In my early 30’s, my then-boyfriend and I decided to end our relationship. After three years of dating and a year of living together, we knew enough to know that although we both really cared about each other, we weren’t going to do well as life partners.
He moved his things out of our apartment and I began my next few years as a single person. Part of this new life meant watching most of my friends partner off and have children. At this point, I felt ambivalent about having kids. Although I had always imagined myself becoming a mother eventually, starting my business felt way more exciting than the idea of being pregnant.
But despite this ambivalence, as a non-mother, I did feel left out. Although my friends always did a great job of including me in social events and asking about my life, I started feeling more and more separate. My dating stories didn’t seem to hold up to their birth stories. My problem of an overpacked travel schedule felt insignificant when compared to their struggles to balance work and family.
The more I denied my story in their presence, the more I felt like my life was fading to the edges of the cultural narrative. I didn’t like this feeling, but also I didn’t know how to change it.
Then, by a twist of fate and some faulty fertility awareness, I got pregnant. (Long story short: My now-partner Micah and I got accidentally pregnant after two months of dating and decided to say “yes!” to parenting together. Now that our son Jonah is 18 months old, I can assuredly say that I’ve never made a better decision.)
As a mother, the view is different on this side of the river. Many of my assumptions about motherhood were correct. Yes, it’s truly a challenge to balance my work, my family, and my self-care. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot, and I’ve needed to talk about those sacrifices along the way. Also, my birth story feels incredibly powerful and I want to share it with the world.
And yet, what I couldn’t see as a non-mother, is how isolating motherhood can feel. Yes, I am checking off the societal boxes, but within having that cultural approval, I still feel like my life is fading to the edges of the cultural narrative. Jonah is at an age where he is not easy to travel with. Staying home cuts me off from the world, but it also feels like the best choice for our family most of the time. I say “no” to so many social invitations that I get afraid people will stop inviting me.
Within this struggle, I also see how easy it is to separate myself from my non-mother friends. I assume that they might not want to hear about my sleep training stresses, and I can get jealous about how much time they can invest in their careers and their self-care. It takes a lot of active consciousness for me to remember how I wanted to wall myself off in a similar way before I became a mother.
As women, I think we have the habit of dividing ourselves into two camps: mothers and non-mothers. It’s very easy to romanticize or demonize the other side and begin to feel excluded. These divides seem to deepen as we get older and our lives are further formed by the realities of whether or not we became parents.
I’m having this realization at the same time that I’ve seen a few articles unpacking the many challenges of modern motherhood in the United States. (Check this one out.) These articles discuss how difficult it is to raise a family under a government that offers the bare minimum of parental leave after the birth of a child and continues that negligence by refusing to help in our daycare costs and so many of our medical expenses. Taking time off to care for sick children, at best, hurts the parent’s career, and at worst, means going without other necessities like medicine or food.
These articles propose that under these immense financial strains, mothers are baring more than their brunt of the pressure. We are the ones who are societally expected to be full-time caregivers, and yet many of us must also financially provide for our families. And despite all this work, when things go wrong, mothers are quick to be blamed and/or to blame ourselves.
Although mothers are most affected by it, I really believe that the lack of governmental support for families hurts us all.*** When the well-being of children is compromised, everyone’s physical, mental, and spiritual health suffers. We all lose out when the quality of our schools decline or when children do not receive the nutrition, medical care, and daily attention from caring adults that they need to thrive. As mothers struggle to care for their loved ones within a system that refuses to care for the well-being of families, we all suffer as a society.
(***I want to speak about privilege for a moment. As a white cisgender mother with the support of a white cisgender male partner, I have so many privileges that help me and my family. This privilege means that I need to speak out about how incredibly tough our current set-up is for mothers and families. If me and my college-educated, professional-job-working friends are reporting such high levels of stress, then you know even tougher problems are rolling downhill to those who are struggling for a minimum quality of existence for their families.)
So, amazing women out there, I have a message for us. I know that we all want to live in a world where the next generation is full of energy, empathy and creative inspiration. If we are ever go to change our culture — which most definitely affects all of us — we must support each other in raising our families well. To do this, it’s time to come together in a new way. We need each other so much right now!
Here are a few things we can do to come together as women and begin changing our culture:
- Talk about the places you’re struggling. We suffer most when we think other people have it figured out better than us. We imagine that life would feel manageable if we could just be a little more like that kid’s mother whose hair always looks great and and shows up on time for school events. Or we hear about a single friend’s trip to Thailand and get jealous about the freedom she has to live her life. Or we think everything would be great if we could just meet our dream partner and finally have kids. From talking to a lot of women, I know we all have times when we feel ambivalent about the choices we’ve made. Sharing more openly about these struggles helps others know that there is no perfect life choice. By telling the truth, we begin to understand that although we have a lot to appreciate about our lives, it’s normal to feel like we are missing out on some level.
- Ask for help. If you are a non-mother and feeling lonely in your life, call up one of your mother friends. Chances are that, despite other beings depending on her to get their needs met, your mother friend is also feeling disconnected. Hold her baby while she makes tea. Drink the tea while you talk about how tough and wonderful life can be. Mothers, this goes for you too. When you are having a bad day, call up one of your non-mother friends and ask her to help take care of you. We all want to feel needed, within reason, and sometimes asking for help is the gift that makes another person feel better.
- Refuse to internalize. When life is feeling like too much, notice what your brain begins to do. Do you start beating yourself up for not being able to find work/life balance? Do you think of every wrong decision you’ve made in relationships along the way? Understand that although there is a lot of personal responsibility we can take in our lives, if you are doing your best and it still feels really hard, it might be because you are getting set up to fail by dominant culture. Don’t get angry at yourself. Get angry at the powers that be. Talk to your mother friends and your non-mother friends and get fired up together. I truly believe our collective anger as women will set us free.
- Advocate for yourself and others. You can advocate in so many different ways. Instead of sneaking out of the office to grab your kids from daycare, announce loudly that you’re off to get the little ones. Caring well for our children makes us better professionals and we have no need to hide this. Watch out for other women, too. If another woman in your office is just back from maternity leave, check in on how she is doing. Get her a cookie (nursing/pumping makes you ravenous), and ask her if she feels comfortable pumping at work. If not, approach HR about making a more comfortable pumping space. She may not have the emotional energy to advocate for herself in this tender time of transition. Mothers, encourage your non-mother co-workers to shut down their computers at a reasonable time. Even if they technically don’t have to leave to pick someone else up, they need to tend to their post-work lives. Sometimes it’s helpful to be gently reminded to take time for ourselves.
- Relish your self-care. In a society where we are taught that our productivity equals our worth, self-care doesn’t have a real place. By consciously practicing self-care anyway, and seeing how much it helps everyone around us, we begin to create a society that honors and cares for all people.
Culture changes, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. I sense we are on the brink of some big cultural changes that will make life easier for mothers, which will make life easier for all women (and men, too!).
This change starts with us. It starts with getting and giving support. When we have the support we need to fully own our stories as women, we gain the power to lift ourselves out from the edges of the cultural narrative.
Together, as mothers and non-mothers, we can create a new story that honors the many incredible ways we care for ourselves and others, every single day. This new story will guide us as we continue creating the world that we really want to hand over to the next generation.
Gracy Obuchowicz is a Washington, DC-based self-care coach, group facilitator, retreat leader. She believes practicing authentic self-care is the most revolutionary way to serve others and create positive change in society. Learn more about her work at www.selfcarewithgracy.com and preorder her upcoming book, “Selfcarefully.”