Friday, September 14, 2012

Musings on Motherhood

I always aspired to be a stay at home mom - it looks awesome from a distance. Unlimited time to play with my kids, no schedule except what I set, flexibility to get involved in things that interest me, time to develop social relationships, time to invest in hobbies. And then I became a stay at home mom. And it is awesome. Sometimes. And sometimes it is far, far harder than anything else I have ever done.

Harder than leaving my family 10,000 miles away to start university in a country that was mostly foreign to me. Harder than juggling a part time job, 20 units, being an RA, and planning a wedding. Harder than working with severely emotionally disturbed kids - getting hit, cursed at, spit on - watching the kids I invested in make terrible decisions, be betrayed by the people they needed most, get arrested as minors...Motherhood is harder.

And here's why - Western society sees the mother as a solitary figure. In the developing world, mothers are a central part of the community. They may be incredibly disrespected, they may bear the brunt of the financial responsibilities for the families, they may live in terrible conditions - but they are surrounded by a community of people who are part of raising their children. Dozens of arms ready to pick up injured babies, dozens of lips to kiss chubby cheeks,  dozens of mouths to scold rascally boys, and dozens of lives to instruct young girls.

But in the Western world, we toss around the phrase "it takes a village" and then go on living our solitary lives. Sure, there's support - offers to baby sit, offers of company, mommy play groups (let's be honest - these are mommy support groups...we just call them play groups). But the mindset of communal child-raising absolutely does not exist. We glance at eachother's children from a distance, and unless we are good friends with their parents, refrain from interacting - terrified of being the creepy stranger.

About a year and a half ago, my husband found himself at a playground with our son - a five year old girl was having a hard time on the monkey bars, starting to fall, and calling for help. No one came to help her - so he went to assist her, offered his help before reaching out to touch her, and she refused - terrified, and instead chose to fall to the ground. He felt stuck - help her anyway and risk the wrath of a mis-perceiving parent? Or let her fall?

What sort of society have we allowed to sneak in around us where children have to be afraid of any adult they don't know? And good-hearted adults fear reprisals for helping other's children? In Nairobi, I constantly consider threats to my children - crazy drivers, potential terrorist attacks, hijackings, diseases, rabid dogs. But I never worry about someone actively causing them harm (unless I was actually the target and my children unfortunate bystanders) - if I lose Kai in the grocery store, I don't panic...I know someone is with him and I'll find him soon. If a stranger approaches him and I'm at a distance, I don't worry about what that stranger is saying to him. If Mika is on the playground and I am 15 feet away helping Kai, only to turn around and find Mika in the arms of a stranger - I don't blink an eye. Kenyans, Africans, love children.

But in Western society, children are cute...and a bit of an inconvenience. I read an article recently in the Huffington Post about how childless hipsters are incredibly irritated with parent hipsters who bring their kids to hipster hangouts. There's absolutely no sense of broader community. Instead there's a sense of "listen, you were cool before you had kids but now...well, you got yourself into that mess. Call us when your kids aren't around, or are old enough to meet our current standards of 'hip'."

And so the stay at home mom is left with her identity stripped - society developed her to be a societal contributer via her career. And she bought into it - college debt, wardrobe, and all. Then evolution rears it's head and she reproduces. Society applauds and turns away. Children are an inconvenient, and hopefully not contagious, detour from real contributions- call us when you're doing something again. Feel free to come to hang out with us, without kids would be better - and not too many stories about your kids, ok? They're cute, but let's talk about something that matters - have you heard about the recent political scandal or trend in foreign aid?

So she spends months, years, maybe decades - quietly wiping runny noses, kissing scraped knees, washing husband's laundry, matching socks, planning meals, loading and unloading carseats, blogging about being a mom, dropping kids at sports games, cheering at kindergarten graduations, buying back to school supplies. All the while struggling to live deeply in the moment - knowing the absolute trust her infants have in her will fade quickly, knowing the chubby arms will quickly thin and fill with muscles - giving fewer hugs, knowing the rosy cheeks will soon fill with words that will sometimes sting, knowing that receiving minds will soon seek information elsewhere, knowing the crowded dinner table will empty seat by seat.

Society watches and some boldly criticize her abilities, the close few rally to support, and if she is an incredibly blessed mother - several will rejoice with her at the seemingly small triumphs, recognizing the smallest triumphs took the most of her strength, tears, and character. Small triumphs: the first day with no toilet accidents, the first step, the second night slept through (the first was just luck), the first broken arm not ending in utter disaster, the first night of homework, the first call into the principles office, the first time her child includes a social outcast, the first time her child takes a stand for themselves without her prompting...the unnoticed triumphs - the markers of motherhood.

We live our lives looking forward, aspiring to the next phase - like children always wondering what new accomplishment waits for us that day; an accomplishment we were destined to fulfill. And it's easy to view today as a holding tank - prepping us for some yet unachieved success. Waiting in anticipation for the next thing "we're looking forward to." And in almost every walk of life - this is reasonable...keep your sights always on the next step so you don't miss it.

But in motherhood, this doesn't work - because today is the next step. Today is the small triumph that no one but the mother will see. Today is the chance to speak the word, give the hug, extend the grace that will motivate the wise decision, kind word, or meaningful societal contribution in ten years from today.  And today, the stay at home mom must rally her strength, find her purpose, say a thousand prayers for patience, and live deeply in today.

Western society would do well to carve out more of a niche for the mother - to see the choice of putting a career aside as a sacrifice and not a cop out, and to treat it as such when the mother pursues re-entering the work force & when the mother engages in conversations regarding something besides her children. Western society would do well to love it's children - to protect them, to acknowledge that while youth are the next generation of leaders - children are the ones with minds being formed by the adults around them. As adults, today we don't shape the next generation (that's already been done, and they are now largely shaping themselves) - we shape the youngest generation.

I don't say this to give myself praise - it's more of a call to arms. A call for mothers to live in today contentedly - even without thanks, and a call for western society to acknowledge the mother as a societal contributor.  For that is what she is.


  1. Thanks, Sarah! I read this as a mom with kids on another part of the journey/spectrum. Our dinner table was reduced by one a month ago. Today is still the "next step" for me though and will be as long as I live... and love the kids around me! Love YOU, too!

    1. Carlye - thanks for your comment. I love knowing what people's responses are to the little thoughts I jot down here - especially from moms of older kids. I have much to learn, and am blessed to have wonderful moms like you ahead of me!

  2. Sarah, this is my favorite thing you've written. Everything resonates with me - especially as I find myself carving out a life as an ambivalent SAHM (ambivalent precisely because as you describe we are generally unsupported, unappreciated and no one values or sees or very real triumphs). And I totally agree about raising children here where I never worry about Caleb annoying people at the store or restaurants or wherever. Every time I apologize for his behavior people look at me like I'm crazy and remind me that "children must play" or that "you can't control children." I'm lucky in that I have a neighbor who pretty much does act like my extended family, and so I'm getting a bit of that "village" that people seem to laud so much. But I think in general, you're right about Western society which "applauds and then turns away." Stay strong!

  3. Really, every stay-at-home mom should read what you just posted. Well said, Sarah! As my 6-month-old is napping, I read this post and literally laughed out loud to myself at the mommy "play" groups (totally support groups!) and the first time sleeping through the night as just luck :) I am excited for what the future holds as my son grows up and as we eventually grow our family. My husband always says to our son O that we will always miss Past O, we always look forward to Future O, but Right Now O is our favorite. I am consciously working to enjoy this time, not simply enduring it. Thanks for your insights as a mom a little further along this journey than I am. I appreciate it!


The Favorites