I Like Being a Mom. Here’s Why I Don’t Usually Admit It.

I recently published a book about caregiving that is, in part, a rigorously researched explanation of why I love motherhood, despite living in a country that gives parents so little support. One might imagine that constructing and then promoting my arguments as to why caring for others can be meaningful and emotionally enriching, even when it’s challenging, may have led me to feel comfortable saying I like being a mom in casual social settings. It hasn’t. When I am with friends or acquaintances, or connecting with others online, the admission gets stuck in my throat, where it remains with all the other things that are better left unsaid.

It’s a feeling that traces all the way back to the time when my first son was born. I became a mom in 2012, which I unscientifically suspect was right around the time negative messages about motherhood became more common than positive ones. Or at least it certainly felt like this, in the liberal, largely coastal circles I inhabited online and in real life. To voice any delight about my relationship with my son felt a mix of tone-deaf, out of style, and potentially alienating to others.

Over a decade into motherhood, I now see that there are concentric circles to my hesitation to voice positive feelings, layers of potential relational, political, and personal harm I would fear I would unleash if I came clean. I worry about making others who struggle with motherhood feel bad; I worry about undermining the fight to get mothers and other caregivers more systemic support; I worry about turning back the clock on feminism; and I worry about outing myself as sentimental, and therefore intellectually unserious and uncool. Making it all the harder is that this fear doesn’t feel like a product of my tendency to second-guess things, but rather pretty realistic.

The cover of the book is very pink and green.

The relational piece is the most immediate. When a close friend admits to me that she is struggling with motherhood, the feeling tends to come coated with a heavy dose of physical and emotional exhaustion, shame, maybe even regret. For so long, motherhood was locked up in easy metaphors of goodliness and saintliness. To deviate from this one-note portrayal and refuse to meet unrealistic expectations, to not want to be endlessly giving and enthusiastic about it, was, in this formula, to be a bad person. Ambivalence about either one’s children, or about how motherhood changes the way one can experience the world, was not seen as a healthy part of a huge life undertaking, but a sign that one was not dedicated enough. Even though we have let go of these simplified and unrealistic definitions of a “good mom,” particularly in online discourse, those old-fashioned notions can still get under the skin for those having a hard time. To be in that state, and to hear that I am loving motherhood—a matter of personal disposition as much as it is luck in having children with milder temperaments—might, very understandably, only make things worse.

On a more public level, I fear that me, or anyone, saying I like motherhood, even though it can be tough, has the potential to undermine political efforts to get necessary and overdue support for parents from the government and workplaces. In our current system, moms are suffering because they are moms, which makes managing a job or affording a (not terribly indulgent!) life pretty difficult. For those in the laptop class, they may have scheduling flexibility at work, but that tends to come with an expectation to always be available. Or, for those who work onsite, there is often little flexibility and, too often, very little advance notice of weekly schedules, giving moms a tight 24 hours to figure out caregiving support for the week. We lack universal paid leave, we lack universal and affordable child care and elder care—a one-two punch for all those sandwich-generation parents out there. To say you are having a good time can feel like you are dismissing all the unnecessary suffering that moms experience in the United States because of a lack of societal support. Inversely, to complain about being emotionally spent has become a message of solidarity, a protest chant against everything that makes life so impossible for moms.

Cutting deeper than the threat to pro-mom activism is the threat to feminism. So much of late-20th-century feminism—though, as I learned when researching my book, mostly white feminism—was about allowing women to have other identities outside of motherhood. To insist on motherhood as a path to meaning, purpose, let alone joy, can feel like I am doing the bidding of conservative forces in our culture, who don’t just advocate for embracing motherhood, but a return to a patriarchal domestic structure in which Dad is on top. What I’d like to do is see what embracing care could look like outside the patriarchy, to look inside the homes women like Betty Friedan encouraged us to escape, and see what is worth appreciating there. With the erosion of reproductive rights and the new popularity of tradwives on social media, pointing out all that is worth celebrating in motherhood can feel dangerous, for people with my politics. And yet, if we don’t do it, what vision of feminism are we promoting for the next generation? Another one in which care is sidelined, marginalized—left to underpaid working-class women, mostly women of color, while wealthier, mostly white women leave the home and do the big, important stuff? I don’t want that either—and yet, still, how to express this?

This disquiet lingers even in solitude, particularly when I am reading smart writing by a smart woman in which motherhood is presented as something that limits or subtracts. It’s not that I have a problem with them feeling that way, or writing about it. I don’t expect anyone to feel the same as I do about this relationship or any of my other relationships, including my relationship with my parents or my husband. The problem isn’t that I feel unseen, so much as I often detect an unspoken assessment that intelligence and motherhood are incompatible. Or, as is the case in many fictional portraits of maternal ambivalence, a feeling that being honest about one’s desires and seeking them out can’t happen in the context of caring for one’s kids. To like motherhood makes me dumb and repressed, I temporarily conclude, cheeks on fire even though nobody is watching.

Because, even when I believe loving motherhood makes me tragically unhip, or when I hesitate to discuss my experience with it with others, my affection for it never wavers. This is the point in the essay when I tell you why. I, like so many women, went into motherhood with a defensive posture. I had no ambivalence about becoming a mom, and am fortunate enough to have a pretty easy time connecting with my children. My big fear was not exactly the act of parenting itself, but how becoming a parent would stop me from living an otherwise interesting and meaningful life.

As it happened, my relationship with my kids has been as philosophically, spiritually, or intellectually vital as anything else I’ve done, leading to the kind of realizations we’ve long wanted to seek elsewhere, away from the home, away from the family. Through them, I’ve cultivated a healthy relationship with uncertainty, with attention, with  feeling closer to the source of life, whatever it is, with all its wonder and fragility—all moments of revelation that came by way of a mix of stress, rupture, wholeness, and ease. If I had let motherhood stay small, confined to the sidelines, then those stressful moments would have felt like forces holding me back on my way to an interesting and meaningful life. But by letting motherhood become big, those challenges—and yes, my kids annoy me sometimes, and yes, I appreciate working and other time I spend away from them—became part of a larger narrative arc.

I really do want to be able to say all this in the company of others—and not just in writing but during unscripted, person-to-person exchanges. While I am so glad moms feel liberated to talk about the hard parts of parenting, I worry that only talking about the hard parts make it so the experience of taking care of our children is kept small, devalued, something not worthy of our curiosity, nor our collective investment. I often long for a whole new language, a whole new vocabulary and even context for discussing motherhood, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Whereas once, we diminished motherhood by easy praise, we now often diminish it with easy complaint. Is there a way to think more expansively and holistically in our conversations about motherhood? To be open to the ways in which the good and the bad are not oppositional, but essential, inevitable parts of a rich, friction-filled experience we may not always like but can love and grow from? I’m still working on it.