No wonder it’s so unfulfilling.
When I was 8, I decided that fathers shouldn’t be firefighters. After finishing another nail-biting episode of Captain Planet, I found myself lecturing my father on the dangers of the deadly profession in case he got any crazy ideas. “Daddy’s shouldn’t fight fire,” I warned him during bath time. It’s hot, and you could get burnt, Daddy.” “Oh Nne, that sounds awful.” He smiled. He found my interest endearing. “Yeah, and if you got burnt real bad, who would walk us to the bus stop?” I asked innocently. My concerns were self-serving but understandable given my age.
“Nne, who gets you all dressed every morning?”
“That’s right, mommy. And what about dinner? Who makes sure we eat big, big food every night?” “Mommy does.”
“Eh heh. And when you have fever?”
“Mommy gives me medicine.”
“That’s right; mommy always takes good care of us. So, don’t worry for that. Ok?”
“Ok, Daddy,” I said as I relaxed back into our routine.
He’s right, I thought to myself. Mom was the one doing all the life-saving work, not this guy, and mom was always on the job, almost like it was one.
I watched my mother tackle motherhood in a way that exhausted even me, a beneficiary slash onlooker; cooking, cleaning, refereeing, nursing, styling, scheduling, educating, financing, and chauffeuring, day in and day out, no breaks, no bench players to throw-in at half time. Not to mention the 40-hour workweek she wrangled 12 months out of the year, my mother was always on the job, almost like it was one. But that was motherhood for you, at least according to science and spirituality and the people that mattered, men. And you couldn’t argue with all of them, not argue and win, anyway. As I entered my teens, I was warned religiously about having children. Motherhood was hard; older women would warn me, certainly nothing I wanted to commit myself to prematurely. There were long, sleepless nights, body changes and health risks, a complete cessation of any social life, and a never-ending obligation to remain on-call. Almost like a career, which is exactly the way it was intended.
Motherhood, as we know it, is a relatively recent concept. The earliest edition of the word, moderhede, a middle English word meaning motherhead, dates back to the 14th century. In the 1590s, moderhede becomes motherhood, meaning the state or fact of being a mother. This word would encompass not only the physical components of childbirth but also the sociological and psychological ones. Out from under the umbrella of motherhood would gradually grow an identity or ideology defining the relationship between mother and child in a more regulated, measured way. Today the word continues to carry a connotation with mothering in a multidimensional sense, often used to identify the cultural process by which women are codified based on their ability to nurture infants and children. The second X chromosome might make you biologically female, but only by dedicating your life to the care of another life did you become a mother. And that dedication was to be self-neglecting, without boundary, and without an expectation of gratitude or guidance, else, could you even call yourself a mother?
But what if I told you that motherhood hasn’t always been tied to morality and sacrifice. At one point in its evolution, designating women to the care of the kids and the more vulnerable community members just made sense; there wasn’t anything more or less moral about it. It was the most logical way of life when the other jobs entailed building fire with your bare hands and killing caribou before sunup. Motherhood wasn’t meant to wear women down, and it certainly wasn’t a measurement of maternal instinct, whatever that is anyway. It was the safest vocation in the village, not to mention, baby feeding wasn’t nearly as flexible during those days. But then modernization streamlined manhood; we built machines to slaughter the cattle, wars moved from the countryside to the computer screen, if nothing else, modernization made manhood easier. A man was no longer measured by the stamina of his step but by the width of his wallet. Sad to say, womanhood received no such upgrade.
Patriarchy was immune to modernization, or so it seemed. Predating the 9–5 by more than a couple of centuries, patriarchy didn’t plan for women wanting an easier life, nor did it intend to give them one. Thanks to advancements in civilization, child-rearing was no longer the most accessible vocation in the village. In fact, with all of the changes society had undergone, it had become one of the most demanding, most stressful, least rewarding, most complex jobs there was in society. Not only that, but modernization made it harder to do. Children were no longer kept communally, looked after by mothers, community members, and elders, group-reared and raised in the center of society.
Modernization meant motherhood was a solo profession, one done in hidden suburban homes tucked behind double-wide driveways. By no means was this the most logical arrangement for everyone, but it was undeniably the ideal arrangement for men, as 9–5 life came with its own inconveniences. Who would cook, clean, care for the children and household, exercise dutiful domesticity while the man of the house ate donut balls in the breakroom? Motherhood was a job for women, one with a built-in morality clause for good measure. It came with a code of conduct, an operation’s manual, a dress code, and an annual celebration honoring the sacrifice. They said this was for the best, and we bought into that, even to the point of pride. So why didn’t it feel that way?
While we struggled to figure out why we were less than fulfilled by motherhood defined by men, things got worse. Patriarchy didn’t account for modernization, making the world a more expensive place to live. And as social advancement expanded the world, it increased our need for manpower. Men couldn’t run the quickly developing world all alone. Shocker, the workforce needed workers to make the modern world work. Yet, they blew this balloon called Western culture full of sexist philosophies and questionable ideations. How could the corporate workforce include women without uprooting the sexist sentiments upon which the office building was built? Two ways: Relegate women to specific roles and pay them a portion of a man’s pay.
And boy, did men master these techniques. But not without first creating a hidden hierarchy whereby women would be measured by their capacity to keep their absence in the home from being felt. This may sound impossible, but that didn’t stop women from gearing up to prove the patriarchy wrong. “We can do it all! You watch.” We protested. After all, who would if we wouldn’t? Certainly not men as they settled in to watch us try, better that than to lift a hand to help. Then who would keep the beer cooler full for the fellas every NFL Sunday? Couldn’t we see the men were busy? We could all take a page from their playbook.
For centuries, men have been defining motherhood on women’s behalf. Placating us with placards that read World’s Best Mom, all while treating the title with contempt and complete disregard. We’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, taught to see motherhood as magical so that we would feel obligated to keep up an impossible performance. It’s far from coincidence that motherhood is tied to morality. We have behavioral expectations for women who have children but carry no such concern for how fatherhood presents in men. We could all make a list of jobs mothers shouldn’t work; songs mothers shouldn’t sing, clothes mothers shouldn’t wear, places mothers shouldn’t go.
Men designed motherhood, and here’s another shocker, not with women OR children in mind. Else we’d acknowledge that “mothering,” or the act of caring and nurturing, is not only gender-neutral but a one-size-fits-few kind of concept. It doesn’t take the act of physical labor or the capacity to carry life to understand empathy and affection. There’s no science that says nurturing a child is genetically a challenge for men. It’s not who they are; it’s who they’re never taught to be. Thanks to the patriarchy, parenthood is a one-person job, ideally, where women perform the majority of the work. This is why firefighting isn’t a profession for women. Should something tragic happen, what becomes of the kids? The men may never know. Even our studies are sexist; we’re only concerned with how the kids are faring when their mom is away from home. We never think that maybe it’s Dad’s day-to-day contribution or gross lack thereof capping the kid’s contentment. Or is this even about them? It’s not. Is it?
Motherhood as we know it is archaic. Its expectations are predicated on a state of existence that no longer exists. Child-rearing is no longer the easiest vocation in the village. And if patriarchy were true to its practice, which it isn’t, men would gladly gear up to trade places with the mothers in their lives. Since motherhood is the most demanding, most important job, it would be foolish of us to entrust it to women, right fellas? I thought not. But men are right about one thing, caring for kids is a job. Albeit an important one with irreplaceable clientele, but work, nonetheless. We know this. We recognize the level of sacrifice made by educators and childcare workers, sitters and nannies, etc. And, no, the work isn’t effortless when you’re related; if anything, it’s more complicated.
Unfortunately, the creators of this career, which has little to do with motherhood from a biological perspective, designed its duties with their comfort in mind. Meaning motherhood doesn’t consider mothers, and you can’t be acting in the best interest of a child while completely ignoring their caretaker’s needs. The kids aren’t the only ones with complaints; mothers are generally unhappy, more stressed, and less fulfilled in their day-to-day, especially in comparison to fathers. But men don’t mind; when the world runs on your happiness, you can position other people in support of it.
Motherhood isn’t automatically stressful, overwhelming, and isolating; existing in a perpetual state of mental and emotional sacrifice is not required for raising children; it’s required for accommodating men. The presence of patriarchy has tainted everything we know about what motherhood means. The best thing we can do is free ourselves of the obligation to be some cookie-cutter kind of mom. We should make an effort to unlearn the “moral mother” narrative that binds women to caretaking as a career and define motherhood for ourselves, this time with both mother and child in mind. Mothers aren’t short on self-governance; they are, however, running dangerously low on self-care.