What does the world expect of mothers?

I was more than a little saddened to read this a couple weeks ago from Kim at Catawampus (via Karen at StrollerDerby; read both if you read one; the takes are pretty different)

These days, here’s what society preaches to women:

  1. You can’t be fulfilled unless you have a man and a child.
  2. If you have a child, you should WANT to stay home with your baby, all day, every day.
  3. Doing this will make you feel happy and fulfilled and complete in ways you never imagined.
  4. When your kids are older, you can always go right back into your career.

Here’s what I hear from society:

  1. You can’t be fulfilled unless you have a career (not just a job!) and money. External stuff—praise from your boss, “going places” in your career, toys—makes you happy and fulfilled.
  2. Money. Make money. Yes, have kids, but get back to work ASAP.
  3. More money. Two incomes are an absolute necessity.
  4. “You can have it all” or “You can have it all at once” or even “You must have it all at once.”

I was wondering if I was crazy until I saw my experience echoed in an essay that I haven’t finished reading yet, but I can tell it’s something I need to see. It’s called “I Am a Mother” (and I’m guessing it’s from the author’s book of the same name). When she decided to leave her career to raise her child-to-be,

I found that the reaction from my female colleagues was largely, and disappointingly, less than supportive. I shared my decision with one woman who smugly joked, “Why don’t you just get a nanny?” Another network executive asked me what I was going to do once I got to Boston. I told her I was going to have a family, I was going to be a mother. “No, I understand that,” she said, puzzled, “but what are you going to do?”

All of this was still fresh on my mind during that evening spent near Washington, D.C. A chorus of “I’m just a mother,” juxtaposed with “What will you be without your job?” and “You’re making a terrible mistake” made me wonder, Could they be ­right?

I may struggle with finding “fulfillment” from constantly keeping my 13 month old from playing with the cat food, but I know there is more to motherhood than just that. Society as a whole will probably never understand motherhood. (Kim at Embracing Momminess has an interesting post on this topic, too, looking at the political/feminist side of societal pressure on motherhood.)

I also realize that no matter how many children I have, they can’t give me fulfillment. It’s not a gift you wrap and stick under the tree. However, a job—or a whole career—can’t just give it to me either.

My fulfillment has to start with me. And realizing that is the first step on that path.

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