Is modern motherhood too easy?
I think about what motherhood used to mean – before technology and modern medicine and easy fixes. It meant widespread risk of death in childbirth. It meant astronomical rates of stillbirths and infant mortality. It meant expecting one out of four of our offspring die of an illness. What’s more – in many parts of the world without direct access to the wonders of modern technology, this is still largely the prevailing way of life. Wars, famine, illness and poor reproductive care mean motherhood is often wrought with loss.
But here in 21st century first-world USA, the circumstances that used to constitute the reality of motherhood now warrant awe. We possess the great privilege of viewing the loss of a child as an unspeakable tragedy. We wonder, mystified, at mothers who raise children with special needs or terminal illnesses. We tell single mothers “I don’t know how you do it” and we categorize those who’ve witnessed sickness or death “survivors” and “fighters” and “heroes” as if loss and suffering weren’t integral parts of life but rather anomalies to be regarded from a safe distance.
I’m certainly a product of this cultural mentality. I can’t fathom living as women do in areas without direct access to the miracles of modern-day technology. I’m accustomed to instant gratification and easy fixes and the expectation that my life should go as planned, be fulfilling, remain relatively free of tragedies. And I see this prevailing attitude in my maternal contemporaries too: the way we expect to get pregnant when we want, not pregnant when we don’t, acquire our “ideal” number of children, and live happily ever after with our perfectly healthy kiddos. And when things don’t go precisely according to plan, our worlds come crashing down and we’re left wondering: How did this happen? Why me?
Yet at the same time I am profoundly grateful and relieved that I exist in the here and now, because such privilege allows me to assume that my daughter and I will remain reasonably safe and happy, that nothing irreparably awful will ever happen to us. But while grateful, I also never want to dismiss the realities of motherhood for women without my privileges. I don’t want to become so accustomed to the surrealism of my life that I lose touch with what it really means to be a mother – to bear loss and suffering and death as organically as we bear life. I don’t want to become so comfortable with my good fortune that when something awful happens I am utterly crippled by it. And I don’t want to forget about the women throughout history and throughout the world who embody motherhood at its most raw and selfless.
So while I occasionally succumb to the anxieties of my privileged, modern-day motherhood I gather strength by remembering that motherhood is made of the toughest stuff. I remain humble by recognizing that my circumstances are abnormally blessed. And I don’t let myself forget that motherhood for some means struggling to put food on the table, wondering if war will destroy the family, and totally sacrificing wants and needs with zero expectations of security or contentedness.