The M word

I read “Our ‘Mommy’ Problem” a while back, and have been mulling over the implications of the issues it brings up. In fact, what I think about it has changed over the course of composing this blog post. It’s not as simple an issue as it seems.

In fact, it’s taken me so frickin’ long to wrap up this post that I had the chance to read this before publishing. And I’m glad I did. At least one other person cops to the sorts of things I’m talking about here.

I suppose I should open with the fact that I began the mommy problem article prepared to be indignant about the contents. Being a mommy is pretty much my raison d’être. I tend to look upon people who say things like “I don’t want to be just a mommy” as ungrateful at best, because I waited years to be a mommy and would love nothing better than to focus all my attention on the little people in my care. Honestly, I can’t think of a job in the world more important than raising a member of the next generation. These people are the future of the human race. (At the very least, these people will be picking our nursing homes. Respect them.)

But then I read the article, and it makes some good points. Sure, I’ve rolled my eyes at the exact stereotypes the author calls out. I just don’t think one’s breeding status is the issue here. Rather, the use of “mommy” as a derogative term is the grown-up version of “like a girl.” I grew up defying my femininity because of such thinking. And I know we’ve come a long way, but such sexism is still rampant. (I’ve conducted a few not-so-scientific experiments to see if my gender helps or hurts me, professionally and personally, and the bias is still alive and well. In women as well as men.)

To be a mother is to be female. And to be female is still not something to aspire to. It’s scut work. In order to be admired these days, women have to “have it all.” With great hair and a smile.

“Hell, send me back to the 50s,” I’ve said on several occasions. (Okay, grumbled.) “If I didn’t have to earn the money and manage the finances and stay on top of things like home and auto maintenance, I could easily keep the house spotless and have dinner on the table every night at 6. In high heels and pearls, even.”

But those would be the kinds of things “just” mommies do. In order to get respect these days, you have to be a mother and a career woman and produce Pinterest-perfect crafts for your kid’s class and volunteer — all while looking ten years younger than you are, working out five days a week, and serving your family politically correct, nutritionally sound organic meals three times a day.

And you wonder why those mommies need a night out?

But I’m going to go a step further and say that we bring this on ourselves. We buy in to this idea. It’s one thing to strive to do better; it’s another to set standards no one could possibly meet. (The people who appear to? They pay people to do most of that.)

The issue is not whether or not a woman has a child. (Though I acknowledge that it’s expected; childfree women are regarded with a wary eye, like they might suddenly turn cannibal at any given moment.) The issue is what we define as ideal womanhood, and the end result is no more realistic than a magazine cover. Even in my longed-for 1950s existence, life wasn’t that simple. My grandmother did not have a dishwasher, a microwave, a Roomba. She did not have Netflix and the internet. What sounds like a productive morning for me took her all day. No, the issue is that the motherhood-related tasks are not glamorous. Men don’t aspire to them, brag about them. They’re girl things. And nobody wants to do things like a girl.

I grew up in a time of transit. Women worked, but it was still kind of a novelty. Their incomes were viewed as supplementary at best (even when they weren’t), and their careers were ones that could be set aside for child rearing (even when they couldn’t be). When I think back to career-oriented women in the 80s, I think Enjoli ads and Virginia Slims models. If you were a career woman, you could (and should!) also be sexy…but you likely weren’t a mommy. The Enjoli jingle does not mention changing diapers and wiping runny noses while frying that bacon.

I think the reality was closer to my mom. She considered her career and her role as my mother equally important, and imparted that message to me. She wasn’t perfect. She did some things better than other mothers, and others worse (or not at all). But she didn’t try to do it all. She spent her time on the things that were important to her, and let the rest slide. As I imagine most moms did. We were a generation of latchkey children, and there were pros and cons to that. But did we really suffer from the absence of Mom in an apron with a plate of homemade cookies when we came home?

Apparently, we think we did. Except we’ve set our sights a little higher than homemade cookies. We still bring home the bacon, but instead of merely frying it up in a pan, we’re molding it into mini-quiche crusts and feeding it to an intimate gathering of 50 close friends in our sophisticated, spotless, yet child-friendly great room that we cleverly remodeled and decorated over a couple of weekends with handmade, on-trend touches crafted from recycled pallets and twine. After working an 80-hour week in some high-profile career helping the less fortunate. Without mussing our salon-fresh blowout or wrecking our manicures, both documented in adorable selfies.

If that’s the ideal, I’m proud to be an abject failure. I’m tired of being measured by someone else’s ruler.

I consider it my job to give my child a realistic role model to look up to. Someone who screws up and drops the ball but keeps trying. Somebody who knows what is, and what isn’t, important to her, and who makes choices instead of making herself (and everyone around her) crazy. Someone who doesn’t require Red Bull and Ritalin and the misplaced admiration/envy of others to function.

I’m not the kind of mom you see in Better Homes and Gardens. I game. I’m into sci-fi and horror, not chick lit and rom-coms. I’d rather my gifts come from ThinkGeek than Kay. My clothes are more hoodies, less haute couture. What effort I put into my appearance is to please my daughter, who is more fashion-conscious than I remember being at 3. (Or 13.) Her father has longer hair than I do, and wears skirts more often. (Manly skirts, but still.) I am the sole income earner, depending upon my partner to provide child care, cook, and clean while I work full time, run a part-time freelance business, manage the finances, and keep everything on schedule. I clean and organize and cook and craft when I get a moment, but not at the expense of down time and family trips to the park. (Lately, naps are a high priority, because I am 6 months pregnant.) And I’ll be honest — I let a lot of stuff fall through the cracks. I do my best, but there is only so much I can do in a day.

No, this isn’t the motherhood I pictured. And whatever the feminine ideal is these days, I’m not it. But I think I’m closer to the norm than the glossy lifestyle mags would have us believe. I don’t know why we pretend otherwise, to be honest.

Especially when the end result is so inconsequential. Twenty years from now, nobody will remember if I miss a deadline or a bill payment. Nobody will know or care if my house was clean, my hair was frizzy, my cabinets full of orderly rows of neatly labeled mason jars. Nobody will give a rat’s ass what my annual income was. But my child will remember if I made time for her. If I laughed a lot. If we took walks and made cookies and snuggled on the couch. Think back to your own childhood, and tell me what you remember.

That’s what I thought.

“Just a mommy,” indeed.


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