I took my four-week-old son to the grocery store for the first time yesterday. It was a refreshing trip—he slept and mommy got some fresh air. And I found food for thought in the oddest of places: the tabloid rack at the checkout line. One magazine there carried the headline (I paraphrase), “Brit Says ‘I Don’t Want My Kids Back’” accompanied by a full-cover portrait of Britney Spears’ haunted face.

No, I thought. No, I’ll bet you don’t.

I’ve actually been following Britney, I’m ashamed to say. There’s a TV tabloid show that comes on right after the news, and when you’re exhausted and hooked to a breast pump you’ll watch anything. So I’ve seen the stories about her mental health, her court dates and orders, her generally messed-up life. I’ve watched the public train-wreck that is America’s Pop Princess. And I feel sorry for her. Yeah, I know, she’s done it to herself. She’s reaping what she sowed with her hypersexualization and her wild parties. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, and so on and so forth. Still, I feel sorry for her. Because as far as I can tell, she didn’t just do this to herself. There’s a very real way in which we did this to her, and in which she is simply the signpost that tells the rest of us where we’re headed.

I mentioned my son is four weeks old: four crazy weeks old (I won’t go into the saga here). Already I’m asking myself, “Will I ever use my Master’s degree? What about a career? Or even a part-time job? Will my brain ever again be able to handle something trickier than diaper rash? When do I get to go back to being an independent adult?” It’s a pointless exercise. I know perfectly well that there will be an end to diapers someday and that I’m still an intelligent adult capable to discussing art over coffee when the opportunity arises. And I know perfectly well that I will never again be independent, if indeed I was ever so. I will never again not be a mom. I will never again not have a son who needs his mother. I will never again be free of those associations. And that’s a good thing.

But it’s a hard lesson to learn, nevertheless. I’ve become accustomed to doing my own thing and being what I want to be. Granted, a mom is what I want to be. But I can’t just go out for coffee anymore. I can’t head out to the movies on a whim. I certainly can’t walk away from the crying baby and go someplace more fun—I have to bring the crying baby with me, and that changes everything. Some days, I just want to put a bowl of milk and a layer of newspaper down on the floor and leave him at home while I meet some friends. I don’t—I can’t—but I want to. And I didn’t have nearly the range of liberty that Britney Spears has had.

I wonder if anyone ever told her there are more important things than liberty and celebrity. I wonder if anyone ever said, “This is not real life, this tabloid dream of yours that’s keeping us all amused. It’s just a short party; in the morning you have to wake up and be a real person.” I wonder if anyone told her, “People say, you can be anything you
want to be. But if you follow your all your dreams
and live out all your fantasies no matter how twisted and petty they
are, be prepared to pay the price.” I know no one ever stopped telling
me and my classmates that we could be anything we wanted when we grew
up.

What they never mentioned was that growing up means giving up, means sacrificing some of those petty aspirations in favor of being a real person, a person with ties to other people and important work to do. (If you think changing diapers is not important, try being powerless
and sitting in a puddle of your own filth, unable to ask anyone to
change your diaper.) Nobody mentioned it to me. And now the work of being a real person gives me moments of wanting to tear my hair out.

The sad thing is, I’m ordinary — just another average product of the American public school system. Heck, I’ve got it good: I’ve got responsible parents who told me there are more important things than liberty and celebrity. I wasn’t pushed into the spotlight and left there to drown in my own money. Compared to Britney Spears, I was given plenty of preparation for real life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be living the Pop Princess life and try to shift into living the mommy life. Even with nannies and a staff of servants, the mental shift — ”Oh, my God, these little boys depend on me to be their mother!”—must be of seismic proportions. Add to it the pressure to keep up the tabloid lifestyle, and it’s no wonder she’s going publicly crazy.

Yes, pressure. I admit it: I follow Britney Spears. Idly, it’s true, but how many people out there devote serious time to reading celebrity gossip sites just to keep tabs on her? How many people would be deeply disappointed if she gave up partying and devoted herself to being a mom, or at least a real, sane person? The plain fact is, we want Britney Spears to keep on being a Pop Princess. We’re convinced that it’s possible to go on being a Pop Princess after the massive event that is the entrance to motherhood. After all, we’ve spent years telling kids like Britney that they can be anything they want to be — why not be both princess and mom? Isn’t anything possible if she just follows her dreams?

Well, she followed them, and we can all see where it’s getting her. We can also see where it’s getting plenty of other women as they try to be everything at once — mother, worker, lover, dreamer. And then there are the men who refuse to marry or support their kids because they’re busy chasing their dreams. We expect this motto of ours, that you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, to start working out someday. We keep going back to it, keep telling it to our children. We keep expecting it to work.

Britney Spears is just one wicker of the handbasket we’re all in. Because repeating the same motto over and over and expecting it to have different results this time is the definition of insanity.

Kate Bluett is a new mother from Irving, Texas.