Am I Supposed to Be a Perfect Mama?

by annakcrain

{First, a big happy Mother’s Day to all those women who nurture, protect, and love, whether conventional mothers, spiritual mothers, future mothers, etc, etc. Please go read my friend Abby’s post about Mother’s Day and this additional post on how churches can keep non-mothers from feeling hurt or marginalized. I thank God for all the many women in my life and my babies’ lives—y’all are the best!}

As I’ve posted before, I’m a big believer in babies—babies, babies everywhere! There are lots of reasons for being open to life, rejecting contraception, and encouraging married couples to pursue the best sex ever, ranging from the philosophical, theological, and biblical, to the sociological, economic, emotional, psychological, and biological. But recently, perhaps because of the impending holiday,  I’ve been thinking along a different track, about how truly weird it is to be a mother in our current culture. Yes, there are many new inventions that make life easier and safer and healthier, but it can be difficult to say that you want to be a mother or that you want to mother in a certain way or that you want to mother a large brood—so many expectations!

I remember while I was pregnant with Gil a cashier asked me about my coming child, if I had any more children, etc. Once she found out that I had one girl and that I was carrying a boy, she told me that was “perfect” and asked if I would have any more children. I told her vaguely that I didn’t know and was open to more, whatever happened. And then she laughed. Snickered in an “Oh, how kinky!” sort of way, as if having procreative sex is somehow naughtier than contraceptive sex or perverted in some way. I can’t say I was shocked, as much as I may have wanted to be. I’d been asked a lot if we would stop at two, the holy grail of parenting one of each sex, so it didn’t come as a surprise. But what it did tell me was that our widespread ideas about sex, family, and parenting are just a little bit off, somehow. And I’m starting to work through in my own mind why that might be and how to fix it in my own life and mind.

A few months ago I read an interesting study about why German women don’t have babies, even though the German government has structures in place to encourage childbearing and the German culture is generally pro-family. Unfortunately, I can’t find that article again, so I can’t send you to it, but what I remember was really striking. The researchers seemed to conclude that German women didn’t have children because of a sort of cultural idea of perfectionism and excellence—if they couldn’t be perfect mothers, they’d rather not be mothers a t all. While that may be an extreme oversimplification of undoubtedly complex motivations, I think that in America we have a similar sort of fear. I ran across a satirical blog post recently that seems to underscore a vital truth in American society. The idea of “Facebragging” is pretty common, but what it breeds amongst mothers is a kind of discontent or comparative spirit where the women reading feel like lesser moms if they don’t regularly bake elaborate desserts and get gussied up for trips to the park, all while having satisfying and exciting relationships with God, their husbands, and their other perfect friends. It can also inculcate the idea that motherhood is supposed to be all sunshine and puppies. Or maybe that you’re doing it wrong if your children don’t participate in perfectly developmentally appropriate activities while wearing perfectly pressed organic shorts and noshing on perfectly nutritionally balanced snacks in a perfectly decorated, cleaned, and lit playroom. The perfection can seem too much, and is too much, for the reality of life. Of course, with social media so prevalent, how to behave appropriately on the spectrum between always presenting a perfectly polished version of your life and using the internet to whine and spew vitriol can seem pretty fuzzy or even arbitrary at times. Where is the most comfortable spot to land in our online lives? Since social media sites and this blog can be such a great way for me to keep family and close friends updated on our life, I hope I can navigate this fuzzy area well, expressing my triumphs in a humble way and my struggles in a hopeful, non-whiny way. But, that’s an ongoing process of discernment.

In another blog post I read recently, by a woman named Elizabeth Duffy, I came across the wonderful line “I refuse to fall into the trap of either fetishizing or denouncing the vocation of motherhood,” which I can agree with wholeheartedly. The point of that post (wonderfully followed up in another post on the manners of discussing family planning) is that
[t]here is no longer any room to allow children to happen, to receive them graciously, and to care for them because it’s the right thing to do. Culture demands that women make a choice between loving motherhood or hating it. And if you choose motherhood, you had better throw yourself into it with massive gusto, because it was your own silly decision.
I think if we were to approach motherhood as a naturally occurring outcome of a healthy and happy marriage, rather than a choice of one lifestyle or another, one set of accessories or another, then there would be lessened pressure to be the perfect Instagrammed mommy. There might be more grace for messy houses and sticky baby hands and days when nobody gets out of their pjs. There’d also be more room to appreciate the true joys of motherhood without feeling the need to pretend like motherhood is all fun all the time. I think there might even come a lessening of the guilt associated with not feeling like a perfect mom, with comparing ourselves to other, better mothers. Maybe it would even ease the tensions of “Mommy Wars,” all the questions about breastfeeding and co-sleeping and babywearing that, at the end of the day, are particular decisions for the health and wellbeing of one’s own family, not universal religions that must be disseminated zealously.

There’s such pressure to be a perfect mother from a consumerist standpoint as well—all of the gadgets, advice websites, books, products, classes, do’s and don’t’s—that women may be tempted to just forego the whole circus altogether. The baby industry thrives amidst all our expectation of perfection, just as the beauty industry thrives when we fall into the trap of self-loathing and comparison. I feel like I struggle with the urge to whitewash a lot in my own life, mainly because of being outspoken about my beliefs concerning contraception. Since we have decided that we will have as many children as God sends and is reasonably responsible, I feel like I have a duty to present a good face to the world, to not besmirch the Big Family with my problems and bad days. I’d like the life with children to be attractive but not intimidating, y’know? I don’t want people to fear or dread parenthood inordinately, especially not because of my family. But really, as Elizabeth Duffy’s blog says, life just happens. You accept it graciously and thankfully and do your duty and your best, in whatever situation you find yourself in. Following from a sane view of sexuality, this acceptance of life as it comes creates a sane view of marriage and family as well, not making it seem too daunting or scary or hard, but merely part of the flow of living, with grace sufficient for all tasks asked of us by a loving God.

Another blog that resonated with me recenly is only sort of tangentially related— “NFP Doesn’t Work” has some beautiful ideas on marriage, namely that couples shouldn’t apologize for loving each other and having big families. Fertility is a gift, life is inherently good, and marriages were made for it! So, I will not be apologizing for my marriage or my children any time soon, even as I work out how to navigate the trials of attempting to argue persuasively and gently for more babies everywhere. And, just maybe, the best argument is just being—being a mother, being happy about it, being honest.


P.S. As a commenter on Betty Duffy’s Repulsive Truth post made clear, it can be rough for those struggling with infertility to take part in these sorts of discussions. If they don’t wish to be seen as contracepting, but can’t really participate in the “You’re not a real family if you don’t have 12 kids” mindset, what are they supposed to do? I think the answer is to be kind in all things, keeping in mind that fertility is a gift and there is a real tragedy in not being able to have children. Even remaining “open to life” may not result in many children or any children at all, but an infertile marriage is still a real marriage that might be called to adoption or other ministries. So, please, my call for more babies is really rooted more in a desire to be open to God’s will, which may mean only a few babies or no babies for some couples, and there’s no shame or sin in that. This post discusses the need for developing a theology of infertility and loss. Very interesting.