Beyond Soccer Moms: Why We Need to Broaden Our Ideas of Motherhood

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The cultural debate over having kids vs. not having kids continues strong, with impassioned think pieces, statistics and the word "selfish" bandied about in both directions (even the Pope has weighed in!). I used to read these articles with some interest, as if they might hold answers for my own profound ambivalence on the matter, but I do so less these days. It turns out, of course, the answer isn't there, and the whole discussion begins to feel a little bit noisy after a while. It's all more personal than this giant public display.

There are a lot of complicated decisions in our lives, ones that take a really long time to make and matter a great deal. Then there are the narratives spinning around us as we do. This happens in a very particular sort of way for women, with a lot of judgement and rules. Our real life decisions and roles are complicated and full of paradox and our popular culture ought to reflect that, rather than simplify or dictate.

The photographer Sally Mann's recent essay in The New York Times got me thinking about all the rules women must follow, both those shouted loudly from the rooftops and those sneakily, silently believed in the darkest parts of our hearts. We believe mothers embody certain characteristics or they ought to. They are either meant to be earth mamas knitting booties on a loom or harried soccer moms in ads for laundry detergent. They are barren witches or asexual caretakers with no desires of their own. They take naturally to the role of mother as they should or they are stricken by disconnect and a failure of their biology and femininity.

In Mann's essay, she eloquently, and somewhat defensively, discusses being both an artist and a mother, how the critiques of the former intersected with those of the latter. She famously photographed her young children on their Virginia farm, which caused some serious hoopla over what some deemed the indecent and pornographic quality of the images. Mann's essay describes the controversy with insight and clarity for the most part, but the claims of those branding her a bad mother clearly rile her. And we do seem particularly ready, as a collective, to label mothers one thing or another, too much of this or not enough of that.


Despite its soapy ridiculousness, the country soap Nashville sometimes reflects some surprisingly accurate versions of ourselves, albeit in the guise of country music stars. A recent storyline has former country starlet Juliette Barnes struggling with a postpartum yearning for country music fame, rooftop concerts, and elevator sex, instead of longing for mother-daughter bonding and bliss with her new baby. The scenes where the baby cries, and Juliette's face gets all cold, and she wants to go to a party instead sort of give me a wonderful thrill. And not because I'm rooting for the darkness, but because I think the darkness needs to be illuminated a little bit more.

I hope this is the only place on the internet where Nashville and The  Babadook are uttered in the same sentence, but there's an important thread connecting them. The Babadook inspired Anthony Lane of The New Yorker to declare, "Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors." The Babadook is an entirely discomfiting look at motherhood. It examines the all-consuming nature of grief, the sometimes totally annoying demands of a child, and how a mother's identity fits into those heavy things, exploring whether she will even survive. All of this leads to an admission: being a mother is really, really hard sometimes. As with a lot we don't readily admit, it seems that just saying this out loud is a great place to start.

Personal essays often seem to be where the complexities of motherhood begin to get the attention they deserve, where some of the tropes break down and make room for more interesting details. Ayelet Waldman's controversial essay from 10 years ago is a good example, in which she states that she loves her husband more than her children, and subsequently caused the world to freak out. I appreciate her willingness to thoughtfully explore an unpopular point of view and her reminder that there are countless experiences of love and motherhood. She writes:

"And if my children resent having been moons rather than the sun? If they berate me for not having loved them enough? If they call me a bad mother?

I will tell them that I wish for them a love like I have for their father. I will tell them that they are my children, and they deserve both to love and be loved like that. I will tell them to settle for nothing less than what they saw when they looked at me, looking at him."

There is also the amazing Megan Daum, whose essay on social work, miscarriages, and the decision to be a mother (or not) is one of the most interesting things I've read in a long time, about any subject. Much like Waldman's piece, I felt grateful and reassured by the voice of a woman so truly and specifically sharing her individual experience.

Ditto Maggie Nelson's essay on childbirth, which mixes transcendence and death in equal measure. She considers the idea of childbirth as a way to feel a certain closeness with death. At first glance, it might seem like a morbid notion, but I don't think it is. We are born and we will die. It makes sense that a woman deeply engaged in the act of giving birth would be profoundly, physiologically reminded of the counter-pose.


My own mom once told me that, when I was first born, she cried because she realized that someday I would die. Who among us might know that in their bones more than our mothers? It isn't sweet or sentimental, it isn't an ad for laundry detergent, or a lifestyle blog with a handmade bassinet, or a pink glittered card to send on one day of the year. It's far darker, deeper, and more profound than all that. It's much more about love. We should all be willing to tell these stories, and we should all want to listen.