Putting Myself First Doesn’t Make Me A Bad Mom
The greatest taboo of motherhood is admitting that it’s not only okay, but necessary, for a woman to be at the center of her own world.
“I’m such a bad mom.” Five words we tell ourselves, veiled in the feeling that we’re just not doing it right. The truth is, with the bar of motherhood set so impossibly high, there really is no doing it right, all the time, in every way. And now, in the throes of a global pandemic, the bar has shifted even higher. If you, too, are making meals out of old cereal, abandoning screen-time limits, and, you know, are occasionally terrified about what the future holds, you’re not alone. No Bad Moms is a series about not just lowering the bar, but ditching it completely. It’s about finding the good mom within all of us. And most of all, honoring that in each other, on Mother’s Day and EVERY day. So, please share your stories about what it’s like to be a mom right now with #nobadmoms, because we see you. And, no matter what, we think YOU are an inspiration.
Five months after having my first baby, still in the hardest, haziest slog of early parenthood, I was offered a job at the BBC in London, which meant uprooting my new family from our life in Toronto to chase my career ambitions an entire ocean away. I felt a lot of internalized pressure to be selfless or maternal while making this decision, yet it never seemed all that difficult. It was a place I’d always wanted to work, why should a new baby stand in the way?
Of course, I never said that out loud. After all, that’s not how mothers, especially new ones, are expected to think. Nor did I tell anyone how happy I was to be back at work. If friends and family asked if it was killing me to be away from my baby, I would nod and agree, when what I really wanted to say was that it was helping me find my way back to myself. That if anything, having children — I’m about to give birth to my second — has given me an invigorated sense of self-preservation, of a need to carve out a creative space of my own, away from the demands of sticky toddlers and crying newborns. That opinion is something I hesitate to discuss with other people, especially other parents. Because, despite the small steps forward as a society around issues like shared domestic labor and shared parental leave, the greatest taboo of motherhood is talking openly and unabashedly about how it’s not only okay, but necessary, for a woman to be at the center of her own world.
Even with high-profile moms like Chrissy Teigen or Kristen Bell, who proudly wear the messiness of motherhood as a badge of honor and aren’t afraid to show that maternal life is just one of many facets of their life (whether it’s making time for a night out with her husband a few weeks after giving birth like Teigen or Bell’s TMI about how she keeps her sex life with husband Dax Shepard exciting), we still cling to outdated and rigid expectations for the maternal figures in our lives.
We still see women like Teigen and Bell as aberrations — and they face constant backlash for it. Just like author Ayelet Waldman did in 2005 when, in daring to vocalize her desire to create autonomy from her children in a New York Times essay, she admitted that she loved her husband more than she loved her kids. “If I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband,” she wrote. “But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death.” With those few lines, Waldman managed to create a viral pre-Twitter fervor so intense it seemed for a time like she was the most hated woman in America. She even had to go on Oprah to issue a mea culpa of sorts.
If friends and family asked if it was killing me to be at work and away from my baby, I would nod and agree, when what I really wanted to say was that it was helping me find my way back to myself.
While the conversation around motherhood has slowly started to change, the lens through which we view the ideal mom is still largely middle-class and white, privileges that make it much easier to imagine the model of motherhood as one that involves staying home and focusing your identity around your children. The reality for most mothers is quite different. Most millennial moms have to work while balancing motherhood to afford the basics of food, housing, and childcare. Yet modern moms are still portrayed across mediums as sexless, wine-guzzling matrons, relieved of the burden of intellectual curiosity and forever at the mercy of our children’s desires.
Not only is this narrow definition of motherhood stifling, it’s also harmful. In a study on the effects of intensive parenting — a style of over-involved parenting where moms and dads heavily involve themselves in all the decisions and aspects of a child’s life, leaving little space for the parent to exist outside the child — University of Mary Washington psychologist Miriam Liss found that women who believed parenting should be child-centered had reduced life satisfaction.
It’s a ruthlessly easy trap to fall into. When our son was first born I was so overwhelmed by the physical and mental toll, I felt like I had to shrink my world and focus my attention and energy only on him. The natural relationship for me to cut back was the one with my husband. And yet, it was our love for each other that had created this helpless new person. Making time for each other away from the baby, whether it was traveling to cities we’d always wanted to go to before kids, sneaking in an episode of Love Island, or even just having our morning coffee together while the baby still slept gave me a renewed sense of love for him. Because, despite Waldman’s incendiary line about loving her husband more, what she was really alluding to was the suffocation she felt within the confines of the motherhood ideal. She didn’t see herself as free of sexual desire or longing for her partner, and more importantly, she didn’t feel bad about it. That shedding of guilt was perhaps the most inflammatory part of her essay for some.
Making time for yourself, particularly in a moment of crisis, is vital and necessary for every mother.
And we all know guilt seems to be the overriding emotion expected of mothers. I know many women who wear their tethers to their children like badges of honor, proudly announcing that they’ve never spent a night away from the little one or bemoaning the fact that, despite being in partnerships and having childcare, they don’t even have time for a haircut. Even now during the pandemic where those of us with small children are doing round-the-clock childcare, there are moments every day when I think, "Is this quality time? Am I doing enough?" Each day slips away from me without a moment to check in with myself, let alone care for myself. In any other scenario would we accept this submission of self as healthy? Making time for yourself, particularly in a moment of crisis, is vital and necessary for every mother.
As I count down to the birth of my second child, I continue to feel the push and pull of ambition. I’m hoping to start freelancing shortly after the baby is born. I hunger to be desired in the world as a physical being, to be seen for the sum of all my parts. I am the center of my world and the better I function within it, the better partner, writer, and mother I am. Saying it out loud shouldn’t feel like heresy.