*This post is authored anonymously.
I had a moment of seeing behind the proverbial curtain this weekend, glimpsing the grinding gears and strained puffing of the system we rely on to keep our ways of life afloat. A number of factors led to this: Mother’s Day this year arrived during a global pandemic and stay-at-home order, and I was at the (hopeful) tail end of three weeks of fevers, fatigue, and coughs for me and my family, all while I shouldered the responsibility of keeping myself and my staff employed and paid, along with the additional cognitive and emotional workload produced by the pandemic and its cascading effects.
This is a time of erasure of the boundaries and social fictions we employ when things are functioning, or at least more or less functioning, when the very foundations of our societal infrastructure to keep people physically safe, socially connected, and able to acquire resources for survival and fulfillment are not existentially threatened (albeit temporarily for most of us).
The ‘Have-It-All’ Narratives as Social Fiction
In normal times, what these boundaries and social fictions allow us to do is to live by some convenient narratives and patina of orderliness that disguises some stark truths. These are the “have-it-all” narratives mainstream society particularly presents to mothers as both incentive and imperative: having children, fulfilling romantic relationships and friendships, community engagement, cultivation of a meaningful and growing internal world, and ambitious career accomplishments.
Society constructs equally bombastic promises and goals for how we treat our children: seeking equality of opportunity, including broader access to high-quality early childhood care and good schools, rich worldly experiences and skill development, reliance on familial and community support, and modeling of knowledge and behavior to supplement the parent-child relationship with the goal of producing fully actualized human beings. The fact that this is the language of our cultural mythos and that these are real areas of pursuit and achievement for vast swaths of people is a massive achievement, full stop. This is the well-deserved badge of honor worn by the successes (more or less) of feminism and other rights-based movements, and (again, more or less) the excesses afforded to us by economic growth and standards of living in the Western world over the past several decades.
Nothing I am saying here should detract from the profundity of this shift, seating power in the hands of the individual to seek and, in some cases, to find achievement in some or all of those areas. This is a massive liberation from earlier systems. Still, there are important things these narratives obscure, and until now, there has not been a reason for them to be at the center stage of our cultural discussions. Certainly there has been some hand-wringing over the grandiosity and brittle promise of these narratives in recent decades as people have struggled to realize their promise and live them. These conversations have often been relegated to their own corners of bookstores and coffee shops and then the internet, places that house special-interest think pieces, academic literature on “matrescence,” and “mommy blogs,” often coupled with a lot of reassurance about how wonderful motherhood and children really are.
The Tension Between Motherhood and Individuality
So what does not get said? What did I glimpse behind the curtain? The difficult truth in all of this is that the choice to become a mother brings with it an irredeemable cost to one’s individuality. Mothers are beholden to their children’s needs first, and with that their role in the family system, and only secondarily can they answer the call of their own individual pursuits and identity.
Yes, fathers or other partners, teachers, extended family, child care workers, and others in the community can and should help distribute that load very significantly. And yes, in normal life, mothers and children can “have it all,” or at least have most of it, most of the time. In a well-resourced environment for a person with a high level of skills and emotional acumen, this does not have to be a negative thing, at least not on a surface level. It means doing things for your child that you may otherwise not have done: participating in child-centric activities and making friends with people you otherwise would not, who are not in your “tribe” and who may not be fulfilling to you individually, so as to build your child’s community and experiences. It means relying on your partner and extended family to shoulder much of the burden so you can invest in your own individual growth with intention.
The Shift to a Care-Based Ethic
All of this is in itself a kind of important growth. But in becoming a mother, the shift has taken place. The point is that the ethical playing board changes with motherhood. This is true, although mostly hidden, even in the best times. No longer do the most relevant moral and political debates around fairness and equitable distribution of access to resources revolve around the tension between the freedom of the individual and the freedoms of other individuals or groups. For mothers, our central ethical duty is to nurture and provision our children, and to the extent it increases their likelihood of survival and growth, maximize that interconnectedness and resource provision when they are vulnerable and in need of it. This is a care-based ethic: No longer is it my job to primarily worry about humanity in general, or about myself. First and foremost, it is my job to focus on my own children. Anything that comes into conflict with that must take a back seat to it, including my own basic needs and aspirations.
In times of scarcity and illness, the hierarchical nature of this is even more evident. Neither my partner nor I could fail to function in this pandemic, lest it harm our children in very real ways. Without schools, reliable and safe hospitals, access to extended family and friends, office buildings, and the other usual institutions to offload some of this day-to-day reality and allow a separateness of living spheres, it is clearer that if I were to be paralyzed by anxiety or by physical illness, it would impact my ability to do things as basic as care for my children and keep a roof over their heads. Added to that in the current climate is my responsibility to, with my partner, be solely responsible for their intellectual development, emotional health, and social outlet, and it throws this into greater relief. It is my ethical duty to function through it.
Things will return to normal for most of us (more or less). We have invested in a broad net of relationships and solitary pursuits that will go back to delighting and challenging us, and the machines of normal life will come back on in our worlds, both figuratively and literally. But this is a bell that can’t be unrung, and I hope it brings some clarity to what our duties are to our own children and those who we may or may not bring into the world in the future.
The Pandemic’s Last Effects: No More Pressure to Parent
There are a few lessons and shifts in perspective I hope become lasting effects in the wake of this pandemic. First, society needs to stop making motherhood normative. We are all programmed by our evolutionary pasts to maximize our genetic survival and to reproduce as part of that, so we will have to intentionally think our way into what is best for each of us and override the default genetic programming. None of us has a duty to reproduce. Neither the evolutionary nagging, nor the more literal nagging some of us receive from those in our lives, nor the nebulous societal status markers that come with parenthood should carry weight. We can all be freed from that kind of pressure.
We Should Ask: Is This What I Want?
That leaves us each with a choice and a question to ask ourselves: Is this what I want? We need to recognize the tradeoff in choosing to have children, and especially to have multiple children, and the shift that comes with that. Identity becomes focused on one’s role in a broader system of relationships and responsibilities, including the parent-child, nuclear, and extended families and their communities. For some of us, thinking about shifting from an individually grounded life to one in which one’s own needs become subservient to the group is terrifying. For some, it sounds like the fulfillment of a dream. It’s those personality differences and preferences among us that should guide us in making these choices and in taking on our future pursuits with competency and clarity.
We need to let go of the idea that one of these choices is somehow better or more noble than the other, or that anyone has the moral right to make that choice for anyone else. Making decisions from this point of view will likely mean fewer people will choose to have children (or to have multiple children), and those who do have them will be the people who are the most suited to do the task well and to be well-prepared.
For those of us who do decide to have children, and for the children themselves, we need to stop outsourcing our responsibilities to institutions that primarily function to separate children from the daily lives of adults. Certainly education, recreation, friendships, and broader communities are vitally important, and the quality of parenting and thinking about how we can do right by children and parents is not about the quantity of time spent together. It’s a reckoning with the fundamental vulnerability of children and, by extension, their parents who are engaged in the pursuit of raising them. As parents, we are reliant on things going right that are almost entirely out of our control, and yet, those are the most important things in our lives. This lasts for decades, until our children can fledge and our vigilance can lessen, although it will not go away completely.
Legitimizing the Choices of Nonparents
For nonparents, we need to recognize the legitimacy of their choice and the opportunities that nonparents have, both to be individuals in pursuit of their happiness, goals, and meaning, and to be interconnected on their own terms. This includes playing those community roles that benefit all of us. With this fuller understanding, all members of society including nonparents could be creating an environment that is supportive of kids and parents, particularly in understanding the vulnerability and lack of control both kids and parents have. This reasoning leads to supporting policy frameworks that give children and families the greatest access to resources for holistic well-being and growth, including physical safety, relational connectedness, intellectual independence, and self-efficacy. At the same time, we need to remove policy defaults that incentivize having children and we need to provide routes for meaning and prosperity to nonparents.
In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull,” with the idea that one can find some solace in the privacy and the freedom of the internal life, no matter how authoritarian the external world becomes. This is not on offer once we become mothers. Leaving aside the literal changes and growth in the brain, which is a fascinating discussion on its own, a mother’s internal life always has multiple voices. Who we are has become inextricable from what we do, from the family system itself. This shift can manifest as a quiet din sometimes, or it can be very loud and very literal; it can be rich with novelty, awe, and emotional complexity, and it can enhance personal growth and self-awareness. We can pursue and achieve while our life is made better by having our children. But we must accept some truths, and sometimes in our lives those truths are visible and sitting in our living rooms, if we just take the time to look behind the artifice.