Winner of the Population Institute's 2014 Best Book Award, The Female Assumption (CreateSpace, 2014) by Melanie Holmes emphasizes the reality of motherhood over the “rose-colored motherhood glasses” that have been handed down for generations, often with the result of pressuring women into motherhood who are not prepared for it or making those who cannot have children feel that they've missed out on the experience that makes life worth living. Holmes does not deny that motherhood is a wonderful experience, but neither does she ignore the sacrifices that a woman makes when she chooses to have children. The following excerpt from chapter 1, “Recipe for Exhaustion” deals with the common-but-taboo feeling of motherhood exhaustion.
“Sometimes I think checking out would be okay. Truly, I try so hard and I get so tired. I know in my heart that I have a lot left to do in this world. I decided to have three beautiful children and I owe it to them to be strong. But I just get so tired. Why does no one see just how tired I am?”
When I wrote the above entry in my diary, I was employed full-time in a very stressful job, and married with three children. Two grown sons (one still living at home) and a 12-year-old daughter (a newly-emerging woman replete with breasts and backtalk). True to the sandwich generation, I also had an 80-year-old mother whose medical issues led to her being placed in a rehabilitation facility; and the only way she could transition back to living in her own home was if someone could spend 24/7 with her for a few weeks. Thus, I took a month off my job so that I could help her get home. I was also taking two night classes in order to finish a bachelor’s degree I’d started 20 years earlier. This meant driving 90 miles twice a week for a month in the midst of a typical Chicago winter, and arranging care for my mom while I was away.
To say that on March 28, 2010, I was thoroughly and completely exhausted is an understatement. But here’s the thing: being exhausted has been the theme of my adult life. And to what do I attribute it? The demands of everyday life while filling so many roles, the most demanding role being that of mother.
The beautiful title of Mother brings visions of heartfelt greeting cards and the sweet giggles of babes. That life-altering, all-encompassing title reflects a role revered by many. But there I was on the date in question, daydreaming about checking out because I was so completely burned out by all the responsibilities placed upon my shoulders. Mind you, I have three good kids. I haven’t had the drama that many moms are faced with. Suffice it to say that my two sons completed high school relatively unscathed. My daughter is in high school and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good results like those of her older brothers. Yes, all three of my kids have been “normal” kids, making “normal” mistakes, going through “normal” stages. And what I was feeling as a 48-year-old mother of three was normal too. Wait, did I just say it’s normal to dream about the quietude of death as alluded to in my journal? Actually, that is exactly what I’m saying.
I am not here to throw a pity party for myself or any other mother. When I say that I attribute my exhaustion largely to motherhood, there is a huge difference between attribution and blame. I do not blame motherhood. I am simply describing a reality. To put it bluntly, motherhood is damn hard. That’s a sentiment that won’t sell many greeting cards.
When I think back to the 21-year-old me, I recall a person who did not think twice about having children. I was married, thus, I felt that the next logical step was having a baby. I remember feeling happy (and sleep deprived) as a new mom despite the fact that I had to work outside the home and leave my baby with a sitter. I cried all the way to work on the first day I dropped off my baby boy and boarded a commuter train for the city. It was the mid-1980s and the American economy was transitioning to a point where it was hard for just one breadwinner to support a family. At the same time, gender roles in the home were still firmly entrenched. I felt the full load of responsibility with regard to child-rearing and housekeeping on top of my full-time job outside my home. After a significant medical issue and a second baby, my then-husband (now my ex-husband) and I found a way for me to quit my job. The ensuing few years found me alternately restless and contented. I knew what I was doing was important, but I felt a rising tide of restlessness as I tended the needs of highly-active toddlers.
Perhaps what I felt fits the description of Betty Friedan’s “feminine mystique.” I wasn’t unhappy and I felt lucky to be able to be at home with my kids. However, women were entering college in increasing numbers in the 1980s and pursuing their own careers. The question women heard more often than in the previous decade was, “And what do you do?” I yearned for a role outside my home that would supply me with a ready answer to that inevitable question.
My own mother devoted many years at home caring for five children. I was two years old when my dad was permanently disabled, and my mom returned to the workforce. I don’t remember any dialogue with my mom about the challenges, sacrifices, or heavy-lifting of motherhood. I guess you could say that my mom passed along the proverbial “rose-colored motherhood glasses” to me; the ones she received from her mother before her.
I, along with so many females, have been indoctrinated to be selfless and to think of myself as the water pitcher that fills up everyone else’s glasses, leaving mine drained. The term “supermom” became a common buzzword in the late 20th century and is going strong as ever in the 21st century. Even though females are mere mortal beings, many moms seem as if they can do it all. Seem is the operative word in that sentence. I am one of those moms who seem to be able to do it all. I love my children with every ounce of my being and I’m there for them when they need me. It feels good when I can help them, and it is also tiring and draining. The latter part of that statement is not to be discussed in polite company. But it is time to shed some of the secrecy and paint motherhood in all its shades of reality—some good, some not-so-good, and some downright ugly.
As I contemplate the world in which my own daughter is growing up, I feel trepidation. In truth, my anxiety for my daughter began when she was in utero. This is because, by that time, I had amassed a rather large envelope of knowledge of what females are up against in American society. I knew that the supermom mentality causes females to run themselves ragged trying to do it all, be it all, and so many crash and burn. Literally.
Motherhood is a path that, once embarked upon, must be followed through to completion. There’s no backtracking if you find that the peaks, valleys, and detours are not what you expected. Motherhood is very hard. So why is it that we assume that it is the “right” path for all females?
In this book, I am going to say some things that I wish I’d heard while growing into the woman that I am today. I especially plan to say these words to my daughter. In fact, I am dedicating this book to that blossoming young woman in my life. I will endeavor to inform my daughter of the realities of motherhood so that she can evaluate whether the experience is for her. And if motherhood feels right, then hopefully she will choose her steps wisely. And if motherhood is not something that feels right, I will encourage her to ignore the pressures that society places upon her shoulders and endeavor to be who she wants to be. I hope she will view her life as a smorgasbord of options. She needs to hear that her father and I have no assumptions for her life other than to become a fully-functional member of society, to be kind, and to follow whatever path feels right.
I wish for females everywhere to hear this kind of encouragement from their parents, extended family, and friends. Some women look at this support as a kind of permission to choose the life that feels authentic. Motherhood should not be treated as a mandate; something to be checked off the to-do list in order to be successful. Women are complete beings. Period.
Reprinted with permission from The Female Assumption: A Mother's Story: Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate by Melanie Holmes and published through CreateSpace, 2014.