Counter-cultural motherhood

Bluett familyThe internet is a strange and wonderful device. Start pondering a
serious social question, give up pondering and type it into Google, and
a million simple answers pop up to make sense of the world for you. Or
make hash of it. That's what happened to me when I googled, “Has
motherhood changed?”

The answers were many and varied. Facts and figures bombarded my
eyes. Polls told me that moms love having more career options and the
help of technology; they also believe that the moms of twenty years ago
were happier and less stressed. They're grateful to have so many
choices and such involved husbands; they're terrified of all the things
that could hurt their children or impede childhood development. They're
glad to be moms; they're worried they're not good enough moms.

The world of motherhood started to look like a whole lot of hash until
I casually scanned a forum and had it all simply and succinctly
explained to me: Of course motherhood has changed. It's definitely optional now, and no longer really even necessary.

Further comments fleshed out the picture: It used to be that motherhood
was seen as the summit of feminine achievement, the goal that gave real
meaning and fulfillment to a woman's life. (The single woman was simply
“on the shelf”, unwanted goods.) No longer. Motherhood is now just one
of a myriad of options from which women can choose. Some, such as the
commenter quoted above, forswear motherhood entirely for other

Others, myself included, take the plunge into a life that is no longer
mandatory, possibly unnecessary, and fraught with uncertainty. (True
story: I waited to have a child until my best friend had moved to
another country, because I didn't think she would like having our
ramblings curtailed by a little bundle of screaming joy.)

How can the very basis of human life be uncertain? The human race
survived for millennia having set, even rigid, cultural norms. Gender
roles were well-defined; social hierarchies were dependable facts of
life. But the Western world, at least, has done away with those norms
in a brief couple of generations. Women—and therefore mothers—have seen
and been party to the most radical changes in social structure. This
makes motherhood harder for those women who choose it, because it has
all but destroyed the community of family-oriented women.

Sheila Kitzinger makes this point explicitly in the epilogue to her
book, The Crying Baby. Mothering is easiest in traditional cultures
where women gather to do women's work together. These are the same
cultures in which women have no options besides women's work. This is
the trade-off of the West: women's lives are, by and large, better.
Mother's lives are, by and large, harder.

But they are also full of possibilities. Being counter-cultural has
its upside, and we twenty-first century mothers have it in our hands to
build a new feminine and family culture.

After the birth of a first child, mothers will seek out other mothers
for support and sympathy. This can create close-knit networks of
families whose children grow up together, almost like an extended
family or neighborhood. Playgroups and book clubs might sound corny to
child-free women trying to break through the corporate glass ceiling,
but the pooled, real experience and wisdom they provide is an excellent
alternative to the self-interested advice that flows continuously from
childhood experts and the commercial world of Big Baby.

Again, a quick glance at the internet is revealing: Most of the
parenting websites are run by manufacturers or publishers, and they're
selling something. Of course, the best way to sell a product is to sell
a result. Parents aren't just buying toys, they are told, but
brain-building keys to unlock their children's future success. Or they
are refusing to buy their children's health and safety if they don't
purchase a subscription to the magazine that will keep them abreast of
the newest developments in Things to Keep You Up At Night.

Some friends of ours gave our two-month-old son a toy designed for
six-month-olds on the rationale that, as they said, “Your baby is going
to be a super-genius.” My husband's response to them has become my
talisman against internet message boards: “We'll still love him if he's
dumb.” Or, if his motor development is delayed (as I was once told it
would be). Or, if bottle-feeding ruins his life (since all the books
say it will). “We'll still love him if...” is my protection from a
world in which success is seen as the only measure of a good life.

When it comes to decision-making, to figuring out how to mould the
little lives that have been entrusted to them, parents can feel very
much on their own. The weight of that responsibility is crushing. No
wonder there are massive online forums where parents compare notes,
swap ideas, and defend themselves from criticism. They check to see how
everyone else is doing it, and try to prove—to themselves most of
all—that they're doing it right. This proof is, of course, impossible
to obtain.

Here is one solution I have tried: gathering with mothers who feel the
same dread and perplexity and sympathizing over a bottle of red wine,
sipping and assuring each other that everyone has to put the baby down
and walk away at some point, and that it doesn't make anyone a bad
mother or a neglected child.

The other is faith. Simplistic as it sounds, it’s really the only
answer I have found. And I don't just mean the
Oh-God-make-him-stop-screaming kind of faith, although there's plenty
of that involved. Nor even the higher-order,
If-it-please-thee-Lord-give-me-the-grace-to-be-a-good-mother variety,
although the job comes with a healthy measure of that one, too.

I mean faith in oneself. I mean the decision to believe, in the face of
disagreement from strident feminists, disappointed bosses, and
disapproving family members, that the choice to be a mother is the
right one. That doing good for the ones you love is a valid way for a
woman to spend her life. That by making life secure for even one child,
you are making the world a better place.

Faith in a God who has ordained in nature the roles of mother and
father helps, too—it is something to cling to when the workaday world
is too busy with work (how much energy we spend on trivialities!) to
concern itself with the important things in life: love and family.

And that's the ultimate faith every mother needs: The belief that
family and love are the most important things in the world, and that no
other achievements mean anything beside motherhood or can measure up
against it. Whether she works in the home or outside it, a mother must
believe that her motherhood is still the height of feminine
achievement, the goal that gives meaning to her life. She must cling to
the faith that even today, motherhood is still necessary and far from

And she must avoid internet forums unless well-armed with mantras and red wine.

Kate Bluett is a new mother from Irving, Texas.


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