In July of this year, I was thrilled when The Lily expressed interest in a piece I had submitted. The bad news? They wanted to take my 4500 word nuanced essay and transform it into a 1300 word op-ed.
Of course, I said yes. To be published in The Lily was a dream, and I was coming to understand that journalistic writing was much shorter than the book form I was used to (4500 words felt like nothing compared to the books I had been writing for the last eight years that totaled 70-80,000 words apiece). But I liked my longer piece infinitely better. So many of the issues people had with the piece might have been assuaged if they’d had the opportunity to read the totality of my thoughts.
This situation is part of what made me decide to start this Substack.
So I’m publishing the unabridged version here. The seeds of all of my posts on the Mother Lode thus far stem from the awakening outlined in the essay below. Appropriately, Dr. Becky of Good Inside just released a podcast about this very issue this morning called “Motherhood Doesn’t Have to Be Martyrdom.” Glennon Doyle hit this note at the tail end of her podcast from last week (around the 45:10 mark - transcript below).
We cannot hear this message enough, as it is antithetical to everything we are taught as women. But our freedom lies here, in emptying the altar.
In March 2020, over the course of a few days, the terms of motherhood changed. All the careful scaffolding we had erected to make space for a life of our own came crashing down. Whether our children were in day care, school, had a nanny or babysitter, everything collapsed and we found ourselves full time, stay-at-home parents for the next twelve months.
No one consulted us about these new terms. They were foisted upon us overnight, when school transformed from a dependable place to send our children, to remote for a few weeks, then the rest of the school year, then indefinitely. The level of challenge this created in your household depended on the ages and temperaments of your children. But no matter their ages, your children were suddenly under your care for all twenty-four hours of every single day.
To be clear, the terms of motherhood have never been great; it’s always felt like an impossible job. And yet the pandemic took impossible to another level. While some mothers choose to homeschool their children, I was in that cohort who said: I would never. And yet we were all forced into it for nine to twelve months.
It isn’t like we had the tools or time to dedicate ourselves to this homeschooling. It happened overnight, while many of us were still trying to keep full-time jobs. Depending on the age of your children, that was nearly impossible.
I am one of the 3 million women who opted out of the workforce in 2020, after three months spent finishing a manuscript while managing remote school. But that word “opt” makes it sound like there were other options. It didn’t feel like there were. Trying to manage two careers with two elementary school kids at home all the time was an exercise in insanity. So I took a pandemic maternity leave.
Something had to give. And women have been conditioned to believe that we should be the givers.
But I soon realized that there is a steep cost when you decide to sacrifice yourself and your career on the altar of motherhood. Over and over and over again.
In August of 2019, I breathed a sigh of relief after the marathon of early motherhood. I had finally crossed the finish line: my youngest was headed to kindergarten.
I did a little victory dance as I dropped my children off that first day, even though I knew it was a short-lived celebration. In our district, kindergarteners attended school for half-days until October. I diligently picked my youngest up at noon every day, not quite understanding why it would take her six weeks to be ready for “real school.”
Our elementary school wasn’t exactly dual-income-household friendly. I often felt like the school and PTA assumed that families still resembled the 1950’s, with a wife dutifully at home, always on hand to volunteer in the classroom, or help plan the next fundraiser, even though I live in Silicon Valley, two incomes often necessary to afford the cost of living. Yet our school doesn’t even use school buses for field trips, they expect parent volunteers to drive. Every time I received an email with a teacher pleading for more volunteers, otherwise the field trip would be cancelled, I stared at the screen in dismay. I didn’t like feeling like I was a delinquent parent just because I wasn’t eager to take a day off work to escort a bunch of second graders to a museum.
Finally, October arrived and I relished the thought of six entire hours to work, every day. Except that my children kept getting sick at different times. The entire month of October, there were only eight days when I was able to send both to school. EIGHT DAYS!
As another Sunday night arrived with a feverish child, panic rose in my chest. No, this can’t be happening again! I’d lash out in anger at my child, and then feel like an awful parent. It wasn’t their fault. But I couldn’t deny my frustration that yet again, I would have to set aside my work, and nurse them the next day.
In November, I asked my husband if we could take turns staying home when the kids were sick. Because I worked from home, worked for myself, and worked part-time we’d had a tacit agreement that I would be the one to handle sick days. I had bought in fully to the idea that it was fine for me to work, as long as it didn’t detract too much from the needs of my family.
So you can only imagine the despair that I felt when March 2020 hit, and my hours without my children disappeared for good. I had been so triumphant to finally cross that finish line. And then it was pushed so far out into the distance that I couldn’t see it anymore. We’d boomeranged back to the early days before they even went to preschool. They were with us. All. The. Time.
I felt like the universe was mocking me. Ha ha, you think you can have a life of your own? No! Your needs will always come second. Don’t you know what it means to be a mother?
When I turned the book into the publisher May 1, I couldn’t imagine taking on another project while I had so little undisturbed time to dedicate to my work. School was not something my kindergartner could manage on her own, so my husband or I always had to be on hand to help. I decided to hit pause on work, hoping that things would go back to “normal” by the fall, and then I could resume my life.
But as I sat at home in August 2020 with a new school year starting remote, my kids logging on to four different zooms a day, a barrage of requests coming from their rooms every few minutes, I felt anger begin to simmer underneath the surface. How was this my life? Why was I trapped yet again tending to the needs of the children?
As I brewed in this stew of resentment, anger, and frustration, I finally realized why I was so mad. Because the sacrifice I made during the pandemic – offering myself as the solution for childcare even though it isn’t what I really wanted – is exactly what I did when I first made the transition to motherhood.
When I gave birth to my first child, I was nine years into a career as an editor at a publishing house. I loved my job, and was lucky enough to have a paid maternity leave.
Like many new mothers, I was told to relish my leave, and take as much time as I possibly could. I dutifully researched not just the paid maternity leave my company granted, but the extra two months California offered at partial pay. Many women have to hobble back to work after a couple of weeks, stitches still healing from C-sections or cervixes still bruised from vaginal birth. But though I am grateful for my maternity leave, no one factors in what those months sequestered at home do to a new mother’s sense of self, let alone her other identities. They get locked away in a vault so distant that you forget exactly who you are. Other than mother.
Rachel Cusk writes about this in A Life’s Work, one of the few books I’ve read that fully captures the loss of self that motherhood entails. “My daughter quickly comes to replace me as the primary object of my care. I become an undone task, a phone call I can’t seem to make, a bill I don’t get around to paying. My life has the seething atmosphere of an untended garden.” It is rare for a new mother to acknowledge these feelings. We are taught that we should want to be cocooned with our new baby, no other purpose needed. Any feelings that don’t align with our expectation of motherhood get repressed. This is supposed to be the happiest I’ve ever been!
When I finally returned to work, I was grateful to redon the mantle of editor, colleague, working woman. I showed up that first day, carting a heavy device so I could continue to feed my child (breastfeed exclusively for the first six months!). I awkwardly made room for it on the train, wedging it between my feet along with my work bag. I was fortunate to have an office to myself with a door that locked. I’d calculated that if I pumped twice a day, I could just about fulfill my daughter’s needs for the next day. I carefully scheduled my pumping sessions around my meetings, then subtly sequestered my breastmilk to the community fridge. A few weeks after my return, one of my colleagues brought their new baby in to visit. Just the sound of an infant brought forth the tell-tale tingle signaling the let-down of my milk. I quickly escaped to my office, to try and stem the flow.
Because my body was still leased to someone else. My life was still not truly my own.
I had cobbled together a complicated equation of childcare. I left the house early, catching the train up to the city, while my husband dropped our daughter off at my mother’s house four days a week. My husband would work from home one afternoon a week, as he owned his own business and could grant himself that privilege and on Fridays, I would work from home, at least to start. My employer made it clear this was not a permanent arrangement, but I took what they offered gratefully, assured that after they saw how successful I was, that we could extend it.
But I had a ninety-minute commute each way. I drove to the train station, took a train from Palo Alto to San Francisco, and then waited for the bus that would take me to my office in the financial district. I then reversed that each evening. To spend three hours not at work but not with my daughter felt like time that was erased, though it was when I did most of the editing for my job. By the time I got home just after six each evening, I hurriedly breastfed my baby, and got her ready for bed. I collapsed on the couch wondering how I could keep this up, and whether it was enough, barely spending an hour with her each day.
When my employer started to imply that it was time to give up my one day working from home, I had to assess whether working full time was worth the stress it was placing on each person in my childcare equation. The truth was, none of us were professional caregivers, so I couldn’t help but feel like I was inconveniencing everyone by my desire to continue to work.
After five months, I quit, and joined the ranks of freelancers. I could continue to edit, but from home, and on my own timetable.
As I built up my freelance business, my daughter spent three mornings a week at my mom’s. The rest of the time, I could be with her, and I’d squeeze in additional work during her naps.
After six months, I had plenty of work. After a year, I had what could have amounted to full-time work.
Yet I still only allowed myself part-time childcare.
During those early years, I kept myself sane with the mantra, soon, she’ll be in preschool, and I’ll have more time. Except that then I became pregnant again, and all my progress was erased. I was right back at the starting line. This time, I had not only the needs of an infant but those of my toddler as well. The days piled up, an endless parade of nursing my infant, while trying to tend to my toddler. I’d fruitlessly attempt to get both of them to nap at the same time so I might have a moment to myself, or as Rachel Cusk describes it, so that I could “liase, as if it were a lover, with my former life.”
This was one of the hardest times in my life. I felt burnt out and exhausted all the time. I watched the clock, waiting for my husband to walk through the door. He’d walk in, kisses for everyone, and I would be seething with anger, resentment, disappointment. Every day. This should have been a sign that maybe I needed something different. Instead, I thought that if only he could get home in time… if only he could let me know if he was running late… if only, if only, if only…
Deep down, I resented the fact that his work life was relatively unchanged while mine was so much diminished.
To be clear, I loved the work I was doing. My career was able to flourish in a way that it hadn’t been able to before. I’d begun ghostwriting books, a rewarding and exciting new endeavor. Yet I was trying to work part time with a full-time workload. I was so incredibly focused during those hours that someone else was with my children that I excused it away, said it was fine, the short hours helped me be more productive.
But the truth is, I didn’t feel like I could ask for more.
I had this inner patriarchy ruling what I felt like I could or should want. I felt that I should want to mother more than I should want to work. But that wasn’t really the case.
When women delay motherhood to our thirties, we have often poured ourselves into careers for a decade, have just reached the tier where we are no longer underlings but have status and maybe even power. And yet, we are supposed to just give that up when we have children. If we buck convention and continue to work, we are forever trying to temper our ambitions to make them fit into something that doesn’t inconvenience our family.
I think of Glennon Doyle, whose book Untamed tapped into something so many women were feeling as it hit the shelves at the genesis of the pandemic. Doyle began her writing career in a closet, the only space that she could carve out just for herself. What does it mean that she didn’t feel like she could ask for a desk somewhere in a room with a little bit of light, or maybe a spot at the kitchen table? But as mothers, we have learned: keep your work life contained. Don’t let it leak out into the rest of your life. Definitely don’t let it conflict with what your family needs from you.
Despite all our progress in the women’s movement, the inherent teachings that we absorb from our culture is that women should accommodate, disregard our own needs, focus on others. Feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun called it “adaptable femininity.”
It starts from the moment we give birth.
Childbirth for every woman is an experience fraught with anxiety, pain and fear. And yet we are expected to be the doting mother from the moment the infant is placed in our arms, when we are often still bleeding, still being stitched up, still a patient. We have shifted down the totem pole of priorities. For the rest of our lives, our needs come after those of our children.
In America, newborns visit the pediatrician every couple of weeks to ensure they are thriving. The mother, whose body has just gone through one of the most traumatic experiences of its life, gets one six-week check-up. No one inspects her stitches to confirm they are healing properly. No one tends to her bleeding breasts. No one ensures that she isn’t sliding into the darkness of post-partum depression, that her abdominal muscles are knitting back together.
She is forever an afterthought.
Some cultures recognize the cost of childbirth to the mother and institute a month-long period of time when the mother must stay in bed; they cannot cook or change the baby. In China it is called zuo yue zi, and it acknowledges what the female body has gone through. Losing all that fluid and blood decreases your chi or life force, and thus the month is spent focusing on them recovering.
But there is no such practice here in the States. The post-partum period is, quite frankly, ignored (which is, perhaps, why we have no family leave policy).
When I had my second child, it was a vastly different experience than the first time I gave birth and we cocooned as a new family of three in the hospital ward. This time we had another child who depended on us at home, our two-year-old who was with my mother-in-law who had flown into town. I gave birth at 2:18 pm on a Thursday afternoon, after three days of prodromal labor (i.e., fake labor, meaning contractions that don’t do anything). Traditionally, mothers who give birth vaginally are allowed two nights in the hospital before they are discharged. And yet I knew my husband was reluctant to spend another night in the recliner that barely reclined. We both knew our older daughter was anxious for us to come home.
So somehow, I agreed to go home a mere 24 hours after giving birth.
I do not know why I agreed to this.
I did not want to go home. I wanted nurses to keep bringing me drugs, hot meals, and iced pads. I wanted people to help me get my baby to latch. I wanted to lay in the bed that I could raise with a button. I wanted to be a patient just a little longer. I had just birthed a child, had countless still healing stitches, could barely walk. I wasn’t ready to go home.
Why was I unable to speak up for myself? Why did I feel like it was my job to accommodate others? Had I so deeply disconnected from myself that I couldn’t even access this basic need to be taken care of one more night?
I had buried all these feelings as a survival mechanism of getting through the days of early motherhood. But 2020 upended all my denials; it unearthed the depths of my discontent.
Untamed went on-sale on March 10, 2020, and the tour that Doyle had planned, arenas full of women, evaporated overnight. It must have been soul-crushing to have her book come into the world at such a time. And yet… the book hit the New York Times list upon on-sale and remained there for over 70 weeks. Because in Untamed, Doyle presciently speaks to the frustrated, erased, women of 2020. She writes about the fire that we have tamed, tamped down, and tried to extinguish, because to want something for ourselves inconveniences others. Arriving on the heels of the pandemic, was actually, pretty perfect.
In the book, she shares a powerful lesson with one of her daughters:
“Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job, throughout your entire life, is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself.”
Women across the globe have been flocking to this manifesto and its revolutionary promises, because within it, it gives us permission. To stop accommodating. To be ourselves. To listen to how we feel. And realize that it matters.
After I read Untamed, I watched a Facebook Live interview between Glennon Doyle and Sue Monk Kidd. Kidd had just come out with a new novel, and I realized that maybe it was time to read her earlier non-fiction book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I’d tried to read it many years before, back when I’d worked at the publishing house and we’d reissued Dance after Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees became a major bestseller.
I realize now that trying to read this book at age 24 was like trying to read Shakespeare in kindergarten. I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t yet experience what the world can do to a woman.
The book, published in 1996, examines Kidd’s awakening of how the patriarchy, and especially that of the Christian church, had silenced her as a woman. “Messages of inferiority and self-denial are passed to us all our lives, messages that we should deny our own experiences, feelings, and needs,” Kidd wrote. I had also spent my formative years inundated by the teachings of the church. Though I had left that religion behind in my early twenties, the indoctrination was all still there, shaping my beliefs, my actions, what I believed I was entitled to as a woman. When I read Kidd’s admission that she’d “felt a nebulous guilt for pursuing my own life,” I knew that this is what had held me back for the last nine years.
I realized, as another day dawned in 2020 that looked exactly like the last, that underneath my frustration at the current situation – my pandemic maternity leave – was anger about what I had put myself through the previous nine years. That I had sacrificed myself and my career on the altar of motherhood. That I had been unable to admit what I truly wanted, which was more time to have a career, and to not always be the one in charge of the children (or if I wasn’t going to be in charge of the children, I was in charge of finding out who would be in charge of the children). I’d wanted more – more time to work, more time for me, more sense of a self apart from my children.
I’d been barely getting by on small sips of oxygen, dying for breath but convincing myself it was enough.
I was tired of suffocating. And I know I’m not alone.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, more than 3 million women have exited the workforce. One in four women have considered downshifting their careers or stepping out of the workforce completely since COVID hit. And though those numbers are astounding, I think the problem is likely larger than the numbers report. Because how many women, like me, have downshifted their careers into self-employed status so that they can maneuver their work around their children?
We have been the ones to sacrifice our careers this year, as many of us did when we first became mothers. All the reports tell you not to do this, outlining dire statistics about how much income women give up by opting out of the workforce even for just a few years. But what choice do we have? It’s not like there are an abundance of great day cares to send our children to, let alone whether they are affordable. We literally don’t have anywhere to send our kids, even when there isn’t a pandemic! Many parents lean on grandparents for the care our children need. And the grandparents seem happy to do it. But I’m not sure that they really are, they just want their children to be able to have the lives they dream of. And so, the sacrifices for our children continue. There is no end.
Mothers bear this burden because fathers have not been conditioned to feel guilty about working. They aren’t asked: Oh, are you going to go back to work? after their children are born. In fact, they get accolades if they even take a two-week paternity leave, getting a gold star for Dad of the Year for taking ten whole days away from work. Anna Quindlen writes in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake:
“All the times I’ve been asked on college campuses about balancing work and family, I’ve never been asked the question by a young man. Young women, even with their own mothers’ successes, wonder how they will manage job and kids; young men still figure they’ll manage it by marrying.”
I hate to emphasize this difference by gender. I know that gender is not a binary, that there are many ways to be a man or a woman or a combination of both. However, the experience of being a mother and the experience of being a father remains vastly different in our society. Author Clover Stroud wrote about a friend who decides not to have another baby. “Maybe if I was a father,” her friend admits. “I wouldn’t mind having a go at being a father.”
A recent article in Time illuminates the vast difference in the caretaking workloads of mothers and fathers:
“In 2020, school closings and the embrace of work from home accentuated the existing imbalance between men and women’s unpaid labor. According to one European study, women spent an average of 62 hours a week caring for children and 23 doing housework, while men devoted 36 and 15, respectively.”
Women quit this year because something had to give. And our society doesn’t expect that men take the fall, for men to sacrifice themselves. There is no altar of fatherhood. Or if there is, it sits empty.
“A woman’s awakening begins with [what Carol P. Christ calls] ‘an experience of nothingness,’” Kidd writes. “It comes as she experiences emptiness, self-negation, disillusionment, a deep-felt recognition of the limitation placed on women’s lives, especially her own.”
I can think of nothing that better sums up the experience of mothers in 2020. As we gave up careers, as we stood at empty cabinets with ravenous children clinging to our legs, as we shouldered the upkeep of the house, now multiplied due to the fact that every single member of the family was dwelling there every moment of every day, we felt erased.
But may our erasure be our awakening.
What if we shed our inner patriarchy? What if we stopped taking one for the team? What would emerge if we just stopped accommodating?
My hope is that it would force our spouses, our workplaces, and our government to create more structures to support mothers, otherwise more and more women will just forgo it. Perhaps that is the reason people stopped having babies during the pandemic. Women saw the stark reality dealt to mothers and said: No way am I signing up for more of that.
If it is this hard for me, and I am white, cis-gender, heterosexual, with a house that my husband and I own, jobs that comfortably support our family, extended family nearby, then how much is this system failing those who do not have the safety nets that I do? How impossible is this situation for single mothers, for families where both parents must work outside the home, for mothers whose children have special needs requiring additional caregivers and even more resources? These struggles, these gaps, this vacuum of support falls across racial and economic lines. Mothers have been abandoned to fend for themselves in our society. It’s time to do something about it.
We have an opening as we edge toward the After to not simply return to the way things were. We can say that we’ve had enough and renegotiate the terms of modern motherhood. We know workplaces will look different once we return to our offices. Five days in the office may never come back into fashion nor should it. The five-day work week was designed during a time when technology did not exist to allow us to work outside the office. Same with the 9-5 work day. It is no longer necessary, especially when every single school day ends by 3 pm. For too long, inviting women into the workforce just meant bringing them into a system that was designed by and for men. It’s time for workplaces to acknowledge the realities parents face instead of assuming that any good employee has a wife or nanny at home to take care of everything not work related.
Parental leave is absolutely necessary, a basic right that makes our current society feel medieval. But even parental leave seems like it was designed by a man. What if we stopped to truly think about what supporting new parents in the workplace might look like? Rather than simple granting a certain number of weeks off and then mothers go cold turkey back to the office, what if it didn’t have to be all or nothing? What if we weaned new mothers off their babies just like we wean babies off the breast? What if we allowed new mothers to ease back into the office in careful doses so by the end, they are ready to be separated from their child with long-term success? Now that we are more comfortable with working from home and flexible arrangements, it is finally possible.
We do not have to just return to the way things have always been done. We can have a true Before and After. What other outdated structures can we amend before we go back to life as usual? How about summer breaks, a hellish existence for working parents who must line up 10 weeks of summer camp or other form of childcare, which does not come cheap, so that they can continue their jobs unhindered?
These vestiges of the past have hobbled working mothers for long enough. I know it won’t happen overnight, that these changes are societal, structural, sometimes even subconscious. But there must come a point when we say no more.
Despite the fact that I would never want to relive 2020 again, I would not have realized how deeply unhappy I was all those years without the wakeup call dealt by pandemic mothering. I would have cruised across that finish line in August of 2019, been so happy that I made it, and convinced myself that I had done what needed to be done. Made a necessary sacrifice for my family. But thank God it was over.
I don’t see it that way anymore. Instead, I realize that I let my inner patriarchy trap me into a prison of my own making. I sacrificed my own happiness for years, out of duty, out of what I thought was requirement, but it wasn’t actually required. I placed unrealistic demands on myself to be the mother I thought my children needed when what they truly needed was a role model of a woman doing what she needs for her own sanity and self.
It isn’t easy to shed years of conditioning. But if we are going to empty the altar, we’ve got to throw out the old scripts. Give ourselves permission to renegotiate our terms. Examine if the way we are performing motherhood is working. Recognize that there is no one right way to mother, but infinite varieties based on temperament, desire and circumstances. Explore what it might look like to stop sacrificing.
The way forward won’t be easy.
But it will be worth it.
The Problem of Celebrating the Selflessness of Mothers, Anna Malaika Tubbs, Time Magazine
“Other Countries Have Social Safety Nets. The U.S. Has Women.” Culture Study, a Substack publication by Anne Helen Peterson
The Monumental Unsaid: A Conversation with Rachel Yoder. LA Review of Books.
Glennon Doyle from her podcast last week:
“There is this thing that happens when you stop believing that a good woman, or a good mother or a good wife or good daughter just buries herself, just doesn’t live, just refuses to have desires, just refuses to have dreams, refuses to have feelings, refuses to have humanity, when you stop believing that and you instead decide: No, a woman does get to have, has to have dreams, ambition, desire, intuition, juiciness, all of it. First, there’s a shit show! Because the whole world revolves around the idea that women will not meet their own needs. So when we do start, everybody has to reassemble for a while. Balls drop. People get pissed. If you can wait out that storm, what I have found is that then you start to see your people around you watch you and also give themselves permission to live. You just invite more life in. When you demand more life from yourself, you eventually invite more life for your kids.”