The Happy Mother Myth

The Happy Mother Myth is all about why we aren’t happy. If you haven’t read this article about Why Parents Hate Parenting, you should. Lots of good sociology-rich info about the change in modern parenting and why modern parents report being less happy than their childless peers. In a research paper co-authored by Ranae Evenson and Robin Simon, they reported that “parenthood is not associated with enhanced mental health since there is no type of parent who reports less depression than nonparents” (empahsis mine).

Though I initially found the results to be mildly surprising (really, parents–specifically mothers–are more miserable now?) after a point, I came to see the logic in how that happened.

My general, broad impression of the Happy Mother Myth is that too many women believe that parenting will be as fulfilling as a chosen, for-pay career. I certainly thought that being a mom would be easier–and thus less stressful–than what I experienced in my pre-kid, for-pay job. Silly me. I know women who honestly make mothering look like the easiest, most fun job in the world. And I envy them, because for me, it is neither. While I had a nursery-rhyme themed fantasy of what my day was going to look like, the reality is often more Rage Against the Machine than London Bridge. I felt guilt from both true and perceived barbs from all sides of the mothering fence. Then one day I realized the only perfect mother is the one who has never had children and I stopped worrying about what other people thought about my decisions. That doesn’t mean to say that I am without cause for criticism, and I welcome the constructive variety–in all things. But just yipping at me over a personal parenting choice?Pfftt. I used to rush to my own defense with data supporting my own cause, now I just don’t care. I don’t consider it an insult to my parenting when people are concerned that my kids never get cookies (they do, just not often), nor should anyone else consider it an insult when I refuse a product on my child’s behalf. Once I put the cabash of self-doubt, I was happier.

It also helps that I truly believe that micromanaging every moment of a child’s life is counterproductive in the long run. A certain degree of boredom–for both mother and child(ren)–is both appropriate and realistic. How much imaginative play results from the desperation of impeding boredom (or the parental response of, “well, you could clean your room”)? How many seemingly casual walks (in an effort to kill time and burn energy) become memorable adventures? That kind of spontaneity helps sooth my impulsive beast while allowing me to shed the cultural pressure raising competitive kids. Happy Mother increase, check.

And even though I knew that child-birth would deliver a baby, I think I also expected it to deliver all of the traits that I had deemed necessary for being a Happy Mother such as increased patience and temperance, long art-n-craft sessions resulting in memorable keepsakes…you get my point. The reality is that child-birth did result in a baby (twice), but not the the rest of those things that I thought were the innate, reflexive parts of mothering. The rest I had to learn for myself.

Because I’m an only child, I didn’t have a large extended family from which to draw experience. It didn’t take me long to see that motherhood was not going to result in an overall morph of my original personality. Perfection only exists in the dictionary and pharmaceutical ads. The perfect anything doesn’t exist; beating myself (and my husband and kids) wasn’t going to make it real. It didn’t take me long to recognize that the mother who is pleased enough with her situation (if you know her, insert name here) should be the epitome of the Happy Mother. And if she isn’t at ease with her situation, she takes steps to change things for herself. For me, it is as simple as– I cannot allow my children to be the sole definer of my identity.

So my thoughts to the women who are struggling with their own Happy Mother Myth is to stop being so hard on yourself. All 21st century mothers are facing the challenges of changing definitions. Throughout history, women used to practice being a mother for a small lifetime before having their own children. They were acting as little mothers to numerous siblings, under the tutelage of a gaggle of women who met the same mother definition. They left their parent’s homes only when ready to enter a husband’s home. Without the availability of female-based birth control, they got pregnant–quickly and often–and continued the cycle, uninterrupted. They lived in the same towns with their mothers, sisters, and grandmothers. They knew the same people for the entirety of their lives.

We’ve only had reliable, female-controlled birth control since 1963. It’s only been in my lifetime (starting, 1976) that women have held positions of true prominence and power in corporate America. It’s also only been in my lifetime that women have chosen those careers before they chose to have kids. So, if it’s only been within the past fifty-ish years that all of those changes have occurred, why are we all so sure that begetting children is going to bring us continual happiness and reward? I mean, wasn’t a lot of the motivation for the original Women’s Movement that women were unsatisfied with their housewife/mom-only roles? Did we, the daughters and grand-daughters of the original wave of Feminism, think that because the mom role was chosen rather than expected that it would make a significant difference in our perceived satisfaction? Or, as the research in the article suggested, did we all think that meeting our career goals before having kids would decrease the ennui of parenting?

Uh-oh…

Perhaps it’s that the current generation of women are all so far removed from the reality of the June-Cleaver-housewife ideal that we didn’t really have a concept of the demands of child-rearing. Maybe women now think that accomplishing everything before having kids would mean that they wouldn’t succumb to the ennui of parenting. Do I think back to my past career accomplishments and bemusedly wonder how I could plan and execute a million-dollar, multi-national study meeting–in a different town and state from my office–with grace and efficiency, yet am seemingly incapable of getting two kids and myself out of the house on time? Well, yeah, I wonder. But the answer is reasonably simple–there is an immediacy to career-related accomplishments–professional recognition, promotions, salary-increases. The results of good (or bad) mothering are often not so gratifying. It will take years before I know if the choices I made as a mother are the same things that will send my grown children to a therapist.

Are the rapidly morphing roles–because it’s not just moms, but also dads that are being redefined–the reason for our malcontent? Is it because most of us are trying so hard to provide these fabulous moments for our kids that we feel a lacking enthusiasm for our efforts too deeply? Is it all just a measure of adults who were in control of their career finding themselves very much out of control of a Small Person?

For me, it’s mostly the appreciation-quotient, as I reconcile the differences between the woman who worked for-pay and the woman who works for love. In that, I’m really glad that I read Arlie Hoschschild’s book The Time Bind as an undergraduate.

Perhaps I’ll request formal performance evaluations from my family in the future. In the meantime I will define myself as a Happy Mother, because the only expectations I am trying to meet are my own.