I don’t know who you are, because you wrote your post anonymously.
But I still think you are brave. In our culture of ideal and perfect motherhood, where “confessions” are things like “I went three days without giving my child a bath,” you wrote that you don’t like being a mother.
Some commenters weren’t very kind, but I think a lot of mothers can relate to what you wrote — you love your children, yet you have a longing for your “old life,” and a suspicious sense that you’re playing a role you were never meant to play.
What shocked most people was that you refused to end your essay with the ubiquitous caveat that concludes most motherhood-is-hard posts: that, despite your misgivings and struggles with motherhood, you “wouldn’t change a damn thing about it” because it’s still “the best experience of [your] life!”
Instead, you told us you wished you’d never had kids.
You told us that for you, motherhood is suffering, and you don’t think you’ll ever be happy again.
And LOTS of other women said THANK YOU! Thank you for saying what we have always felt but never said out loud! They said, “We cry every day, too!” They said, “We are depressed, too.” They thanked you for starting the conversation.
Some people commented that you sounded depressed. That might be the case. It certainly was for me when my children were babies. I hope you can reach out for help if you need it.
Some people wished that you would find joy, and then other people criticized them, wondering, why should we force her find happiness in motherhood? Some people just aren’t cut out for the job, let her approach motherhood in her own way!
Well, I want you to find happiness in your life, regardless of how you feel about motherhood, because you are a human being and deserving of joy. And right now, motherhood is a big part of your life.
So, how DO we find joy, even in the messy realities of motherhood? How do we embrace our roles as mothers without losing our selves?
First, Know That You. Are. Not. Alone!
You wrote that the best part of your day is when you go to sleep and dream of your previously child-free life. Because you liked that life better.
You’re not alone. As recent books like Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun and Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? point out, pretty much every study conducted on happiness finds that parents are less happy than non-parents. Mothers on anonymous sites confess to feeling the same way you do — one mom, according to Valenti, described motherhood as “thankless, monotonous, exhausting, irritating, … oppressive…. [It] feels like a prison sentence.” Especially when the only cultural narrative that is acceptable is that you love every minute of it!
Whether it’s not liking being a mom, or thinking you made a mistake, or missing your old life, you are not alone. It could be postpartum depression. Sometimes it’s the drudgery and mundane ordinariness of motherhood that gets to us. Or maybe it’s a feeling that our lives have been put on hold. It’s perhaps a sense that our identity has been lost. Sometimes it’s all of the above.
Whatever it is, YOU. ARE. NOT. ALONE.
We Need to Talk About This!
Remember that scene from Desperate Housewives, when Lynette breaks down crying about the overwhelmingness of motherhood, and her friends tell her they feel that way too? And then she says to them, “We should talk about this!”
Since starting my blog, I have heard from many people telling me how much they appreciate that I speak honestly about not always liking motherhood. A few weeks ago at a mindfulness training session, I spoke in front of a group of 90 attendees and stated something to the effect of “motherhood is amazing, but it is also challenging for me.” I was shocked by the number of people who came up to me afterwards and thanked me for saying that, and then told me their stories of the challenges of motherhood that they don’t feel they can talk about. As much as we say we want to hear “mommy confessions,” we generally don’t talk honestly and publicly about the really hard parts, the things that feel subversive to admit.
But we need these stories. Back in the day, we had rites of passage, initiation ceremonies that honored our movement from one stage of life to another. Initiates learned the skills and knowledge necessary for their new social role, and found ritualized support for their new status. These rituals were often deeply connected to the mythologies, the stories, of the culture.
But, as Joseph Campbell argued, we have become a demythologized culture. We no longer have the rituals that connect us to the essence of the human experience, that teach us “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” I think this is why many of us enter motherhood feeling like an actor who is wholly unqualified to play the part. We’ve lost the script.
That’s why we need to tell our stories. We need to talk about the transition to motherhood and what it means to us. Today our motherhood myths have been reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes: the “good mother” and the “wicked stepmother” and the “soccer mom” and the “perfect mom.” Fuck those myths. Let’s tell our honest stories and do away with the archetypes that haunt us. Let’s create a new mythology. If George Lucas and J.R. Tolkein can do it, so can we.
Suffering and Impermanence
Permit me to go a little Buddhist on you, because we’re talking about suffering along the motherhood journey.
The Buddha taught that we suffer due to our desires. We desire what we lack. We may cling to a specific vision of the future. We cling to the things that make us happy rightnow. We may also cling to the past, to “the way things were.” We crave this, or we desire not-this.
And with that clinging, we suffer, because everything is always changing. Everything is impermanent. No emotion lasts forever, no condition lasts forever, no life lasts forever. Our grasping is our futile attempt to prevent the inevitable from happening. Our grasping prevents us from being in the present moment, because either we’re already fearing its end or planning our escape. But now is the only time we can be happy.
So, to the mom who wishes she wasn’t a mom, I want you to breathe.
You miss the person you were. But she’s gone, and she would still be gone whether you became a mother or not. Not a single cell in your body today was there seven years ago. You are, literally, a completely different person now.
Calm your mind and bring your attention to this very moment.
When that thought “I miss how fun I was before I had kids” arises, simply note it.
Breathe, and let it go.
You can notice the thought, but you don’t have to follow it down the path of wishing for a different life.
Yes, some parts of parenting suck. In meditation, we are instructed to “sit with the emotions that arise.”
Sit with the suck. Observe it, without judgment, without blame. Hold your thoughts, and yourself, with compassion.
After you breathe, after you sit, you can contemplate. Why does it suck? What conditions bring about the suck?
Is it something you can’t change? Then don’t fight it. Suffering generally comes from our struggle to avoid the undesirable, rather than the undesirable thing itself.
Is it something you can change? Then change it. This isn’t resignation. It’s finding relief from our suffering. It’s finding joy.
You wrote that you love your children.
Sit with the love. Observe it with compassion. Contemplate it. Why is there love? What conditions bring joy?
This isn’t positive thinking mumbo-jumbo. This is changing how you relate to the present moment, whatever it may contain.
It’s letting your next move be informed by the present, and not the baggage of the past. Every moment is a chance to begin again.
Your Journey Does Not End When Your Child’s Begins
We often describe motherhood as a selfless task. Fuck that, too. Because being selfless means to have little concern for oneself or one’s own interests. That’s bullcrap. You and your interests matter. Parenting is not a zero-sum game, where the nurturing of a little person means the neglect of the nurturer.
Now I’m going unBuddhist on you, because Buddhism teaches that the self is an illusion. Which is fine if you’re in a monastery or something, but you’re a mom. Yes, you are one with the universe and all, but you are also a real self who is deserving of joy and compassion. Take care of yourself. Find the things that nurture your soul. And then do them, frequently and unapologetically.
Motherhood and the Middle Way
Why does the conclusion to our motherhood story have to be a choice between “I wouldn’t change a damn thing!” and “I wish I didn’t have kids!”? I can swing from one of those extremes and end up at the other, after hitting six places in the middle over the course of eleven minutes of mothering!
The extremes are where we cling. The middle is where we accept. We accept the suck and the love and the terrible and the wonderful.
So to the mom who wishes she wasn’t a mom, I hope I meet you in the middle some day. That’s where we can begin the journey to joyfulness.