I'm almost seven months pregnant, and in the past 30 weeks, people have issued the following warnings to me, often unsolicited, about what my new life as a mother will be like:
"A good day will be one when you can shower."
"Does your husband know he's about to completely lose his wife?"
"Your body will never be the same."
"Say goodbye to sleep."
"Don't expect to travel like you do now for another 18 years."
"You won't have time to read the newspaper."
No doubt, there is some truth to these admonitions. After all, we live in a society with abysmal and expensive childcare options, and often parents are left with little time or resources. When I was being charitable about these comments, I could see they were rooted in good intentions. These people wanted to prepare me for the realities of motherhood, I thought. They were trying to give me the armor and mental framework I'd need to cope, I reasoned. They just wanted me to know what they wish they had known. How generous and considerate, right? Don't shoot the messenger! I kept saying to myself.
But despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to shake the feeling that some of these scare tactics were truly intended, well, to scare the living daylights out of me.
In some cases, there was a not-so-subtle undertone of hostility, anxiety, and even, as I saw it, a bit of a schadenfreude in these comments. And initially, many of them seeped into my consciousness; I have porous emotional borders, so I cop to being an easy target. Also, the warnings cut to the heart-center of a certain deep-seated fear I have long held about motherhood: that I will lose myself and any anchor to my previous identity as a (somewhat) capable independent person who could still (somewhat) enjoy life and earn a living in a creative pursuit as a journalist. So, all the blanket statements about giving up travel and reading the newspaper struck a deep nerve in me.
Surely, other mothers-to-be are all too familiar with these scare tactics. What do these negative pronouncements say about the insanely high expectations that parents, particularly mothers, put on themselves? What do they say about the resultant desperate mental state that sometimes swallows them after giving birth?
A recent cover story for Time magazine, titled "The goddess myth: How a vision of perfect motherhood hurts moms," offers a pretty bleak portrait of parenting today. Readers are reminded that 90 percent of Americans are not offered paid maternity leave, which is nothing short of a national embarrassment. And according to a study conducted in conjunction with the story, almost three-quarters of mothers surveyed said they felt at least some pressure to do pregnancy, birth, and feeding "a certain way."
With so many mothers living in constant fear of making the "wrong" choices for their babies, born and unborn, perhaps it makes sense that one manifestation of that stress is to sound the alarm for other parents. The pervasive focus on "having it all" and "leaning in," coupled with the lack of affordable childcare options and still widespread paucity of childcare-friendly workplaces, make it astounding that any parent (certainly any mother) survives her 30s and 40s without at least one major breakdown.
And misery loves company. Surely any mother who is not miserable has somehow cheated the system. Parenting, after all, is suffering. So, better to initiate the misery rituals early, like a good sorority hazing.
But contrast this with another adult milestone: marriage. Do women try to scare the bejesus out of other women about the impending challenges of entangling one's life with another human being? In my experience, not so much. The attitude toward marriage is to romanticize the institution. While policy changes on the childcare front are imperative, my recent experience with the scare tactics culture has made me think a lot about the need to all together shift our thinking and attitudes about parenting.
In a recent conversation with my 87-year-old grandmother, I casually mentioned a possible travel assignment that would require me to be away for about two weeks this summer. My grandmother, who ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1970s, didn't blink an eye. "You should go," she said.
I looked at her a bit surprised. I was expecting the raised eyebrows and the requisite, "Won't you feel guilty leaving the baby?" response I've heard a thousand times.
"How long did you wait before you traveled?" I asked.
"Your grandfather and I went to Canada for a week when Susan was two months old and left her at home." When my dad was a toddler, he and my aunt would spend the summers with their grandparents while their parents traveled abroad. (I know, I know not everyone has grandparents who are willing and able to be full-time caretakers for eight weeks.)
"Didn't you feel guilty leaving them?" I asked.
"No," she said. "We wanted to have fun. Why would I have felt guilty?"
"Selfish" is probably how today's parenting culture would frame my grandmother's decision. But I would say that my grandmother, like she has been many times in her life, was ahead of her time, an early adopter of an ethos that has been called "shame- (or guilt-) free" parenting. And it's this mindset I hope will one day replace the motherhood scare tactics employed so frequently today.