I know a lot of mothers. I have a mother. I am a mother. I have watched my sister and many friends become mothers. I work with mothers. As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I have worked with teen mothers in New York City’s foster care system. I have worked with mothers on the Upper East Side. I have worked with Noe Valley moms in San Francisco. I have worked with mothers in as many family constructs as are imaginable. I can’t avoid mothers! The privilege to meet and talk with hundreds of mothers has afforded me an intimate glimpse into 21st century motherhood, and I see the emotional stress it creates. I was asked recently by a mother if she had done irreparable damage to her son. Her son was having significant constipation despite her best and plentiful efforts, and its root cause certainly wasn’t her fault. In my experience constipation is rarely a permanent state, so even though it was not solved at that moment, it didn’t mean it couldn’t change tomorrow. Yet, while it was happening, she felt like she had really done harm, and she blamed herself for not being able to find the one key solution to solving her son’s distress. Her sentiments are ones I hear a lot: a fear that our mothering attempts aren’t good enough and potentially so egregious that they’re permanently damaging.
Like so many other aspects of our modern lives there is a message of fear being driven into the minds of our new mothers. Despite the dramatic accomplishments of 21st century women---earning the majority of higher education degrees in this country, becoming household breadwinners, and having the ultimate freedom to dress as we like, say what we feel and choose our marital partners---I still see a lot of women who were clearly confident and successful in their lives before having children subsequently become crippled by the multitude of decisions required for motherhood. Where does this fear come from?
I suspect some of this fear to trust our instincts begins during pregnancy when the process of labor looms ahead, making many women become anxious about the pain of childbirth. It’s why 84% of first-time mothers choose to have an epidural, many before even experiencing the first twinges of contractions. Or maybe it’s when women are selecting items for their baby registry, and they begin to feel materially unprepared to care for their new infant being inundated with the marketing of “essential” baby gear and products. They’re told they can’t just bring a baby home without places ready to put the baby, soothe the baby, carry the baby, bathe the baby, feed the baby, stroll the baby. The message that the baby-gear marketing gives to new mothers is that they are unequipped. Or perhaps it’s that the experience of motherhood has become overly intellectualized to the point that we can’t trust our instincts. We read competing books theorizing about how to parent (be a tiger mom or a Zen momma), how to feed, how to sleep train, how to create the perfect high achiever, all while not landing them in therapy. Or perhaps it’s that we really do live in a toxic world and even have a toxic womb and the number of chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides in our food, water and environment make raising children a terrifying endeavor.
Despite the fears and new stresses that becoming a mother puts on women, the majority of women I encounter face the challenges and do their best to navigate their way through the bumpy and unpredictable path of motherhood. I think we women, good at being task-driven and achievement-oriented, quickly realize the gravity of our new role that first time we hold our new baby in our arms. Unlike our iphones, this new tiny being didn’t come with a manual. Instead, we must decipher the needs and adapt to the powerful rhythms of our new baby that is distinct from any other.
It is true that being a mother may be the most important job we have in this life, but even if we feel insecure, we can still find personal joys in its challenges. We need not get bogged down with piling guilt on ourselves or comparing ourselves to how other mothers express motherhood. Just as we quickly learn that our baby is unique, we too, must get comfortable with creating our own style of motherhood. I love to encourage families to create their own family culture--expressed through the spices they use to cook to the way they spend their Saturday mornings. Creating family customs and routines that are personal help to build confidence and make motherhood fun.
I work fulltime so I find that the time I have with my daughter, Eloise, is really just book-ended during the week. Mornings are always rushed for us as I focus to get her ready so that my husband can take her to daycare. I try to make the rushed process fun--we might read a book while getting dressed or we make up silly songs while mixing her oatmeal “mommy stirs the water, Ella stirs the milk.” In the evenings we’re less rushed, but we still need to get a lot done in a short time. Still I try to make more time for play and cuddles. I discovered when Eloise was six months old that I could make her giggle and since then I try to do one thing every day to hear that adorable, pure laughter. Our latest game involves us pretending to chew bubblegum then popping each other’s imaginary bubbles that ends in hysteria. We get our cuddles in during the bedtime routine--three books with daddy and me and two songs just the two of us. I know I can’t be present for Eloise all day/every day, but in the time I do have with her, I try to be mindful to keep those sacred two hours each evening Eloise-focused. And of course each day that is a challenge as she’s two and meltdowns are plentiful!
The parenting decisions we make will certainly impact our children, but which ones and to what degree is unknown. The decisions that matter most are the simple ones that don't require monetary means or social status. In the long term it really doesn't matter if you have the fanciest stroller, read the latest how-to-train your baby book, or bought the current new fangled baby gear. What matters most are not things that need to be acquired but things we already possess. In our harried 21st Century lives, time with our children may be limited, but in the time we do have it's so important to do our best to be truly present, find ways to be playful, nurture with physical touch, and encourage their curiosity. Take heart in knowing that most of what our kids take away from our mothering is out of our command. Our children will grow and develop into themselves in spite of us. We are certainly going to make mistakes, ones that we can’t even anticipate yet, but why not have fun doing it? Let's roll up our sleeves, dig in and get our hands messy, and just do our best!
Emily Novak Waight is a pediatric nurse practitioner in San Francisco. She has worked with families in New York and San Francisco across a range of cultures and backgrounds. She lives with her husband and daughter, and loves to run, hike, and enjoy sunny days on her deck with her family.