Surprised by Motherhood

Surprised by Motherhood

By Dr Emma Wood

I think I was standing in the kitchen in tracksuit pants, eating a bowl of ice cream when I said,

“Let’s do this.”

“Are you sure?” He said.

“Yes. I’m sure. It’s time. We said we’d try for kids once our twenties were over, and I’m 31 now. It’s time.”

The reason I had put a deadline on such a decision was because, if I hadn’t, we might never have done it. Now, six years and three children later, I can’t believe it took me so long.

The idea of marriage never scared me, but the idea of becoming a mother did. When my husband and I got married in our early twenties after a mere fourteen months of dating, we knew we were always going to have kids. But while the idea excited him, I viewed having children mostly as a duty. A duty to humanity, to pass on to the next generation the gift of life that my parents had given me. Having children was something I’d always valued (to not have children, when one is suitably positioned to do so, I’d thought, was to be insufficiently thankful for one’s own existence). But though I valued the choice to have children, I did not think having children would be something I would enjoy.

Genuinely enjoying being a mother has been the most wonderful surprise of my life. We do not have adequate words in our language to describe the love that a mother feels for her young children. It is a source of unique joy.

When I saw my first child for the first time – in the obstetrician’s hands, tiny, crying, tight fists cupped underneath her chin - I experienced what I can only describe as a shift in my emotional centre of gravity. Suddenly, my world revolved around this little one. The shift sometimes manifested itself in funny ways. When I brought my daughter home, at four days old, I had the strangest experience. I had always swooned over our pet Maine Coon cat. I had always been an animal lover, enamoured with cute, furry creatures. The cat had been my fur baby. Now, as I held an actual baby in my arms, this creature was suddenly… just a cat. I had become so intoxicated by my daughter that everything else around me looked different.

I vividly remember when I saw each of my children smile for the first time. When I witnessed the first, genuine social smiles from each of my newborns, I was pleasantly taken aback each time.

“Oh! There you are!” I remember saying in response to the little light that had just switched on behind the blue eyes.

Being life’s tour-guide for three little humans, seeing the milestones, enjoying the giggles, and being loved in a way I had never experienced before bought me a whole new level of satisfaction. That’s right – being loved. I remember thinking, before I had children, that it wasn’t possible for a baby, toddler, or pre-schooler to really love a parent. How can you be loved by someone who doesn’t know you as a person the way other adults do?

Well, no adult – not even your spouse – looks at you in a way that says “You are my whole world. Nothing in my world makes sense if you aren’t there.” No adult is so utterly in awe of you despite your weaknesses. And, though they might not always understand you, your child’s intense interest in you gives your soul something special – something you know you don’t really deserve.

When my one-year-old offers me her favourite soft toy to cuddle when I’m feeling ill, or stressed out about work, no efforts at comfort are so pure. When my three-year-old begs me to put on my “sparkly” eyeshadow before we go out for a trip to the play equipment, nothing makes me feel more appreciated. And when I’m losing my cool in heavy traffic, and my five-year-old feeds me sagely advice from the back seat – “Sometimes, in life, mummy, you just need to be patient” – no desire for my own wellbeing is more sincere.

The love experienced in the mother-child relationship, of course, is not all there is to it. Motherhood is not a ride from one picture-perfect moment to the next. The tiredness, the monotony of many of the daily tasks, the relentlessness of a child’s needs – it’s all real. And it is a big part of why I was so scared to become a mother.

But now, as I reflect on my pre-kid life, I realise that the ‘hard work’ of being a mother can’t have been the only reason I was scared. After all, I’d never been afraid of hard work. I’d never been afraid of sacrificing frivolous fun for long-term gains (especially one so profound as the love between mother and child). Whether it was studying hard, saving money, dieting, reading old books over vegging out on TV, or sacrificing some pleasure or freedom in order to make a more ethical choice, I had never been afraid of effort and self-discipline for the sake of something I valued. So why, if, in theory, I valued having children, was I so scared of becoming a mother for so long?

As a millennial, I was not unique in my fear of having children and becoming a mother. While the overwhelming majority of our grandmothers had children by the time they were 30, less than half of millennial women in their 30s have ever had children. As I observe women I know in their late twenties or early thirties – relationally, financially, physically and more than emotionally capable of being mothers – scared to take the plunge, I see what I think is a similar fear and hesitancy I experienced. Why? Why is it that motherhood is such a psychological hurdle for millennial women?  

Some of the reasons for the ‘low birth rate’ amongst millennials has to do with delayed marriage. Less marriage, fewer babies – both inside of wedlock, and overall. But this doesn’t explain all of it. It certainly didn’t explain my hesitancy, which I believe shares a common thread with the hesitancy of others.

Some may be inclined to blame other stereotypical millennial problems – failure to plan, failure to ‘grow up’, failure to take responsibility. But I don’t think these accusations are entirely fair either. The married, educated, career-driven, financially responsible young lawyer who fears taking the step into motherhood hardly fits anyone’s definition of an aimless, entitled slacker… But the ambitious, motherhood-fearing, millennial characteristics do, perhaps point to something else.

The millennial pathology which, I think, is really responsible for the initial hesitancy around parenthood is not so much laziness, nor an inability to take responsibility per se. The problem is a more subtle one: that we view our lives as having little meaning unless we’re special. More precisely, we don’t see our lives as meaningful unless we’re exceptional people. Unless we are living a unique, adventurous, life story; unless we are making a contribution to society that requires our particular insight or genius; unless we are following unpredictable pathways; unless we are discovering an esoteric new identity; unless we are championing a justice cause that demonstrates that our courage is a cut above everyone else’s, unless we are living a life that would make for an interesting biopic… then we’re not really worthwhile. Embarrassing as it is to admit, there is a lot of truth to the ‘rainbow unicorn’ self-image of millennials.

Although the hard edge of second wave feminism has died down – that hard edge that viewed motherhood as degrading, and an unsuitable pursuit for intelligent women – the individualism inherent in it has remained, and has impacted millennial women even more, I believe, than our male peers. High-achieving millennial women grew up absorbing many of the assumptions of liberal feminism: that, given the abundance of opportunity available to us, our mission in life was to make our mark – to be the impressive, exceptional individuals that men throughout history had always been able to be. Seldom did we pause to note the fact that the vast majority of men who have ever lived were not Rembrandts, Einsteins, or Mozarts (nor were they in a position to be). However questionable the logic behind it, the idea stuck: to be ‘just’ a wife or mother was an immoral waste of the privileges of being born in our time and place.

Implicit in such messaging is the individualistic philosophy that affects millennials in general: that what makes you significant as a human being are the revolutionary pursuits that distinguish you from the rest of humanity, rather than the age-old, radically equalising experiences common to all of humanity (from the ‘greatest’ to the ‘least’). Can millennial women embrace hard work and responsibility? You bet. As long as it is exceptional responsibility. It is ordinary responsibility that we fear.

During a comedy sketch mocking young mothers for being too ‘in-your-face’ about breastfeeding in public, Bill Maher once quipped: “You don’t have to get all Janet Jackson on us because you made a baby. Something a dog can do.” Repulsive as it was, Maher’s sentiment summed up my own, dark feelings about motherhood before I had kids. Anyone can be a mother, so it can’t be that meaningful a vocation. Having babies is not for rainbow unicorns.

But if there’s one thing besides humility that always eludes a person with rainbow-unicorn priorities, it is contentment. Placing your worth in things that make you exceptional is not only absurdly self-defeating (especially when everyone else is doing it - recall the Monty Python sketch of that crowd shouting “we’re all individuals!”), but self-piercing also.

I now see, pre-kids, that my former mentality closed me off from much of the joy to be found in mere human existence. Experiencing the love of my children has brought me face to face with a truth that I think our grandparents understood better: the deeds that cause the human race to thrive are the millions of ordinary ones. It stands to reason that such deeds are also the richest sources of meaning.

Enjoying motherhood requires a mind shift, perhaps, for many millennials. Time spent wiping bottoms, adjudicating fights over whose turn it is to have the pink breakfast plate, diarising events on the pre-school calendar, and tripping over the toy you thought you’d already tidied up requires one to finally embrace one’s own smallness, one’s own ordinariness. But learning to embrace this brings great rewards. I wish I’d discovered this secret sooner.

Dr Emma Wood is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.