The Motherload

It’s time to END the outdated platitudes around what it takes to be the perfect mother.    Or at least tune out their noise.

When I think of some of my worst moments as a mother, there’s one day that stands out. I was in the middle of writing a big story on deadline for The Washington Post when my babysitter called and said she couldn’t take my then-eight-year-old daughter to her ballet class after school. I cursed silently and grabbed my notebook and Blackberry and, conducting interviews as I drove, raced from my office to pick her up from school. I rushed home, fished her pink tights out of the dryer and threw them at her, when, with five minutes to get across town, she informed me that her teacher Miss Holly said she now had to wear her hair in a bun instead of a headband. I felt a vein throbbing in my forehead. I gritted my teeth and growled, “F^#k Miss Holly. Get in the car!”

My daughter shot daggers at me from the backseat, and I’d had it. “Your mother works for one of the BEST newspapers in the country,” I said as I careened through the streets. “I’m taking time out of MY busy day to get YOU to your ballet class. I’d think you’d at LEAST be grateful.”

After a pause, her small voice piped, “What about The New York Times?”

As I thought about it over the following years, the more ashamed and even puzzled I became. Why did I automatically assume my daughter had to go to ballet class that day? I’d bought into some powerful myths about who I should be, and what I should do as a woman, as a parent, as a ‘good’ mother, without ever taking the time to wonder if I even believed them.

Myth #1

The Ideal Mother is self-sacrificing, selflessly puts her children first and
is always cheerfully and lovingly available to her children.

The notion of the Ideal Mother has always been a moving target. For centuries, mothering was devalued and outsourced to wet nurses and nannies. That changed in the 18th century, to a new doting, affectionate motherhood ideal that some call the ‘cult of domesticity’. In Edwardian England, Virginia Woolf wrote how she had to kill the ideal, self-effacing, accommodating ‘Angel in the House’ if she were ever to have an original thought of her own. In the 20th century, the Ideal Mother was alternately doting and distant, a ‘smother mother’ or guilty of ‘benign neglect’, the sociologist Sharon Hays writes in the fascinating Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. The wild pendulum swings have culminated in the 21st century with what sociologists call the ‘intensive mothering’ ideal. Standards have never been higher or more unrealistic, and we’ve never expected a mother to do so much on her own without help. This is nuts.

The mythic Ideal Mother is the one we’re trying to live up to, or compete with, telling us we really should bake those cupcakes at 2am. So when you find yourself assuming you really should do something, be something, or even think something, just stop for a moment. Take a breath and start asking yourself two simple questions: is this what I really want to do? Or is this something I think I have to do? That’s how you’ll begin to start hearing your own voice.

Myth #2

Working Mothers Suck.

When I first had my two children, I was plagued by this notion. I considered staying home, but really wanted to do meaningful work as well as be a loving and present mother. Plus we couldn’t afford it. To understand whether working meant I was a lesser mother, I met with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a primatologist, anthropologist and the world’s foremost expert in motherhood. She laughed at me, and showed me a photograph of a woman from a primitive tribe, who walked thousands of miles every year gathering nuts, berries and other food for her family. “Women have always worked,” she told me.

Ask for help. Share the load. All mothers are working mothers and need and deserve support – from spouses and partners, family members, businesses and organisations and governments in the form of family-friendly policies like predictable, flexible work schedules, paid family leave equally shared by men and women, and transparency around gender equality. We aren’t there yet.

Myth #3

More is Better.

Here’s the crazy thing about the 21st century: work hours are climbing, especially with technology creeping into all corners of our lives at all hours. We’ve come to show our status by how busy we are, bragging as if our crammed calendars and fried brains were a badge of honour. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. I was caught up in the swirl, too.

Then I began to investigate. We’re wrong. More isn’t better. Neuroscience is finding that the human brain is actually wired to get fresh ideas and flashes of insight when we’re relaxed and taking a break. Our brains have 90-minute attentiveness cycles, so the most effective work isn’t done by the nose-to-the-grindstone Ideal Worker, but by working in short pulses of no more than an hour and a half, and resting, or going for a walk. A study of increased parent time with children found that it’s quality that matters most for kids’ healthy development, not quantity. Sleep supercharges creativity and clear thinking. Perhaps the best advice also comes from research: find the Sweet Spot – the sweet spot of ‘just enoughness’. Any more, and you begin to see diminishing returns. The sweet spot is always changing as life changes. Create space – even if it’s just a deep breath every now and then – to find it, and adjust as you go.

Myth #4

Play is a Waste of Time.

The nature of play is changing for kids, and almost non-existent for adults. Children are scheduled within an inch of their lives, with music lessons, sports teams and enrichment activities. Play time is even scheduled. We don’t let kids roam, and their natural ‘habitat’ is shrinking, one study in the UK found. Why? We’re afraid. We’re afraid for their safety now and we’re afraid we don’t know what it’ll take for them to be successful in the future. We assume that pushing achievement first is the best way to prepare them, and for ourselves, we assume our time is better spent being ‘productive’.

We’re wrong. Humans are one of the few species on earth that play both as juveniles and adults. Play teaches us to adapt to new situations and uncertain times, and honestly, that’s the best gift we could give not only to our children, but to ourselves.

Research has found that when we allow children free time to play and figure out who they are, what they like, how to fail and how to recover, achievement follows. Not the other way around. We would do well to learn that lesson ourselves.

So flip the To Do list. Give yourself permission to put time for play, for lightness, for joy, on it. Schedule play until it becomes a habit. It doesn’t have to be for long, or even every day. To start, try for a few times a month.

Whatever you do, disrupt the powerful icons, the mistaken mythologies and the automatic assumptions in our heads about how we should be living, working, loving, parenting and spending our time. Practise pausing and getting clear on what you value, what a good life means to you. Otherwise, as the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, we may get to the end of our journey here on earth and find out that what we thought we wanted wasn’t, in fact, what we really wanted all along.

Overwhelmed-TPBookshot copyBrigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist and author of The New York Times bestselling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time.  She’s currently the director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. @BrigidSchulte,