This past week I’ve seen this post again and again. It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.
The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends. And what they say is that these words really resonate.
-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.
-This is so beautiful.
-This is so true.
As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too. And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place. A nuanced place. A frustrated place.
And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them. My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.
And her response was: Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection? And also, that fathers never write this? Why is that, do you suppose?
And why, indeed? Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?
I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do. And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man. Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal. It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.
That demand, my friends, is not beauty. It’s also not love. I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self. A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.
And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them. My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years. I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.
And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it. Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard. And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.
No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion. It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise. And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.
The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.
More women are actively working while parenting. More fathers are actively parenting while working. And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear. Joy? Dads will take that. Guilt? That’s all you, moms. And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?
What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame. It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices. It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.
What do we get in return? Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal? The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:
I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers. And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.
I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born. Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!
This story isn’t unusual. The situation isn’t extraordinary. What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.
-I was glad.
Seriously. I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:
I love it that she needs me.
My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.
But what is it to need to be needed?
And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?
Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding? Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.
If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected. You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you. You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.
How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father? How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?
How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?
And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood? How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool? When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work? When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?
Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really. In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need. For more than we’re getting. For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.
The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.
It’s Women, Suck It Up.
That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one. Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here. In fact, I think we need to.
Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:
Stay home. Keep the hall light on. Keep pacing that floor.
But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.
It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault. You were where you were supposed to be.
Alone. In the nursery. On your knees.
I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.
Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.
They need the adult me. The responsible me. The vulnerable me. The honest me.
I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.
I contain multitudes. You do, too.
And don’t you dare call me Mommy.