The internet is a strange and wonderful device. Start pondering a serious social question, give up pondering and type it into Google, and a million simple answers pop up to make sense of the world for you. Or make hash of it. That's what happened to me when I googled, “Has motherhood changed?”
The answers were many and varied. Facts and figures bombarded my eyes. Polls told me that moms love having more career options and the help of technology; they also believe that the moms of twenty years ago were happier and less stressed. They're grateful to have so many choices and such involved husbands; they're terrified of all the things that could hurt their children or impede childhood development. They're glad to be moms; they're worried they're not good enough moms.
The world of motherhood started to look like a whole lot of hash until I casually scanned a forum and had it all simply and succinctly explained to me: Of course motherhood has changed. It's definitely optional now, and no longer really even necessary.
Further comments fleshed out the picture: It used to be that motherhood was seen as the summit of feminine achievement, the goal that gave real meaning and fulfillment to a woman's life. (The single woman was simply “on the shelf”, unwanted goods.) No longer. Motherhood is now just one of a myriad of options from which women can choose. Some, such as the commenter quoted above, forswear motherhood entirely for other endeavours.
Others, myself included, take the plunge into a life that is no longer mandatory, possibly unnecessary, and fraught with uncertainty. (True story: I waited to have a child until my best friend had moved to another country, because I didn't think she would like having our ramblings curtailed by a little bundle of screaming joy.)
How can the very basis of human life be uncertain? The human race survived for millennia having set, even rigid, cultural norms. Gender roles were well-defined; social hierarchies were dependable facts of life. But the Western world, at least, has done away with those norms in a brief couple of generations. Women—and therefore mothers—have seen and been party to the most radical changes in social structure. This makes motherhood harder for those women who choose it, because it has all but destroyed the community of family-oriented women.
Sheila Kitzinger makes this point explicitly in the epilogue to her book, The Crying Baby. Mothering is easiest in traditional cultures where women gather to do women's work together. These are the same cultures in which women have no options besides women's work. This is the trade-off of the West: women's lives are, by and large, better. Mother's lives are, by and large, harder.
But they are also full of possibilities. Being counter-cultural has its upside, and we twenty-first century mothers have it in our hands to build a new feminine and family culture.
After the birth of a first child, mothers will seek out other mothers for support and sympathy. This can create close-knit networks of families whose children grow up together, almost like an extended family or neighborhood. Playgroups and book clubs might sound corny to child-free women trying to break through the corporate glass ceiling, but the pooled, real experience and wisdom they provide is an excellent alternative to the self-interested advice that flows continuously from childhood experts and the commercial world of Big Baby.
Again, a quick glance at the internet is revealing: Most of the parenting websites are run by manufacturers or publishers, and they're selling something. Of course, the best way to sell a product is to sell a result. Parents aren't just buying toys, they are told, but brain-building keys to unlock their children's future success. Or they are refusing to buy their children's health and safety if they don't purchase a subscription to the magazine that will keep them abreast of the newest developments in Things to Keep You Up At Night.
Some friends of ours gave our two-month-old son a toy designed for six-month-olds on the rationale that, as they said, “Your baby is going to be a super-genius.” My husband's response to them has become my talisman against internet message boards: “We'll still love him if he's dumb.” Or, if his motor development is delayed (as I was once told it would be). Or, if bottle-feeding ruins his life (since all the books say it will). “We'll still love him if…” is my protection from a world in which success is seen as the only measure of a good life.
When it comes to decision-making, to figuring out how to mould the little lives that have been entrusted to them, parents can feel very much on their own. The weight of that responsibility is crushing. No wonder there are massive online forums where parents compare notes, swap ideas, and defend themselves from criticism. They check to see how everyone else is doing it, and try to prove—to themselves most of all—that they're doing it right. This proof is, of course, impossible to obtain.
Here is one solution I have tried: gathering with mothers who feel the same dread and perplexity and sympathizing over a bottle of red wine, sipping and assuring each other that everyone has to put the baby down and walk away at some point, and that it doesn't make anyone a bad mother or a neglected child.
The other is faith. Simplistic as it sounds, it’s really the only answer I have found. And I don't just mean the Oh-God-make-him-stop-screaming kind of faith, although there's plenty of that involved. Nor even the higher-order, If-it-please-thee-Lord-give-me-the-grace-to-be-a-good-mother variety, although the job comes with a healthy measure of that one, too.
I mean faith in oneself. I mean the decision to believe, in the face of disagreement from strident feminists, disappointed bosses, and disapproving family members, that the choice to be a mother is the right one. That doing good for the ones you love is a valid way for a woman to spend her life. That by making life secure for even one child, you are making the world a better place.
Faith in a God who has ordained in nature the roles of mother and father helps, too—it is something to cling to when the workaday world is too busy with work (how much energy we spend on trivialities!) to concern itself with the important things in life: love and family.
And that's the ultimate faith every mother needs: The belief that family and love are the most important things in the world, and that no other achievements mean anything beside motherhood or can measure up against it. Whether she works in the home or outside it, a mother must believe that her motherhood is still the height of feminine achievement, the goal that gives meaning to her life. She must cling to the faith that even today, motherhood is still necessary and far from optional.
And she must avoid internet forums unless well-armed with mantras and red wine.
Kate Bluett is a new mother from Irving, Texas.