By Beth Berry
It's not simply overwhelming that parenting standards have risen dramatically while support systems have vanished, it's an unfair setup that has mothers thinking their personal inadequacies are to blame for what is actually the fault of a broken system and distortions of reality. I'm done pretending. The further I get from emotional survival mode (which I lived in for more than a decade), and the more mothers I witness, support and grow alongside, the brighter the following truths burn within me:
Modern-day motherhood in the US (and many other developed countries), is not just stressful and overwhelming. It's giving birth to a whole new form of oppression comprised of cultural norms and narratives that set mothers up to feel disempowered and inadequate, and make our thriving extremely difficult.
Pretending everything's fine, and taking it upon ourselves to endure our circumstances (the unrealistic expectations, the unrelenting stressors, and our deeply unmet needs) for the sake of our children's wellbeing and the preservation of our identity as "good mothers," is noble and sometimes necessary, but it's also perpetuating these new forms of oppression. By "keeping up" with status quo motherhood and allowing our dysfunctional culture to determine the quality of our lives, we're unwittingly becoming complicit in our own suffering and disempowerment. Years ago, I had a dream that put a lot of my frustrations into perspective for me.
In the dream, I had no legs, only prosthetics, from the hip down. Regardless of my disability, I was being pressured to climb a steep and treacherous mountain, and very much expected to be able to climb it, alone. The pressure was coming from dozens of people around me, many of whom I knew and loved, and all of whom had legs. Everyone was staring at me, wondering why I was so hesitant to begin. I was confused, disoriented, and questioning my own judgment. I felt angry and misunderstood and utterly defeated before I'd even started. It wasn't safe for me to climb the mountain, and I knew it. I wasn't well equipped, and my disability prevented me from doing what was being asked of me, yet everyone around me seemed to think there was something wrong with me for questioning the situation.
In the years since that dream, the same image has come to mind over and over again in my work with mothers. A client will describe her circumstances to me and finish up by saying something like, "I don't know what's wrong with me," or "I've tried so many ways to make it better, yet I still don't feel successful in a single area of my life," or "I'm working myself to the point of exhaustion and still messing things up." Hundreds of bright, creative, invested, wholehearted mothers I've talked with over the years, don't merely feel overwhelmed by their lives. They feel oppressed by them. They're being asked to climb mountains alone with prosthetics for legs, or some equally impossible-feeling equivalent.
Chances are that when you hear the word "oppression," you don't picture your own reality, but some other poor woman's. Pioneer women with abusive husbands were oppressed. Slaves are oppressed. Mothers forced to ration food among their children and still not able to stave off hunger are oppressed.
But not you and I. Because you and I are free.
(You're really feeling it, aren't you, mama? I'm sure that "free" is exactly how you felt when you woke up this morning.)
By definition, though, oppression is not limited to "the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner." It is also defined as "the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, anxiety, etc."
Here's another definition:
Oppression is when a person or group in a position of power controls the less powerful in cruel and unfair ways.
Anxiety? Heavy burden? Adverse conditions? This describes the experiences of most mothers I know. Cruelty, unfairness, and control by those more powerful aren't always as obvious, but once stories are deconstructed, these, too, are revealed as major players in the game of modern-day motherhood. They didn't die with our great-grandmothers, they merely changed form:
It's not just unfortunate that postpartum support is so severely lacking in our country, it's cruel that new mothers are expected to endure the stressors of baby rearing mostly alone, then magically "bounce back" to unrealistic pre-baby lifestyle, body shape and productivity levels. It's not simply overwhelming that parenting standards have risen dramatically while support systems have vanished, it's an unfair setup that has mothers thinking their personal inadequacies are to blame for what is actually the fault of a broken system and distortions of reality. It's not simply inconvenient that, given the cost of childcare and lack of benefits at most part-time jobs, mothers must choose between full-time work for pay outside the home or full-time work for no pay within it. It demonstrates the control by those more powerful that's forcing millions of women to make counter-instinctual, heart-wrenching, disempowering decisions mere weeks within giving birth. The fact that so many mothers experience high levels of anxiety, loneliness, overwhelm, and stress on a daily basis is not simply par for the course when we sign up for this journey. It's a red flag of collective maternal distress. It's evidence that something's wrong with the circumstances within which we are mothering.
When someone is being emotionally abused, it can take years or even decades for this person to recognize their circumstances as abusive. This is because emotional abuse is often insidious. It's subtle, it's gradual, and it sometimes even feels like love.
We don't always know we're in a toxic situation until our bodies and spirits start showing signs of trauma.
Modern-day motherhood is kind of like that. It's like a covert narcissist, who seems so wonderful and charming and sweet at first. Over time, the relationship becomes disorienting and draining as your sense of self is compromised under controlling conditions, unrealistic standards, and emotional manipulation. The difference with motherhood, is that we're being oppressed and manipulated, not by one person, but by the culture at large. We're being conditioned to think we're the ones with the problem (aka gaslighted), which keeps us craving, spending, and too weak to be much of a threat to those calling the shots (namely, patriarchy and capitalism). We have got to keep perspective. We've got to remind ourselves and one another, over and over again, of what is really true, such as the fact that:
Standards of discipline have risen exponentially, while support structures have crumbled. This has us wondering what we're doing wrong when our kids act out, and exhausting ourselves to appear perfect in public. The real problem is that so much is suddenly expected of us with so little support. We're isolated in our homes, and navigating heartbreak and grief and self-doubt and depression without elders and sisters to guide and hold us. This has us wondering what's wrong with us and numbing the pain when the real problem is in the isolation and lack of support during some of the most vulnerable seasons of our lives.
There are no neighborhoods full of kids or grandmothers on the front porch to play with our children while we work or rest or dream up creative solutions to our dilemmas. This lack of breaks and alone time has us cut off from our creative flow and unable to rest our nervous systems in order to feel sane, inspired, and high functioning.
We're being bombarded with images of "idealized" motherhood that are selective, cropped, and photoshopped, leaving us to think we're the only ones whose homes are messy and lives feel like a disaster. Our sense of what's real and achievable has been distorted. We've been conditioned not to trust (but instead, to judge) the very people that women and mothers have historically relied upon the most: one another. Abusers often isolate their victims to keep them dependent, untrusting, and easier to control. Our collective maternal distress is a response to systemic oppression, manipulation, and brainwashing, not personal inadequacy.
And, just as emotional abusers often target kind, compassionate caretaker types, these new social oppressors take advantage of our biological instinct to nurture and protect. We agree to more than our fair share of the mental and physical load because we're instinctually wired to absorb the impact of cultural dysfunction so our children don't have to.
We're scrambling, trying to prevent screen addiction and monitor online safety, learning about food allergies and eating disorders, working to afford lessons and sports and tutoring, educating ourselves about mental health and non-traumatizing ways to discipline, driving all over town to meet our families' ever-changing needs, feeling guilty when we can't afford to shop in conscientious, eco-friendly ways, hoping nothing happens to us because we can't afford health insurance, and working overtime to afford basically everything I just mentioned.
All this and more, is now required of us in order to be considered "good moms." Not that we'll ever be rewarded or compensated for achieving this elusive state. There will always be more on the to-do list, more recent findings in child development, or more environmental and social injustices to navigate that will keep us striving but never arriving.
Unfortunately, the solution to escaping this madness isn't so simple as going "no contact" as you might be advised if you were healing from narcissistic abuse. It is, however, about calling the kettle black and taking our power back from those who have no business controlling our minds, manipulating our emotions, and deciding who we can trust.
We can't afford to pretend to love motherhood. Not this version of it.
If being a "good mother" means sacrificing our needs and desires, we are not only modeling the denial of our needs to our children. We are also perpetuating the narrative that mothers are less worthy of thriving than others.
If being a "good mother" means doing as much as we can without having to ask for help, we are not only enduring isolation under the watchful eye of our kids. We are also perpetuating the narrative that mothers aren't worthy of support. If being a "good mother" means never taking breaks, we are not only exhausting ourselves and limiting our access to joy. We are perpetuating the narrative that mothers are less worthy of nourishment and rest. Is this the version of motherhood we want to pass down to our daughters? Is this the version of motherhood we want to condition into our sons, who will be living among and loving our grown girls?
As with all systemic oppression, change isn't going to happen overnight. Though many circumstances lie beyond our immediate influence, there is plenty we do have control over, namely our interpretations of our lives and our reactions to them (thank you for shining so brightly, Sean Stephenson).
Here's a starting point. Here are a few things each of us can do to orient ourselves toward true and lasting cultural change:
Create safe spaces for authentic sharing, courageous connecting, and truth telling. Learn to be a safe person.
Weed toxic narratives and people from your life like it's your JOB. Deconstruct any narrative that has you feeling small, overworked, under-seen, or devalued. Examine your childhood traumas so that it becomes easier to understand your own part in toxic cycles and oppressive patterns. Preserve your sense of self as a woman. Learn to recognize the sensation in your body when you've abandoned selfhood and womanhood for motherhood, or to please and appease other people.
Explore what empowerment feels like in your body. Do things regularly that increase this set of sensations.
Connect with as many other seeking women as necessary, and through whatever means necessary, in order to find your soul support sisters. Recognize the lie of perfection. Recognize that motherhood and wholehearted living are messy by nature, and stop apologizing for your own imperfections.
Get comfortable with discomfort. Learn to identify the difference between the pain of growth and the pain of self-abandonment. Explore your own self-worth. Ask yourself over and over and over: what would my children be deserving of if they were in my shoes? Take your needs seriously. Your unmet needs will run the show from your sub conscience until you give them the loving attention they've been begging you for.
And, should your mind take you straight to this narrative:
"But I have it so much better than so many other mothers around the world and throughout history. Who am I to complain?"
Please flag this, too, as an oppressive story and read what the ever-wise Brené Brown has to say about comparative suffering:
"Comparative suffering is a race to misery where some people believe they inherently win (I hurt more than anyone could possibly understand) or don't deserve to be in the marathon at all (I'm embarrassed that I'm upset, because worse things happen to other people). It hinges on the false belief that empathy is finite. Fortunately, the opposite is true—empathy is not only infinite, it is renewable. The more empathy we infuse into our relationships, organizations, and culture, the more there is to go around."
I believe the same to be true regarding oppression. The more deeply and widely we commit to its alleviation, both around and within us, the more quickly those more severely oppressed than us will be alleviated of their suffering. When those of us who are legally free and relatively resourced, do the inner and outer work necessary to become the most powerful, authentic, wholehearted versions of ourselves possible, we naturally begin to create a world in which more and more women will rise.
Our foremothers didn't struggle, suffer, and die fighting for freedom so that we could be a little freer than they were, or so that we might navigate new, more prettily packaged forms of oppression. They fought for true liberation, of our lives, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our spirits. In order to achieve this, we must recognize that the battle is still far from won.
We must commit to the constant and steadfast deconstruction of any and all stories and circumstances that are too small for us and too oppressive for our beautiful babies.
Keep going, mama. Keep growing. The world desperately needs you in your rightful place of power.
Mom Burn Out