Why I Am No Longer Judging My Own Mothering

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mother holding daughter

When asked to “write about taking care of mental health as a parent, whether you have a diagnosed mental illness or are just feeling the mental shift of balancing everything.” I remembered the last 16 months and nearly cried. With rage.

This is a resentful, vengeful and unbalanced essay.

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It is also cisgendered, heteronormative, and privileged. What has been taken from mothers this year is criminal.

In New York City, where I live, during Covid-19 bars seemed to be more of a priority than schools. Everywhere, the workload on mothers doubled or tripled while our incomes withered. The balance of power has never been logical in our culture, but now it is tipping into very dangerous territory. To take care of my mental health as a mother, there has to be a systemic solution.

When the pandemic created a child-care crisis, mothers became the default solution. Even as society starts to reopen, many feel forgotten and shunted to the sidelines.

— Claire Cain Miller, The Pandemic Created a Child-Care Crisis. Mothers Bore the Burden.

Societies evolve.

They can evolve slowly, or they can be revolutionized. Major cultural upheavals have the potential to catalyze positive change.

Visualize a mother. What do you see? What are her traits?

Is she exuding patience, efficiency, and benevolence? Is she juggling all the things at once and making it look easy while smiling sweetly?

That’s a stereotype I can’t live up to in the best of times. Not ever, but certainly not during a pandemic. Mothers are real. I’m a mother. I’m grateful and relatively patient, but not all the time. Sometimes, my anxiety is triggered by the present, and sometimes it is compounded by something from my past. I’m not blaming my past or even the present.

I blame the patriarchal systems that dismiss the needs of mothers. We tend to turn our resentment inward, rather than lashing out and tearing down the systems. Maternal mental health issues are a symptom of the lack of social support, not the personal failing of each isolated mother.

Recall your own mother. How would you describe her? Now how about your grandmother?

Now, if you are a mother, assess yourself.

Do you judge yourself? Evaluate your performance? I do, even while knowing it makes no sense. Being a mother is not just one thing. Our culture has a template, but I’ve never met a mother who fits it. I certainly don’t, and my mother didn’t either.

I don’t know any mother who lives up to this archetype, but I know plenty who compare themselves unfavorably to it. Here’s the truth though: Even when I fall short, I’m still a mother. When we stop bothering with the image, we can see each other, and ourselves, as human, vulnerable, fallible, and in need of support.

Throughout the millennia, since organisms evolved to be more complex, and especially as mammals evolved, our DNA specialized. We inherited organs, hormones, and senses to grow offspring and keep them safe.

Our physiology specialized, and our individual societies built meaning around biology. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. I know incredible parents who are not stuck in gender stereotypes or biological boxes.

As I said, I’m writing this as a heteronormative mother.

The added burden of unpaid work during the pandemic has entrenched gender-based norms. Mothers are being made responsible for the bulk of that unpaid work in the home.

We mothers tend to turn our resentment inward, rather than lashing out and tearing down the systems. Maternal mental health issues are a symptom of the lack of social support, not the personal failing of each isolated mother.

Last year, Claire Cain Miller wrote in the NY Times, "Nearly Half of Men Say They Do Most of the Home Schooling. 3 Percent of Women Agree."

If you haven’t read it, here are a few choice quotes:

“Nearly half of (fathers) with children under 12 report spending more time on (remote learning) than their spouse — but just 3 percent of women say their spouse is doing more. Eighty percent of mothers say they spend more time on it… Past research using time diaries has consistently shown that men often overestimate the amount they do and that women do more.”

I read this to my husband and we had a good laugh.

To be fair, he has really stepped up in the past year. Still, I can’t stop thinking about the injustice of the expectations I’ve internalized, and I know I’m not alone. We drain ourselves of our essence… Why?

The additional time that women typically spend on domestic work, particularly child care, has significant consequences outside the home: It is a major reason for their lower pay and stunted career paths. Now that they’re spending even more time on these chores because of the pandemic, the repercussions could worsen.”
-Claire Cain Miller

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Heteronormative gender stereotypes aren’t the same kind of injustice as racial oppression, and women of color bear the greatest burden. Still, as a white, cisgendered, middle-class, married mom, I find those expectations draining and debilitating. I resent them.

“One reason women are doing more unpaid labor during lockdown is simple — they always do. It tends to happen even if both people in an opposite-sex couple work, and even if she earns more than he does, research shows. Though men in recent years have increased the time they spend on domestic duties, particularly child care, many people still believe they are primarily a woman’s responsibility, research shows…”
-Claire Cain Miller

The article plants a seed of rebellion.

We have changed so many of our habits overnight. Why not change these cultural expectations?

But it’s complicated.

We need my husband’s salary, and the benefits and stability it provides. When my mind wanders to “what if,” my anxiety spirals. I’m viscerally hurled back into my childhood uncertainty. My chest clutches, my throat constricts, and I feel nauseous. So, as resentful as I felt, into my lap came the google classroom, and I let my husband off the hook.

I resisted mightily, I said I couldn’t handle it, but the cultural expectation that I will be “the one” was too great. I eventually caved in, called on my inner Martha Stewart, and made a colorful schedule for each of us. It didn’t help much. My son didn’t settle into remote instruction smoothly or independently. I know, intellectually, that it isn’t my fault. I have a kid with an alphabet soup and a family history of trauma. My anxiety is through the roof trying to hold everything together.

There’s no such thing as one type of mother or a perfect mother.

Intellectually, I know this. And yet, I feel completely bogged down under the pressure to meet stereotyped expectations.

The internal list of what I do wrong as a mother is miles long and just keeps growing. I didn’t police my tone when emailing the already stressed-out teachers. That must mean I’m a b*tch. I let my son watch YouTube for a few hours while trying to get my business online. Neglectful. I haven’t exercised, and I think I might not today. Lazy. Glass of wine? Bad mom. Ordered takeout? Unhealthy. Yelled at everyone to stop yelling? Abusive.

If my atypical kid says something rude, wakes in the night, or doesn’t finish school work, I internalize that as a reflection on me and my inability to parent.

Even my husband doing the laundry, which he does every week, causes my inner critic to judge. The fact that I felt completely triggered and unable to cope at the start of the pandemic, I internalized it to mean I’m an unfit mother entirely.

There’s part of me in there somewhere, who truly expects me to do it all. I have regular arguments with that part of me. Is it Patriarchy Stress Disorder?

I grew up with instability, housing insecurity, and food scarcity.

I don’t know whether I was born anxious, and these chaotic conditions exacerbated it, or I developed anxiety as a result of the chaos. My mother had vowed to be nothing like her own mother, who sacrificed her dreams and became bitter and distant. I subsequently vowed to be nothing like mine. Their traits have shadowed me, especially the most disowned ones.

I longed to provide my son with the security, stability, and routine that he needs to thrive. I wanted to create a haven of harmony and acceptance. Anxiety reared up as impatience, panic, and frustration. I persisted, and with an arsenal of tools, I was doing okay. I vowed to be emotionally present with my son. I built my solitude, self-care, work, and errands into school time so that I would be recharged and ready before and after school. My husband and I work hard to be respectful, reliable, and demonstratively loving parents.

Then came Covid-19. What I found out this year is, I simply can’t always be the fallback when a crisis hits. I don’t want to break. That would be irresponsible and counterproductive. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I HAD simply said no. If I had had an actual nervous breakdown. Could I take a step back and be the “assistant parent?”

One thing I take pride in is, I stopped trying to do it all.

I completely backed off on remote learning. The gaps in my son’s education will be middle school’s problem. (Writing that, I feel the internalized knot of shame in my gut — even though I know it is a reparable regression.)

Sometimes I wonder, what if we lived in a culture that valued parenting? What if we had real social supports in place for families that could help us weather a crisis?

When my head clears, I look at what we have achieved this year: We survived a deadly virus. We didn’t kill each other. Our marriage seems to have remained intact. We helped our neighbors.

Sometimes I just want to be mad and sad about how hard it is for me to be a mother when I don’t have space to be myself. Then, I remember that I am always myself, and always a mother. No matter how far I’ve strayed from the fantasy. There’s no disconnect because I am defining my identity as a mother at this moment.

One night during the most hectic part of the last year, I said to my son, “There are no perfect parents.” He replied, “And if there were, you definitely wouldn’t be one of them.” I agreed with him. Time to let my inner critic take a rest, and be alright with the truth.

My mental health is a valuable resource.

I won’t tear it down with hostile and oppressive stereotypes about motherhood. Caring for my mental health as a mother now will take a radical shift: A combination of self-acceptance, surrender, and (as soon as my energy is restored), vengeance.

I hope the patriarchal decisions made this past year didn’t erode the gains that mothers have made in the workplace by too much. During Covid-19, mothers’ workload skyrocketed while our incomes withered. I hope that our creativity, ambition, and mental health can recover.

Is it a reparable regression?

Cultural upheavals have the potential to catalyze positive change. If Covid-19 wasn’t an upheaval, I don’t know what is. I know I’m not alone in my resentment and impatience. As we turn our criticism outward rather than in, our rage has the potential to ignite a revolution.

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Kate Lynch (she/her): parent to an amazing atypical kid, meditation coach, inclusive yoga teacher, and author who has been teaching and cultivating community since 2002. She teaches calming tools to parents of intense kids, building resilience to anxiety breath by breath.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.