One afternoon during my junior year of high school, my mother came into my room to ask about my college applications and future plans.
“What kind of a career are you thinking about, April? What would you like to be?”
I rattled off a couple of prestigious options that involved highly technical work and long hours away from home–careers that would easily impress anyone who ever asked.
After considering my choices for a moment, my mother gently suggested, “It might be a good idea to consider a career that would work better with raising a family.”
My heart pounded heavily, my cheeks flushed red, and I fired back,
“Mom, if I become a mother, and if I raise my daughters to become mothers, none of us will ever be anything!”
She paused for a moment–this lovely, selfless woman who had always been my best friend–and then she put her head in her hands. I’m not sure if her words were actually spoken or merely felt by me, but the essence was, “What did I not teach you?”
That discussion with my mother was just a small part of a growing, worldwide conversation that brings up excellent questions about womanhood and motherhood. Why do we have children? How should we raise them if we do have them? How do we balance our financial and personal needs as women with our innate desires to nurture children who need so much of our time and energy?
Thoughtful women on blogs, in books, on talk shows, in laundromats, and alongside playground swings are participating in this conversation–women who love their children but are very familiar with heartache, frustration, and unfulfilled desires. They speak about poverty, guilt, depression, glass ceilings, birth rates, overload, and strained relationships.
Oh, it’s complicated.
But what’s happening is that in our desires to find solutions to life’s real problems, we too often turn to an attack on motherhood.
Mothering children, in many circles, is being defined as madness. It’s described as mind-numbing, menial work akin to prison or slavery. Mothers are portrayed as not having time to change the world because they’re “wasting” their time in their homes. Children are labeled as detriments to a woman’s personal growth, and the decision to become a mother is reduced to its impact on paychecks, freedom, and personal satisfaction.
Motherhood, then, becomes a decision based solely on logic.
What many women don’t understand–and what I didn’t know as a 17-year-old–is this one true principle:
Motherhood defies logic.
For example, logic can’t explain the number of cards Grace makes for me.
Or help me see why I ever went grocery shopping with three preschoolers.
Logic doesn’t begin to touch the feeling in our kitchen when we dance to our favorite music while we load the dishwasher, wipe the counters, and scoop the leftovers into plastic containers . . . together.
And can logic explain why our babies want to live in cupboards?
Or why the first day of school makes me feel like life is going too fast?
Or why I cried in the shower for weeks after each of my miscarriages?
It’s just not logical.
Last week, I sat with my ten-year-old in the corner of the orthodontist’s waiting room, our cheeks pressed together as we shared a set of earbuds and listened to her favorite song by the newest boy band. I wanted to freeze that moment.
The other night, I went into my 12-year-old daughter’s room to say goodnight, tired from a long day and anxious to get to some projects looming over my head. My daughter is at that pivotal age, navigating the gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood, and as I quickly kissed her forehead and turned to the door, she softly said, “Mom, please don’t leave me.”
Logic says, “It’s bedtime. Go to sleep.”
My heart says, “Let me hold you, and we can talk for a few more minutes.”
I’ve been touched by these words attributed to Victor Hugo:
“She broke the bread into two fragments and gave them to her children, who ate with eagerness. ‘She hath kept none for herself,’ grumbled the sergeant.
“‘Because she is not hungry,’ said a soldier.
“‘No,’ said the sergeant, ‘because she is a mother.’”
The world is full of deliberate mothers who spend years swaying side to side, waking up in the middle of the night, bandaging scrapes on knees, and kissing tears from cheeks.
It’s personal work, very personal work, and it reminds me of this interchange from the movie You’ve Got Mail, where Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) owns a large bookstore chain that is putting the small bookshop owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) out of business.
Joe Fox: It wasn’t . . . personal.
Kathleen Kelly: What is that supposed to mean? . . . All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?
Joe Fox: Uh, nothing.
Kathleen Kelly: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.
When the beautiful, essential role of building a home and family is reduced by societal forces to be synonymous with “drudgery,” that’s personal to me.
And more importantly, it’s personal to them:
Because how society defines motherhood often shapes how mothers define themselves. And how we, as mothers, perceive our identity affects our children and our households at the most intimate level.
The logical arguments against deliberate motherhood can be printed in multiple languages, featured on every major media outlet, and highlighted within social media all day long.
But what we feel in our hearts and know from experience, is that however well-intentioned, these blanket statements about motherhood are simply not true.
We’re not diminished by our children. We are infused with purpose because of them.
We strengthen the mothers of the world, we strengthen the world. Period.
Certainly, we want to use our minds and talents to thrive personally, to contribute to our family’s economic stability, and to serve the broader world around us–but thriving and mothering can co-exist, and our intentions for striking that balance aren’t to fill a void left by dedication to family. They are to more completely fulfill the purposes for which we are here.
Each woman has the right to make her own choices, and sadly, many women who desperately want to be mothers don’t always have the opportunity. But we don’t tear down the women who are doing their best to provide a beautiful upbringing for their children. We unite our voices. We build each other up. We put our heads together to creatively influence humanity for the better. And we teach our daughters and sons to develop that same fierce loyalty to family.
For those of us (mothers or not) who know the power of motherhood, it is our privilege to cherish it and to defend it.
Motherhood is hard. It’s demanding, painful, and often unappreciated. But the satisfaction I feel as a mother–even on the longest, most discouraging, exhausting days–far exceeds what I ever expected out of family life.
I don’t know what the future holds for my sweet girls, but someday we’ll be sitting together, making plans for their future. And I’m doing everything in my power to teach them what my mom knew all along: that motherhood, as illogical as it may be, is absolutely worth it.
QUESTION: Have you had an experience in motherhood that defies logic?
CHALLENGE: Realize that the work you are doing as a mother has meaning beyond what the world can see. On those long, exhausting days, remind yourself that you are shaping the future.
Originally published on March 25, 2014.