Let mom down from the pedestal: in praise of the messy, imperfect, authentic mother

There is no perfect way to be a mother.
There is no perfect way to be a mother.
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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I loved Mother’s Day when I was a child. I loved it so much that I once gave a beribboned pot of wild violets and a big paper heart that said, “Happy Mother’s Day!” to a childless neighbor. I didn’t understand why she looked at me strangely until my mom explained that “mother” and “woman” are not synonymous. It came as a shock to realize that not all women are defined by their children.

I adored my mother and I adored arts and crafts, so Mother’s Day was the perfect confluence of my passions. I eagerly watched her unwrap my little gifts, waiting for the smile that told me my offering had been accepted. I was confident that a macrame bracelet was the perfect thank you for the sacrifice she had made of her life, the countless times she had fed me, wiped my bottom, woke in the night to soothe me, the career she had forfeited, and the pleasures she had renounced. I had even added some rainbow-colored beads.

My mother was touched by the gifts I made for her, and she was entirely devoted to her children, but she was often unhappy. She was brought up to believe that good mothers live only for their children, and as a consequence, she did not have a life beyond us. This caused me to downgrade my opinion of Mother’s Day.

Historically, children were expected to shoulder some of the burden of running a household or farm and take care of their parents in old age. Having children provided tangible economic benefits. Today, children are like helpless, altricial birds that can barely open their eyes or flap their featherless wings until their third or fourth decade, and then they leave the nest without looking back. There are no longer any economic benefits to having children, only liabilities. Therefore, to prevent its own demise through attrition, society had to quickly devise some narrative about the social benefits of parenthood. This narrative is epitomized by Mother’s Day.

The image our society projects about mothers is that they are wholesome, kind, wise, and self-sacrificing. The image of children is that they are irreproachable blank slates waiting to be written upon by the hands of doting parents. That is, of course, nonsense: Anyone with functioning ovaries can be a mother, and since we’ve all been to kindergarten, we should be pretty clear on the fact that not all children are irreproachable, or even good people. Those images are important to society, though, because they paint the following picture. When good mothers elevate themselves above the froth of human ambition, desires, and needs, they are rewarded with a sacred trust, the ability to mold little beings of infinite potential. Everyone is smiling in this scenario, because mothers are perfectly fulfilled, and their children are destined for greatness.

This image does not map very well to reality. Women don’t leave behind their desires or their problems when they have kids. They continue to represent the full messy spectrum of humanity with their cravings and ambitions, talents, and flaws. Children also represent that same spectrum; they are clever, dull, generous, mean, funny, spiteful, and charismatic in about the same proportion as adults. Relationships between mothers and children have some unique aspects, but they are not monolithic—they are as varied and multilayered as any relationship between two complex individuals. And just like any other human relationship, they may give rise to many emotions besides happiness. On any given day, a whopping one in 10 American mothers experiences symptoms of depression, a rate that is significantly higher than for women in general.

The bond between parents and offspring is not meant to be balanced or reciprocal, for obvious reasons. Our elevation of mothers to sainthood and admiration of their martyrdom goes too far in the opposite direction, however, imposing unrealistic expectations of self-abnegation on women and putting too little pressure on fathers, communities, employers, governments, and yes, even children, to do their parts. Mothers are encouraged to put their own dreams aside for the sake of the future generation, but after hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid childcare, domestic work, chauffeur duty, and shopping trips, those dreams can slip beyond reach.

Motherhood certainly offers rewards, but those rewards don’t disappear because of state-sponsored daycare or when husband or child washes the dishes. If we allow mothers to step down from their pedestals, if we let go of the ideal of the self-sacrificing mother who lives more for her children than for herself, a lot of kids would have happier and healthier moms. If our society expected children to take more responsibility for their own well-being, we would produce more successful young adults as well. How did we collectively arrive at a place where women work full-time jobs and then come home to work a second unpaid shift of menial labor, while teens get to college without knowing the basics about how to take care of themselves and complain to their therapists about how their mothers ruined their lives? This is not a social norm that is good for parents or for children, particularly not female children who may grow up to become mothers themselves.

Mothers are not martyrs and children are not passive vessels; our society should stop pushing those two intertwined memes. This Mother’s Day, tell a mother you know that you appreciate her for who she is, not for the loads of laundry she has washed. And tell her children to pick up their own damn socks.