If I had to wrap up motherhood in single word—if I had to pitch it to someone as a movie title—I’d use the word JUDGMENT. Mothers, somehow, are the easiest people in the world to judge. I’ve turned it over in my mind a thousand times. Why? Before I had a child, I moved rather inconspicuously through the world. At work, airports and restaurants I just seemed to show up and then leave, unnoticed. Mothers are easy to spot. They have small humans clinging to them who make loud, inappropriate noises. Mothers always have three more bags than they can carry and accidentally run over people’s toes with the stroller. Mothers are busier than everyone else; their rapid movements and chirped commands distract us from the easy murmur of brunch. Something about how tired and disheveled they look makes us uncomfortable, like noticing a particularly large zit on someone’s face. If a mother has unruly children, she must be lazy. If a mother is getting hit in the face, she must be a terrible disciplinarian. In short, if a mother is suffering, it must be her own fault. She chose to have kids, right?
There it is—the responsibility. Motherhood is one of the greatest responsibilities of our human existence. Mothers are responsible for creating new life and teaching it to inherit the world. We rely on healthy, adept mothers to make good new people for our societies. If you want to be a degenerate trash person, fine. Just don’t become a mother.
I recently found myself in a conversation with someone (a man, I must mention) about a television drama. We agreed that Mad Men was our favorite show, like, of all time. I was energized by the prospect of diving into the evolution of the series with someone who had also seen every episode more than twice. The work of the writers and actors in creating these characters - Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty - is subtle, but intoxicating. After a few shared sentiments, he stopped to make a clarification.
“Okay, wait. Before we keep talking. Do we agree that we hate Betty?” he interjected.
Ah, Betty Draper. The mother. The evil ice queen who does everything wrong and only cares about her selfishness and her waistline. No matter how terribly everyone on Mad Men behaves, it always seems easiest to hate Betty. Joan is a thirty-something year old micro-manager who sleeps with her married boss. Joan is cool, though. Betty sucks.
“Not in the least,” I replied. “I agree that she doesn’t have much integrity, but none of the characters really do. In real life, I don’t think I’d trust her, but she’s a great character.”
He paused for a moment. “Okay, I see what you’re saying. But I think what really tips the scale for me is how she treats her kids. She doesn’t even act like she likes them.”
“Maybe she doesn’t,” I responded.
If you are a mother and being honest, I think you could have spoken the same reply. I know what it’s like to spend the four o’clock hour dreaming of wine. Or drinking it, if I’m losing my shit. I know what it’s like for the questions and demands of my child to turn into a lukewarm pool of white noise about two-and-a-half feet high. I am perpetually knee deep in fake emergencies. There’s only so much patience and mindfulness an adult woman can maintain about such things.
Back to Betty. I love Betty. She gets exactly what she wants, or, is supposed to want. She nabs a successful husband with a fancy job in the big city. She gives birth to three doll-faced children and resides comfortably in a big house in the suburbs. She has plenty of neighborhood ladies with whom to play cards and gossip mercilessly. Her husband’s disposable income is funneled to her as a healthy allowance. She can hire a professional decorator. She’s beautiful, and not in a “unique” way. She has Marilyn Monroe’s blonde hair, a graceful jawline atop a slender neck and men hit on her all the time.
My favorite thing about Betty is how poorly she carries all of these things. She struggles to understand, or even establish a basic foundation of intimacy with her husband. Losing her mother early in life, she relies on parroting the rule-book by which she was raised without any accountability or feedback. It is often obvious that she hasn’t a clue what to say to her children. She purses her lips and stares blankly until the emerging memory of a parenting cliché comes to mind, which she barks back, as if being quizzed. She envies the house of the neighborhood divorcee and pariah, Helen Bishop. I don’t think it takes much intuition to sense that she envies Helen for reasons other than the house, but we all deflect in our own ways. She childishly resists the decorator she hired by buying an antique chaise and placing it in the middle of the newly updated living room.
She considers abortion on her third pregnancy. She manipulates her friends and encourages their infidelity in order feel a feeble sense of control—a shade of morality—in comparison. She cheats on her husband until she feels secure enough with Plan-B guy to fly off to Reno for a quick divorce.
Long story short, Betty is fucked up. She is the steward of so many blessings, yet she is paralyzed by a restlessness and lack of identity that leaves her emotionally lost and smoking two packs a day at the kitchen table.
To end my debate with the Mad Men fan, I simply expressed, “Betty’s story is a microscope on archetypal womanhood. I love how disappointing she is.”
It’s so hard to feel bad for her. She has no excuse, right? But, I too am meant to live out her stereotype. I too have felt quite disappointing.
I am the wife of a professional athlete. I am happily married. My husband is attractive, successful and famous. We have just a god-awful amount of money; two houses and three cars. I got pregnant easily and on purpose. My son is adorable, bright and charming. I live thirty minutes from both my mother and mother-in-law who could almost fist-fight at the chance to babysit. I can afford a nanny—she comes three times a week so I can attend yoga and my monthly therapy appointment. Sometimes I waste time by scrolling the Gucci instagram account and I think about how fabulous I would look in a pair of $1500 bedazzled combat boots. I could buy them without pause, if I wanted. I have everything.
The most ironic, and honestly laughable truth about my life is how little I wanted to be the person I see in my mirror now.
At eighteen, I swore with fury that I never wanted to get married or have children. My parents’ marriage had been tumultuous at best. Two utterly incompatible people, I watched them volley passivity and aggression back and forth like a tennis match. They were both great at parenting in completely different ways, but they never made marriage seem tempting in the least. I wasn’t interested in having children without a husband (which I wouldn’t have), and on a deeper level, motherhood never really appealed to me. My mother loved being a mom. She told me often of how birthing and raising children was her only dream in life, the pinnacle of her purpose on earth. She put a lot of pressure on herself as a mother, and most of the time I wished she cared less about me and more about addressing the pain in her own life. Everything was about sacrifice. Everything was about me. She was unhappy so often; I wanted her to think less about me and more about herself. It became my gospel truth that fulfilled women have their own backs. Happy women put themselves first.
My brother was born when I was eleven years old, and watching him grow from infancy to adolescence was wonderful, but informative. I had no ignorance about what rearing children might entail. I knew he cried all the time until one. He talked incessantly at two. He broke things at three and forced me to listen to unending, plotless stories at four. He refused to change the channel off cartoons at five and said the word “Pokemon” at least eight hundred thousand times during his sixth year. He fell in love with pranking me and thought it was hilarious to hide my stuff at seven. I helped raise him. I changed a lot of diapers and went to my fair share of PTA meetings. After that, I moved out and went to college.
I had big dreams of being A Career Woman. I fantasized about living in New York City and walking to my fancy design firm in sky-high heels. After work, I’d have drinks with handsome and emotionally unavailable men. I’d match them in mysterious detachment, luring them into romantic whirlwind flings that would end devastatingly. I’d create art from my heartbreak until another bachelor caught my eye and rescued me from myself. Looking back, I think I just copy-pasted myself into a season of Sex and The City, but had no awareness of this parallel at the time. I found myself wholly original this version of modern femininity.
In real life, I battled loneliness and anxiety. A bout of depression during my senior year muddled my college mojo - it took all of my available focus to send one application in to the state university. Only upon acceptance did I realize how half heartedly I had thought about my future. I wasn’t going to fit in at all at the gigantic U of GA where the two BA programs are Football and Alcoholism. I hated it before I set foot on campus.
Having past trauma involving alcohol, I wasn’t keen on making a bid with the night-life crowd. The child of an Iranian immigrant and a northeastern transplant to the South, neither had even told me about Greek Life or knew what it was. I chose to study art, but all of the art kids seemed “arty-er” than anyone I had known before and I felt intimidated by their brazen weirdness. I found community in a campus ministry. I attended Wednesday night worship services, shopped at American Eagle and watched Grey’s Anatomy with my roommate. I was much more agonizingly normal than I had intended, but I rolled with it. When I started AOL instant messaging a boy from my old high school, I thought no more of it than avoiding homework.
As this relationship progressed, I committed to it easily. My end game was never marriage, so I didn’t have much on the line. He would break up with me, obviously, and I would have material for the heartbreak art I had been waiting to make. We dated for two years and never split. Oops. It just never seemed like the time! I provoked a break-up every four to six months, but my grievances would be met with sincere apologies. I dated quite a few horrible guys, but this one was kind, responsible and open. He felt like a keeper. He wanted to be with me and asked me to marry him. He came from a deeply religious family and I had been hanging with the Christian kids at college, so marriage was advertised as a “five out of five, would buy again” type thing. My parents got a divorce when I was nineteen. We all survived, so I figured that was a decent back-up plan if things went south one day.
We were married for five tumultuous years before we started talking about children. The “tumultuous years” would make a novel, so I’ll edit down to the chapter titles:
No Money, Truly None
Do We Kiss Other People Or No?
Your Job Is Bullshit
Your Job Is Making Us Rich!
I Never See You
Did We Ever Decide On The Kissing People Thing?
Divorce? No? Ok Cool.
Let’s Buy A House!
Once the house was decorated, it became obvious that we had a spare room. The Baby Room. It was small, cozy and got the best morning light. I’d sit in that room and think about how natural it would feel to put a baby there. I thought about how much sense that would make. I had married a family man, and I felt like I owed him the family. My husband and I had been in marriage counseling long enough to rule out splitting up (again, he thwarted my exit plan). We were in a good patch, had health insurance and money for fancy baby gear. We tried, and it worked.
Being pregnant is not my cup of tea. As in, I hate it. I don’t have any of the typical reasons for disliking it—I never got morning sickness and I didn’t blow up like a balloon. Something about it made me feel uneasy, embarrassed. When my husband would cradle my stomach and smile peacefully I had the impulse to push him away. I didn’t like the attention or being treated like I was quite so precious. I love alcohol and oysters. I like picking up very heavy boxes, doing high intensity workouts and being left alone. I became cagey about my pregnancy and obsessed with controlling who-knew-what. At work, I didn’t tell my clients. I never posted a pregnancy announcement on social media despite being very active and open on my accounts about everything else. We learned the gender of our baby at twenty weeks but we never told anyone, not even our parents. I didn’t do a maternity photo shoot and I almost shut down any plan for a baby shower. My sister-in-laws finally pushed hard enough that I admitted it would be nice to see everyone before I had a baby. We invited one hundred and fifty people to our house, fed them wine and keg beer and didn’t open a single present or play any games. Sure, I was going to be a mom, but I wasn’t going to change my personality.
Having a newborn was, as it is for everyone, difficult. I remember learning very early that screaming back at a baby doesn’t work. The realization washed over me that being a mom meant taking shit all day and having to be nice about it because it’s really easy to scare or hurt a baby. I didn’t take deep breaths and speak softly because some parenting book told me yelling was toxic. If I yelled at the baby all day, it would yell back. I stayed calm because I desperately wanted to earn silence, if only for a moment.
The idea of breastfeeding unnerved me, but I gave it a shot. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible. I wanted to make sure the baby was healthy, so I breastfed as long as I could. I made it eight months. He got teeth very early, and by the time he was six months old, breastfeeding was like letting a wild animal attack my chest. He would bite and kick. He would clamp baby teeth down on my nipple and use his little arms to push my torso away as he stretched his head back. My mother watched me feed him under a cover in public once and a look of horror crossed her face.
“Does he even have your boob in his mouth? He looks like he is at your knees,” she asked.
“He has my boob. He is trying to eat while kicking me in the gut and scratching my chest,” I replied.
I spent the first twenty eight-years of my life as a young, dynamic feminist. I learned about boundaries and speaking my truth. I made decisions about how people would be allowed to treat me, and I stood up to those who crossed the line. My baby did (and does) things to me that I would never allow from another human on this planet. He physically abuses me. He does not respect my time. He does not ask for things but instead demands that all ownership be transferred to him upon request. When he gets mad, he pulls my hair and head-butts me square in the nose. He broke my tooth with a spoon. He does not respect personal space. He found my vibrator in my bedside table once and I got so upset, forbidding it so violently, that going back and pulling it out is his absolute favorite way to misbehave. There are a lot of nightmarish parenting stories. I’m sure every mother could play you Variations On A Theme of Poop. Poop on me, poop on the walls. The Vomit Diaries, etc.
Being an athlete’s wife means that I am a mother in motion. I take about fifty flights a year (that’s four or five a month during the season), and baby comes with me every time. My husband flies charter with the team, so I’m always alone. I’ve had flight attendants bark orders about proper safety procedures until I cried. I have had passengers sit down, see the baby, and get up to change seats before he even made a sound. I’ve had old men stare at me while I breastfeed. Once I ran out of diapers and only had a swim diaper left in my bookbag. Swim diapers catch poop but do not absorb urine. Baby sat in his car seat on the plane in a pool of pee, zipped up in a sleep sack for four hours before we got home. I felt great about that.
This travel schedule made it increasingly difficult for me to keep my job. I spent one hundred percent of my time single-parenting and being a small business owner. I found myself working and caretaking around the clock, completely burned out and exhausted. I was finally forced to admit that I didn’t need the income I made from working. My husband’s salary is more than enough—I was continuing to work out of identity, not necessity. I quit my job and my life got easier. I get much more sleep, but I miss it. I wanted to be a career woman. I wanted to have it all.
Now I have time to play with my son. Playing with my son is annoying. He hits me with his toys until I agree to “play cars,” but nothing I do with my little Hot Wheel is correct. I’m not supposed to drive it. I’m supposed to hold it still while he crushes my hand with another car. When I take him to the park he begs me to lift him to the slide, then screams at the top for twenty minutes, refusing to come down. Nothing about him makes sense. I like reading, drawing, going for walks and cooking. We do not share these interests. He is extroverted and I am an introvert. I spent my life preparing to be intelligent, outspoken and successful and now I scroll instagram as I wait for him to deposit a poop in the potty.
However, two years into motherhood, a brighter perspective is beginning to materialize. My son gets more communicative and hilarious every day. I taught him how to get me a LaCroix from the fridge last night. Things are looking up.
When I was eighteen, I wanted so much less for my life. My goals were chronic heartbreak, self indulgence and ego inflation. Somehow—almost without my permission—my feet continued walking down a different path. When the time came to make life-changing decisions, my heart chose something my mind had resolved to detest. I still remember the day my husband proposed. I waited for my stomach to drop, for fear to strike—a sure omen that I should decline. I was, in the moment I said yes, completely at peace. I remember waking up on my sofa—hungover and six days late—to pee on a pregnancy test that turned positive. I was... happy.
So, why? Why did I dread the life I ended up building for myself? Why do I doubt my own choices, longing for the mythical adventure I rejected when I had the chance?
When I was young, I leveled my own judgments against motherhood. I adopted a set of fears and assumptions about being a mom that I believed throughout my own journey of becoming a mom. Despite wanting to build a future and a family with my husband, I viewed my own choices as small and suffocating. Every act of rebellion in pregnancy, every moment I chose to be “different” than other moms, I was really paying dues to the same old archetype. Reality is that being a mother is just as diverse and unpredictable as being any kind of woman. Creating a human and adding that person to your life doesn’t inherently mean anything about you. Life plugs along, day by day, offering us obstacles and opportunities that we accept or decline. None of our circumstances last forever. The day I wake up ready to make any change is a day something is different.
Being a mother does not supersede one's capacity for self-growth. Betty Draper isn’t shitty because she is trapped in the prison of motherhood. She is shitty because she doesn’t want to do the hard work of showing up to her own life. It has taken me three years since that first positive pregnancy test to say with confidence, “That’s not me.” I like hard work. I like showing up. I cannot control everything my son does, but I can curtail the impulse to bury my identity in his existence. My gospel is still true: happy women do have their own backs. Even as they carry a baby on their hip.