ready—in the physical or spiritual sense. I knew that raising a baby wouldn’t be easy, but I was unprepared for the overwhelming physical realities of providing constant care for an infant. There is no way to understand the effects of sleep deprivation until you’ve personally spent weeks on end sleeping in three-hour fits. I staggered through the day unshowered, surviving on handfuls of dry cereal. I put off work, sex, and personal hygiene. Suddenly it was clear to me why so many women defined themselves as mothers first. I literally had no time for anything else.
To make matters worse, our family had recently moved to a new town, two hours away from our deeply-rooted community. Isolation took its toll. My husband was wonderful and supportive, but he worked full-time. I wanted a circle of wise women, elders full of love and patience who could help get me through this without screwing everything up and losing my sanity. But I spent much of those early days with no one but my infant to talk to, the two of us crying in tandem.
Normally I would have turned to writing to process my thoughts and emotions, but now I had no time for it. And so the borders of my personality felt increasingly blurred.
One in seven women experience post-partum depression, according to the American Psychological Association. But based entirely on the experience of myself and the women I know, I’d venture to say that most new mothers experience some form of depression, at least initially—whether or not it meets clinical standards.
“One of the biggest struggles of motherhood, especially because it’s often not conscious, is ambivalence,” Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, tells Quartz. “It’s very guilt-inducing.” And I did feel guilty—first for being unhappy despite how much I loved my son, and later, when I finally went back to work, for throwing myself into writing when it felt as if the whole world was judging me for every moment I didn’t spend with my child.
The salvation of work
Once my son was a bit older and I could afford childcare, returning to writing gave me a sense of purpose and industry. I felt redeemed—both in my own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Seeing my name in print offered proof that I wasn’t “just” a mother. That’s a terribly sad statement about how much American culture values motherhood. But let’s face it: many people don’t see parenting as “real” work, and I had firmly internalized that message.
And yet even as our culture dismisses the labor of parenthood, it enforces a deep ambivalence about mothers who dare to pursue careers. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are conflicted about the idea of mothers even returning to work. “Among all adults, only 16% say the ideal situation for a young child is to have a mother who works full time,” the report notes. And so I was convinced that I was horribly selfish for being dedicated to my writing career, yet equally petrified that people would see me only as my son’s mother—never again as a person with hopes and desires of her own.
What finally changed my outlook turned out to be surprisingly simple. At long last, I made friends with other mothers. Together we formed not so much a village as a wailing wall.
Now I had women to whom I could admit that I sometimes sort of hated my child—at least when he was throwing a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. I could sit in their kitchens, half-dead with exhaustion, as they made tea. I could show up at their doors with a cranky toddler and count on being welcomed in and fed. They didn’t judge me for having unkempt hair or wearing my sweater inside out. And many of these mothers had also held strong professional identities before they had children. They were firefighters, lawyers, and teachers, and they were also struggling to figure out how to have a career that was somehow compatible with child-rearing.
“We get thrown a lot of ‘do and be whatever you want and lean in,’” Albert tells Quartz, referring to her own experiences with motherhood. “But the realities of childbearing are not compatible with that.”
I finally understood that almost all mothers struggle to find the right balance between family and career once I had this circle of friends. And I also had a bigger epiphany: We aren’t meant to parent in isolation.
A circle of women
Most of us aren’t going to rush out and form communes anytime soon. But it’s undoubtedly true that mothers need to seen, heard, and helped by others who have had the same experiences and know what it’s like to be in the trenches. Once I found my community, I found that the energy I’d spent obsessing over parenting and self-loathing was suddenly freed up. Only then was I truly able to feel like myself again.
Psychologists have reached the same conclusions. “In terms of perinatal mood disorders, social support is one of the legs that holds a mom up,” Katayune Kaeni, a California-based maternal mental health specialist and psychologist tells Quartz. “Just not feeling alone helps.”
“For the women I see, to feel that ‘I’m not crazy, this is a thing and it happens, that’s incredibly relieving,” Kaeni continues. But in our nomadic modern age, “We don’t have people passing down information and tradition and ritual.”
Kaeni would also love to see more parenthood preparation classes for parents-to-be. We make birth plans, after all, but few after birth plans—particularly for new mothers.
Albert, meanwhile, argues that there is “an incredible wealth of knowledge in books”—but mothers won’t find what they’re looking for on self-help shelves.
“Every time I see What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I want to rip it out of a woman’s hands and replace it with Sharon Olds poetry, or Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born,” she tells Quartz. In the rawness of literature, women tell the unvarnished, necessary truths about raising children. “Women have always been the storytellers.”
Indeed, I count novels like Albert’s, and memoirs like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, among my circle of women. My friends have helped to ground me so that I can tackle both writing and mothering. In the same way, stories of rough entrées into motherhood offer me companionship. What’s more, books that tell women’s messy, emotionally complex stories remind me of why I write in the first place. When we lay our struggles and our worst selves bare, we help others feel less alone. It takes a village to help us retain our sense of self.