I’m done pretending. The farther I get from emotional survival mode (which I lived in for more than a decade), and the more mothers I witness, support, and grow alongside, the brighter the following truths burn within me:
Years ago, I had a dream that put a lot of my frustrations into perspective for me.
In the dream, I had no legs, only prosthetics, from the hip down. Regardless of my disability, I was being pressured to climb a steep and treacherous mountain, and very much expected to be able to climb it, alone. The pressure was coming from dozens of people around me, many of whom I knew and loved, and all of whom had legs. Everyone was staring at me, wondering why I was so hesitant to begin. I was confused, disoriented, and questioning my own judgment. I felt angry and misunderstood and utterly defeated before I’d even started. It wasn’t safe for me to climb the mountain, and I knew it. I wasn’t well equipped, and my disability prevented me from doing what was being asked of me, yet everyone around me seemed to think there was something wrong with me for questioning the situation.
In the years since that dream, the same image has come to mind over and over again in my work with mothers. A client will describe her circumstances to me and finish up by saying something like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” or “I’ve tried so many ways to make it better, yet I still don’t feel successful in a single area of my life,” or “I’m working myself to the point of exhaustion and still fucking things up.”
Hundreds of bright, creative, invested, wholehearted mothers I’ve talked with over the years, don’t merely feel overwhelmed by their lives. They feel oppressed by them. They’re being asked to climb mountains alone with prosthetics for legs, or some equally impossible-feeling equivalent.
Chances are that when you hear the word “oppression,” you don’t picture your own reality, but some other poor woman’s. Pioneer women with abusive husbands were oppressed. Slaves are oppressed. Mothers forced to ration food among their children and still not able to stave off hunger are oppressed.
But not you and I. Because you and I are free.
(You’re really feeling it, aren’t you, mama? I’m sure that “free” is exactly how you felt when you woke up this morning.)
By definition, though, oppression is not limited to “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.” It is also defined as “the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, anxiety, etc.”
Here’s another definition:
Oppression is when a person or group in a position of power controls the less powerful in cruel and unfair ways.
Anxiety? Heavy burden? Adverse conditions? This describes the experiences of most mothers I know. Cruelty, unfairness, and control by those more powerful aren’t always as obvious, but once stories are deconstructed, these, too, are revealed as major players in the game of modern-day motherhood. They didn’t die with our great-grandmothers, they merely changed form:
When someone is being emotionally abused, it can take years or even decades for this person to recognize their circumstances as abusive. This is because emotional abuse is often insidious. It’s subtle, it’s gradual, and it sometimes even feels like love.
We don’t always know we’re in a toxic situation until our bodies and spirits start showing signs of trauma.
Modern-day motherhood is kind of like that. It’s like a covert narcissist, who seems so wonderful and charming and sweet at first. Over time, the relationship becomes disorienting and draining as your sense of self is compromised under controlling conditions, unrealistic standards, and emotional manipulation.
The difference with motherhood, is that we’re being oppressed and manipulated, not by one person, but by the culture at large. We’re being conditioned to think we’re the ones with the problem (aka gaslighted), which keeps us craving, spending, and too weak to be much of a threat to those calling the shots (namely, patriarchy and capitalism).
We have got to keep perspective. We’ve got to remind ourselves and one another, over and over again, of what is really true, such as the fact that:
Our collective maternal distress is a response to systemic oppression, manipulation, and brainwashing, not personal inadequacy.
And, just as emotional abusers often target kind, compassionate caretaker types, these new social oppressors take advantage of our biological instinct to nurture and protect. We agree to more than our fair share of the mental and physical load because we’re instinctually wired to absorb the impact of cultural dysfunction so our children don’t have to.
We’re scrambling like crazy, trying to prevent screen addiction and monitor online safety, learning about food allergies and eating disorders, working to afford lessons and sports and tutoring, educating ourselves about mental health and non-traumatizing ways to discipline, driving all over town to meet our families’ ever-changing needs, feeling guilty when we can’t afford to shop in conscientious, eco-friendly ways, hoping nothing happens to us because we can’t afford health insurance, and working overtime to afford the aforementioned insanity.
All this and more, is now required of us in order to be considered “good moms.” Not that we’ll ever be rewarded or compensated for achieving this elusive state. There will always be more on the to-do list, more recent findings in child development, or more environmental and social injustices to navigate that will keep us striving but never arriving.
Unfortunately, the solution to escaping this madness isn’t so simple as going “no contact” as you might be advised if you were healing from narcissistic abuse. It is, however, about calling the kettle black and taking our power back from those who have no business controlling our minds, manipulating our emotions, and deciding who we can trust.
We can’t afford to pretend to love motherhood. Not this version of it.
If being a “good mother” means sacrificing our needs and desires, we are not only modeling the denial of our needs to our children. We are also perpetuating the narrative that mothers are less worthy of thriving than others.
If being a “good mother” means doing as much as we can without having to ask for help, we are not only enduring isolation under the watchful eye of our kids. We are also perpetuating the narrative that mothers aren’t worthy of support.
If being a “good mother” means never taking breaks, we are not only exhausting ourselves and limiting our access to joy. We are perpetuating the narrative that mothers are less worthy of nourishment and rest.
Is this the version of motherhood we want to pass down to our daughters? Is this the version of motherhood we want to condition into our sons, who will be living among and loving our grown girls?
As with all systemic oppression, change isn’t going to happen overnight. Though many circumstances lie beyond our immediate influence, there is plenty we do have control over, namely our interpretations of our lives and our reactions to them (thank you for shining so brightly, Sean Stephenson).
Here’s a starting point. Here are a few things each of us can do to orient ourselves toward true and lasting cultural change:
And, should your mind take you straight to this narrative:
“But I have it so much better than so many other mothers around the world and throughout history. Who am I to complain?”
Please flag this, too, as an oppressive story and read what the ever-wise Brené Brown has to say about comparative suffering:
“Comparative suffering is a race to misery where some people believe they inherently win (I hurt more than anyone could possibly understand) or don’t deserve to be in the marathon at all (I’m embarrassed that I’m upset, because worse things happen to other people). It hinges on the false belief that empathy is finite. Fortunately, the opposite is true—empathy is not only infinite, it is renewable. The more empathy we infuse into our relationships, organizations, and culture, the more there is to go around.”
I believe the same to be true regarding oppression. The more deeply and widely we commit to its alleviation, both around and within us, the more quickly those more severely oppressed than us will be alleviated of their suffering. When those of us who are legally free and relatively resourced, do the inner and outer work necessary to become the most powerful, authentic, wholehearted versions of ourselves possible, we naturally begin to create a world in which more and more women will rise.
Our foremothers didn’t struggle, suffer, and die fighting for freedom so that we could be a little freer than they were, or so that we might navigate new, more prettily packaged forms of oppression. They fought for true liberation, of our lives, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our spirits. In order to achieve this, we must recognize that the battle is still far from won.
We must commit to the constant and steadfast deconstruction of any and all stories and circumstances that are too small for us and too oppressive for our beautiful babies.
Keep going, mama. Keep growing. The world desperately needs you in your rightful place of power.
With unending respect and reverence,
This is such an important, eye opening and urgent article and issue. You have so articulately worded what our society as a whole must see, address and push. I agree, this current standard of motherhood is drowning our moms and leaving them without lifeboats. Thank you for your work.
Thank you so much, Chelsea. It’s so true. We’re drowning without lifeboats, whilst trying to teach our children how to swim.
DAMN. You NAILED it.
Thank you, Mary. It poured right out through my tenderhearted mama rage. Things have GOT to change.
As usual, reading your words leave me with goosebumps and tears. You preach it, sistar!
Thank you, Corina. That means a lot to me. 🙂
I am a mother and grandmother who has also lived through emotional abuse. Thank you for presenting this state so many women live in with strength and conviction. I’ve been studying, practicing and writing about Buddhism for mothers for over 30 years. In that time I’ve learned some practices that have helped me greatly and am in the middle of editing a new book, Awakening at home, which is intended to offer support for home based spiritual practice. It is my heartfelt wish that is will be of support to the mothers you are speaking to. If you are willing, I’d love to send you an advance copy via email to get your feedback. I don’t want it to put one more thing on the plates of mothers already overwhelmed with activity and expectation and would love to have your support in making sure that doesn’t get into the book.
Jacqueline, I would love to have a copy of this book as well… I’m an American but live in Nairobi Kenya… I have been in a covert narcissitic abusive relationship for 13 years and am getting ready to be a single Mama…(this article really spoke to me…) He is moving out next week. I teach meditation here in Nairobi… Love to you, sister… Let me know how to get a copy in Kenya…
Much love and strength to you, Olivia, as you navigate this courageous life transition. I have respect for anyone who is able to spot narcissistic abuse and get themselves out from under its disorienting, degrading toxicity.
Thank you so much for your kind words and generous offer, Jacqueline. It would be an honor to read your book! It sounds beautiful and much needed. Feel free to send me a private message.
I wish you had not written this from the exclusive lens of a 2-parent family because there are a lot of things I nodded my head to but I don’t represented as a parent by the base assumptions. Inclusion matters and representatives matters, too.
Thanks, Anon. I am a single mom, myself, so I wasn’t writing from the perspective of a two-parent household. I will reread it, however, and try to see what you mean.
This is so good! I love that the author offered solutions at the end. I read so many rants/vents about the struggle of motherhood. At the end I’m always left wondering what am I supposed to do. So thank you!
You’re very welcome, Atiya. I, too, like to have places to focus my attention and ways to orient rather than mere exposure to more of the world’s struggles.
This is why I am an anti-natalist. Last thing our world need is more children. And if being a mother is such misery, why do it? Just stop having kids and enjoy your life. Resist the societal pressure to procreate, it’s not worth it, and it’s killing our planet
This is beautifully written and so empowering to read. Thank you for your words and your work. And I found this because someone shared it in my local Moms group where everything is empathetically saying how much it resonates with them.
Thank you, Cristin! 🙂
Thank you for writing this, it is true all over the western world. But you forgot one thing, in order for this to change in a greater scale one of the strongest things you can do is vote. Vote for compassionate humane leaders, who value people over profits ❤️
I agree wholeheartedly, KJ. This point should absolutely be included in the list. Thank you for mentioning it.
Thank you for this powerful piece. I’ve never thought about these struggles in relation to oppression, but you were spot on. Wonderful read and I’ve shared it with a few others.
Sometimes I feel like I am on an island floating farther away from my family. I am trying to get back to them but the water is rough. My mom died before my daughter was born; I did not have positive people who helped me raise my daughter; my in laws were emotionally abusive to me while they were caring for my daughter- they ridiculed me, told me horrible things about myself, and led me to believe I was a bad mother. Then in 2012 I had q major depressive episode and had to be hospitalized. In 2018, my dad died. I am taking one day at a time but it is hard. I so appreciate your article on motherhood. It spoke to my heart. Thank you!
Cathy, your reply echoes my life. Lonely parenting journey, major depressive breakdown in 2016 and my beloved dad died in 2016
This spoke to me. Thank you for this. I am an OB postpartum nurse, lactation consultant, mother of three raucous boys, and a feminist. You have so exactly hit the nail on the head I got goosebumps.
I was talking to somebody the other day who felt like they had been pressured into breastfeeding by healthcare staff. This conversation was after I had posted a very poorly written HuffPost article about doctors and nurses pressuring women to breastfeed and how that was causing them anxiety and depression. I said that I didn’t know any healthcare workers who pressured people into breastfeeding we simply educate on why it’s a healthy choice and should they choose to make that choice, we support and assist. But we don’t convert.
But then it dawned on me – something that I knew instinctually but had never really put into words – it’s not the breastfeeding that stressing out women. It’s the expectation to breastfeed in a society that does absolutely nothing to support breastfeeding. A society that expects us to go back to work within 6 weeks, gives no paid maternity leave, expects us to pump in broom closets and bathrooms during unpaid breaks and then considers that an “accommodation”. And if you don’t you’re not a good mom. it’s not the healthcare workers making women feel inadequate, it’s society and culture as a whole.
Anyway a few days later I read your article and it is a deep dive into that feeling that I was having. It gave me the words and the dialogue to talk about this thing, this oppression. Thank you very much.
I guess dads shouldn’t read this since only mothers parent children.
Or, dads could read it, soften their defensiveness, and try to understand that their reality (as a whole) is completely different than the reality of mothers. It requires VASTLY less effort to be seen as a good father than it does to be seen as a good mother in our culture. The system is rigged in favor of men, who can do so little as to wear a baby in a baby carrier and win praise. Fathers have unique struggles and challenges in this patriarchal set up, but they cannot justly be lumped in with the struggles of mothers. It’s apples and oranges.
Perfect response, Beth. <3
In the spirit of challenging narratives, aiming for inclusion and strengthening my own support network, I think there is a different response to ‘Frustrated’s comment: As I was reading and relating to Beth’s article (deep thanks Beth), I was also struck by how much of it resonated with the efforts and struggles that my husband, and other men in our circle go to and through, in his striving to be seen as an equal parent to our four boys, even within a supportive, thinking community that we live in. Assumptions of availability for work things if you are serious about your career, parenting differently, without male role models or many peers doing the same, struggles of losing yourself, being seen as inadequate (on the home and work front), searching for mentors and supports, being oppressed by societal narratives (whether about parenting, work, strength, supporting/protecting others etc) all hold true for him too – and many men. Yes, the distinctive character of the challenges for women and for women are essential to recognise. Their source and content can be, as Beth says, vastly different. But improving the support and perspective for women means including men in the conversation – whether they come to it in an initially defensive way or not. It means inviting questions and perspectives (not minimising or competing on suffering as Beth critically says), supporting experiments, efforts and failures, challenging assumptions – opening conversation. The last thing women or children or society needs is isolated, unsure, defensive, lost, unaware men. So bring them into the conversation – watch for those important, tentative moments of possibility, like ‘Frustrated’s’ comment above so the seedlings of change can grow.
[…] https://revolutionfromhome.com/2019/09/dear-mothers-we-cant-keep-pretending-this-is-working-for-us/ This blew the top off my head. […]
[…] love all the articles on social media that remind us of the mental load of mother’s work (and yes it’s quite gendered […]
First, it takes courage to share your ideas with the world. Thank you for putting yourself out there.
This list of ten actionable steps is spot on. Cut that toxicity every chance we get!
Oppression, though. Having a child is a choice (fulfilled only for some). Yes, many of us get in over our heads, have difficulty of varying degrees, and do experience the weight of others’ expectations for motherhood. (I struggled hard myself). These difficulties are not exclusive to motherhood, though. Aside from the glaring issues with insufficient parental leave and adequate early childcare for most of us in our country, we get what we sign on for with child rearing. It’s hard, yes. But oppressive? No. In short- “Oppressive” is a word that should be reserved for those in situations they did not choose. With motherhood, we are in control of our choices. That includes the choice to have children (if you are able), how many children we have (should we be so lucky), what opinions and expectations from others we believe true for ourselves, etc. etc.. These are choices we’ve made- we don’t get to call it oppression.
This is the most soul-soothing article I’ve read in a long time. You’ve articulated what I feel every single day…that no matter how hard I try (and I could not be trying harder), I will never make up for my culture’s huge deficits. Lying in bed right now feeling shit about a tough day with my kids and your article made me feel less alone. You nailed it. Thankyou!!!
[…] Beth’s essay, Dear Mothers: We Can’t Keep Pretending This Is Working for Us […]
Yes a million times!!! Thank you for your courage to write the truth.
[…] Your anger is essential. It’s evidence that you care, that your boundaries are being crossed, that something you’re witnessing or experiencing is unjust or toxic or damaging. (It’s also sometimes evidence of woundedness and unhealed trauma, which require extra tenderness and, sometimes, professional support to move through effectively). Finding healthy outlets for your anger allows it to become one of your greatest allies instead of your greatest saboteur. Feeling our anger as mothers and learning to channel it wisely is a much greater gift to the world than repressing it or pretending everything’s fine. […]
Best article I have read in a long time! Really resonates and so succinctly put! Thank you!
Thank you, Ash! I’m really glad it resonated with you! 🙂
The biggest issue is that women lie about it themselves and portray motherhood an some garden of Eden that everyone can do as well as them. Social media promotes that. And everyone does alone in their home of a huge feeling of not being able to keep up with those perfect parents.
If people were honest to each other we’d be far more supportive. But they all have to pretend they’re all coping fantastically and it’s the most amazing experience ever. People need to wake up and be real.
This is the biggest truth bomb that needs to implode on our unconscious society, until it wakes everyone up from their induced sleep and shakes them to their core.
I feel this alarming truth intensely burning in my veins ever since I began my journey into motherhood.
The red flags were there from when I first became pregnant and suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum. (Undiagnosed and barely treated, despite frequent visit to my doctor and obstetrician.)
I begged for help and support and was constantly met with a blase, ‘oh well’ attitude, and an implication that it’s not really that bad and to just deal with it yourself.
I half expected this from the males (had hoped for better) but from the females in my village…that was a tough blow to take, in such a vunerable state.
The patrichary may have intiated, lit and fuelled this toxic fire, but to realise that the only reason that this is truly alive and well in our society today, is because the majority of the matriarchy are fanning and reinforcing the oppression and gaslighting they experienced (whether conciously know it or not)…is absolutely dumbfounding.
I’m not sure if it’s because they had it tough and therefore believe we should tough it out and struggle on our own too. Or because they aren’t willing to “give up” their current circumstances of “well-earnt freedom”, in order actively and continuously support us through this unfairly difficult time.
The matriachy has a significant impact on changing this narrative for us by supporting us in the ways they were never supported.
This can vastly fast track our generation’s concious revolution to shift away from these toxic patterns and claim our true power and honoured place in society, rather than remaining the submissive victim, who may end up defending the patriarchal mould.
This unfortunately sentences our daughters to that uncesscessary cycle of trauma and abuse, instead of conciously providing them with an unburdened experience of motherhood, surrounded by a most lovingly, supportive matriarchy.
Imagine what that generation of children would look like, being born and raised in a progressive and supportive society that truly values and honours women and the motherhood journey? Probably a world that doesn’t need saving from itself…
Thank you so much for so truthfully and accurately articulating this heart-felt matter for us, so that we finally feel heard, seen and able to spread and share this message of awakening with others.