I had two simultaneous reactions to a picture I recently saw of the artist Amanda Palmer. The picture was of Amanda signing autographs while breastfeeding her new baby.
On one hand, I felt a sense of victory.
These days a woman can be a mother, breastfeeding openly, while doing her art. In the western world, a woman can fully participate in her professional life AND her family life, and be as creative about it as she’d like. To see in action the possibilities we have now as mothers, as women, is magnificent to me.
On the other hand, I also felt sadness as I remembered those early years with my two kids, which I am still emerging from.
I remember the reality of continuing my career with two young children, and how truly difficult it all was (and at times still is) for me.
I remember my conviction to keep my career intact despite becoming a mother. For one, my income was really helpful to my family. Work was also a source of creativity, meaning, independence, self worth, and identity. It was devastating to imagine losing or compromising any of that.
A few years and two kids into the reality of mothering and having a (part time) career, a friend I was sharing my experience with reflected back that I seemed to be experiencing deep exhaustion. (She knew what she was talking about: she was in her early 40’s, pursuing her PhD in Psychology while still working, and raising a newborn and a five year old).
She was right.
I had to face the truth: I was really fucking tired.
I was finding out that even though I had reduced my work to part time, made my own schedule, had a husband very involved at home (who was also working on his own business), it still wasn’t a sustainable situation for me while in the midst of an intensive phase of mothering. My career and my mothering were going just fine, but I was paying the price in the form of my health and energy.
So I saw this photo of Amanda Palmer, and felt triumph and defeat, all at once.
Now, I’m not interested in going back to a former institution of motherhood, or womanhood, where our roles were much more limited, and where oppression was much more overt. In fact, I’d like to do whatever I can to keep dismantling the institution of motherhood.
But I want to acknowledge that I don’t know a mother of young children who isn’t exhausted. And it turns out it actually doesn’t matter if she stays at home, works full time, or does some version in between (like me).
Mothers being exhausted isn’t helping anyone. And mothers comparing themselves to other mothers definitely isn’t helping, either.
As modern mothers, we want our babies, and we want our world.
We want the whole thing.
But there is nothing empowering, inspiring, or feminist about being exhausted. And mothering alongside the fear of losing our identity, independence, financial security, and social status isn’t any fun, either.
Lets also remember the modern version of “having it all” goes way beyond having a family and a career. The modern dream includes having a successful and meaningful career, raising children intentionally, cultivating a nurturing home, having an inspired marriage, maintaining vibrant health, cultivating spiritual depth, having financial freedom, all while having fun and feeling happy.
Its kind of a lot.
So how do we do mother without sacrificing ourselves in the process? What does it really look like to continue to grow and value ourselves as we integrate the care and nurturing of our children? How the hell can we do this in a way that is sustainable?
One way to approach all of this is to figure out our priorities. We have to make some decisions. Just for ourselves. Just for our families.
We have to decide what matters most to each of us. What is the most important thing for me to put my energy into, and what comes after that, and after that?
When we are oriented to what is most important to us, that only each of us can know and decide for ourselves, that is a good start.
I definitely have my days where I’m afraid that becoming a mother has drastically interfered with my capacity to build my career, get the rest and exercise I need, have a social life, or contribute in any constructive way to society (besides the massive contribution of raising secure, creative, and loving humans).
Yet I also see the brilliance of motherhood. It has made my priorities clear. It has brought out inherent strengths that feel deeply valuable to me and those I love. It has made me so much more efficient with my time and energy.
Motherhood can help me align more closely to who I am now and what I care about, or I can allow the pressures and expectations of being on top of everything in my life have me feeling more scattered, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
This fantasy that I can (and should) keep everything moving forward all at once is just that, a fantasy. I can try, but there will be a price. If I feel like I’m not doing “enough,” that is the exact moment to realize that I am comparing my life to a fantasy of how my life should be.
If I start to feel like I am trapped or stuck, that is a fantasy, too (though more like a bad dream). But if I know this, then this uncomfortable experience becomes the exact feedback I need to make a course correction.
I make choices all day long. And yes, some things just have to wait for another time.
When I know my priorities, I know how to orient myself. I know how to arrange my life within my circumstances.
I have to be really creative here. REALLY CREATIVE. I have to suspend all the messages of how I am supposed to be, should be, as a woman and mother. I have to ditch all the ideas I walked into motherhood with.
And just like Amanda Palmer, signing autographs while feeding her baby, I know I can work this out. In my own way. And not at the expense of myself.