I remember being at a dinner party a few months ago and I was sitting with a group of women who were my mother’s age. We were talking about motherhood, work-life balance etc., when one woman wondered out loud why it is that women with young children complain so much now-a-days, why do they think their children are such a nuisance? She was wondering whether people who have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s aren’t used to working hard, if they just don’t love their children as much, or simply don’t like being parents as much anymore.
This is definitely not the case. It is not that mothers or parents don’t love their children as much as they used to, or that they aren’t prepared to work hard. There is actually research that shows that parents today spend much more time than previous generations playing with their children. There is also research that shows that professional life is much tougher than it used to be and that people work longer days. It may be true that mothers today complain more than before. One reason may be that it is no longer taboo to talk about how hard being a mother really is, and that is a good thing. But there is more to it.
Women today, especially if they are juggling both a career and children, are drawn between the individualistic world of work on the one hand, and the self-sacrificing world of motherhood on the other. The irony here is that both worlds crave 100% dedication and devotion. At work, you are expected to be completely dedicated and available 24/7, and as a mother you are expected to be completely devoted. Simple math will tell you that two times 100% simply doesn’t work no matter how you look at it. But not only that, the past decades have witnessed a professionalization of motherhood where simply being a mother is no longer enough. In addition to being a mother, you’re supposed to also be your child’s nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, tutor, teacher, child psychologist…you name it. You’re supposed to be well read and if you don’t live up to it all (like making everything from scratch in order to protect your children from sugars and additives etc. while also holding down a fulltime job), all the recommendations and hype going around in the media and on the internet will certainly make you feel guilty, not to mention the pressure we get from each other. (Have you ever thought about how you present yourself and your life on Facebook for example? There is material in that for a whole new blog post…)
However, women are not only pressured to be perfect mothers, we are also supposed to be perfect women and have perfect homes. I at least tend to get stressed by the lists of things you need to do that circulate. What you need to eat, and how much of it you need to eat every day; how much water and other fluids you need to drink everyday; what kind of exercise you should be doing and how, and how often you need to do that. And while you’re busy remembering all this, you need to take care of your body, make sure to wax and use the right cosmetics, not to mention your hair and nails. Is there enough time in the day to do all this? On top of all that, there needs to be time to work and to be a mother, not to mention a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And somehow I get the feeling that if we eat and drink everything we’re supposed to, and in the recommended amounts, we would end up over eating.
There is also a greater sense of risk in society today. Through media we can take part of all the catastrophes that take place in all the corners of the Earth and people perceive life as much more dangerous, especially for children, than it was say 30 years ago. We need to constantly protect our children from these dangers, which sometimes can be very stressful, not to mention tricky – like protecting children from seeing horrible things on the internet, or internet bullying.
And on top of that there is of course this whole hectic culture in which we live. The job market is insecure. With all the restructuring and downsizing no one is safe. What you have accomplished does not really count anymore; you’re only as good as your next thing.
So maybe it’s no surprise that mothers have a lot to complain about. Being a mother in today’s society can really be quite overwhelming.
If you’re interested in reading more about the contradictions of motherhood, see:
Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy (Harvard University Press)
The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (Yale University Press)