Family

When I Chose Motherhood, I Didn’t Choose This

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New mother being thrown many disadvantages

It wasn’t until my second trimester that I learned the United States has no federal paid leave program. You can certainly place the blame on me for not investigating this matter sooner. But for the richest country in the world to deny new parents paid federal leave is so astonishingly absurd, that it never even occurred to me to ask the question.

There’s been more talk about paid leave lately, but back in 2011, no one, not even once, had ever even casually mentioned to me that in the United States. It wasn’t a thing. As the first person in my various friend groups to have children — at the tender age of 31 — I didn’t have the experiences of other young mothers to draw from.

I’ve always followed the news and kept myself informed, but in the years leading up to my first pregnancy, I don’t recall a single story calling attention to the fact that our country asks new parents, amid the most significant transition of their lives, to shoulder the cost of a few months or weeks’ work.

   

   

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And, since very few couples can afford for two people to be out of work simultaneously, let alone one, it’s generally the birth-giver/milk-producer who becomes the Primary Caretaker, the Default Nighttime Getter-Upper, and eventually the Shunned One when she returns to her job, breast pump in hand, after having the audacity to skip out on work at her own expense so she can care for a tiny human who only just learned how to lift its head.

Perhaps I could have done more research, yes. But the thing about research is that you have to know what questions to ask.

This is a tall order in a society that steadfastly refuses to have honest conversations about motherhood. At work, mothers speak about their children in whispers, afraid that The Men in Charge won’t take them seriously if they are too open about their status as “mommies.” I once worked alongside a woman for the better part of six months, assuming she was single and child-free. Then I learned that she had a three- and five-year-old at home, which explained the dark circles under her eyes.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media promotes blatantly inaccurate depictions of motherhood, entirely glossing over the challenges we wrestle with daily, and pushing a narrative of motherhood as something that should be more or less effortless (because it comes so naturally), and something that should bring us eternal happiness and satisfaction. We therefore don’t know how to Google questions like:

  • How does motherhood change the gender dynamics in heterosexual relationships?
  • What is invisible labor, and how do you convince your partner that it exists?
  • How should a new mother expect to be treated when she returns to work?
  • What is a childcare desert, and do I live in one?
  • What hours are most childcare centers open, assuming I am lucky enough to get off the waitlist, and do those correspond in any way to my working hours?
  • How much will my insurance bill me for giving birth, and how will I afford that on top of unpaid leave and outrageous childcare costs?
  • If there’s a global pandemic and all the schools close and everyone else shrugs, what superfoods or face masks are most likely to solve all my problems?
  • What will I do when my child develops depression and/or anxiety because our world is worsening by the day?

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We enter into motherhood thinking that our biggest challenge is going to be dealing with a crying baby, getting up at night, or learning how to mediate sibling squabbles.

We don’t think about losing our sense of self, resenting the male partners from whom society demands fewer parental sacrifices, feeling socially isolated because we can’t finish a sentence without an interruption, dedicating the better part of our brain space for over a decade to finding and affording childcare, or feeling at a complete loss when it comes to protecting our children from dangers that our parents never contended with — like climate change and global pandemics and social media and fentanyl and mass shootings at schools.

And when any of us have the nerve to complain that we feel exhausted, invisible, bewildered, and unsupported, the standard response is: Well, you chose to have kids.

Motherhood is one of the most notoriously misrepresented jobs on the market today. The benefits package isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be, and the responsibilities we think we’re signing up for are only the tip of the iceberg.

   

   

It is also aggressively marketed and pushed on women as our ultimate path to fulfillment. Most of us, even those of us who are making very conscious choices to become pregnant, aren’t opting into motherhood. We’re just not opting out.

Females are born with the “motherhood” box already checked. As a digital marketer by trade, I know all about the powerful psychology of opting out versus opting in. We’re far less likely to uncheck a box than we are to leave it checked. That’s why our inboxes are jammed with so many marketing emails.

Plus, we all know that opting out comes with very real consequences. Childfree women are constantly judged and second-guessed, made to feel less than others. They risk being labeled by society as the crazy cat lady, the drunk aunt, or the old maid. Some are ostracized from religious communities, deemed unworthy by a God who prefers to keep women busy birthing and raising kids so the men can focus on the Big Important Things.

Motherhood, at first glance, seems to be the path of least resistance. It’s a way to conform to societal norms, to gain cultural respect, and to get all the likes on social media.

Yes, some women can’t wait to become mothers — the ones who enjoy babysitting for neighbors and taking care of younger siblings and cousins. But many women, and I might venture to say most women, become mothers not because of a yearning they’ve felt since childhood, but because it’s what women of a certain age do.

A growing number of women are bravely choosing to forego children, but let’s not pretend it’s an easy one. Let’s not pretend it’s a simple matter of sitting down at a table to make a pro and con list. Let’s acknowledge that the autonomy we pretend to bestow on young women is hopelessly warped by social pressures, cultural misrepresentations, and a glaring absence of sound information.

RELATED: Woman Says She's Tired Of People Trying To Convince Her To Not Be 'Child-Free' — 'Trust That I Know Me'

Here’s the million-dollar question: Do I wish I’d never had kids?

I honestly can’t say yes or no. I love my kids — with a ferocity that I didn’t know I could muster. And I mostly enjoy the parenting part of parenthood. The rowdy meals, unexpected questions, hard conversations. The glint in my children’s eyes when they properly beat me in a game. The slow process of watching them become their unique selves, who continually stump and surprise me. The nighttime cuddles and weekend walks. The blustery rebellions and desolate tears. The boo-boos and birthday presents. The tickles and giggles, squabbles and screams. All that said, I’m not sure what “choice” I would have made if anyone had told me 13 years ago:

It will take at least a decade for you to reclaim your sense of self. You will become a sponge for your family’s big emotions, expected to absorb and absorb and to give and give. Your sexual organs, having been repurposed for childbirth and breastfeeding, will actively rebel against you. All that Great Possibility you felt in your 20s will become engulfed by childcare logistics. People at work will question your proficiency. Your earning potential will flatline. Weekends and vacations will become exhausting.

You’ll realize that the Mom Club you expected to be inducted into doesn’t exist and that women mostly engage in parallel mothering, each of us hunkered down in our own chaotic lives, hardly able to muster the energy to send or respond to texts. You’ll realize that any respect our culture pays to mothers is just lip service, that beyond the cheesy cards, crooning songs, and annual flowers, there is a yawning black void of social support.

Oh yeah, and by the way, over the next decade, Donald Trump will become president (maybe twice), white supremacists will crawl out of the woodwork, a global pandemic will shut down schools, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, housing prices will double, and climate change will rapidly accelerate to the point where it seems entirely plausible that humankind might go extinct within your children’s lifetime.

But hey, I shouldn’t complain. I chose all this, right? I’m encouraged to see more young women in their 20s actively questioning whether or not they want to become mothers, and women of my generation actively questioning notions of what motherhood should be.

Perhaps we can start having more honest conversations about the realities of motherhood in 21st-century America, and in the process, put into place the social supports our counterparts in the rest of the developed world already enjoy. Perhaps by the time my daughter reaches young adulthood, she’ll be able to make a more informed choice than I did — and perhaps the trade-offs for each option will be less onerous.

I certainly hope so. But in the meantime, let’s stop using the fallacy of choice as an excuse to silence women, forego collective responsibility, and leave mothers socially stranded. And let’s not forget that when faced with unplanned pregnancies, some women will no longer have a choice at all.

RELATED: Mom Admits That Motherhood 'Sucks' And She 'Hates' It

Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

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