Motherhood is complicated. It's wonderful and hard and fulfilling and soul-crushing and inspiring and monotonous and very often it's all those things at once. It's difficult to capture it in words — I know, I do it for a living — but some people just profoundly miss the mark. Some motherhood platitudes need to die in a fire and (spoilers that should come as a shock to precisely no one) they're largely based on really sexist ideas of women and motherhood.
What inspired this meditation? A couple days ago on Twitter, user @jennyha_yes discovered some "inspirational" art. "This is some of the bleakest sh*t I have ever seen," she mused, and below that extremely accurate commentary was a picture of a lily in a frame with the quote: "Once you become a mother, you stop becoming the picture and start becoming the frame."
At first I thought it was a joke but, no, apparently this is a real quote that a real human thought was a real sweet thing to say. Fortunately, most of the responses I saw (rightly) read this nonsense as filth. But you know enough people thought this was somehow appropriate and not horrifying, so much so that at least one person put that quote in a frame (which feels weirdly meta)?
Make no mistake, this is a creepy AF thing to say, at least if you're trying to say it in a way that puts forth this idea as somehow inspiring. And guys, so much of "inspirational" motherhood is just like this. Let's take a look:
"Once You Become A Mother, You Stop Becoming The Picture & Start Becoming The Frame"
(I know I talked about it above but this really deserves deeper study.)
Ah, yes. Situating yourself on the periphery of your own life is absolutely healthy and good and won't at all be especially awful once your kids are out of the house and you discover that you have no identity outside of their lives. I'll bet they won't resent your emotional dependence on them (or the emotional dependence you nurture in them), either. That's definitely not at all a ton of pressure to put on your children. And it certainly won't make them entitled monsters.
"I Gave You Life But, Really, You Gave Me Mine"
Yes. The moment an infant slithered out of my uterus I went from an unformed lump of drab-looking clay to an ethereal, enlightened being. The 28 years I lived my life before I had my first child I was without hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. I was basically sitting patiently in a chair, hands crossed on my lap, waiting for my life to begin. Literally, you guys, the only defining characteristic I possess is the fact that I'm a mother.
"Only Mothers Can Think Of The Future, Because They Give Birth To It In Their Children"
Really? Only mothers? No one else is capable of caring about anything other than their immediate situation? You have to give birth to someone in order to want better for humanity? So, in essence, what you're telling me is that unless you're a mother at best you lack foresight or object permanence and at worst you're a complete garbage person with total disregard for human life?
"A Baby Fills A Place In Your Heart You Never Knew Was Empty"
OK. Imma stop you right there. Because you know who I bet realizes there's an empty place in their heart? People who desperately want a child but can't have them because they struggle with infertility. Also I'm going to quibble with the idea that my kids fulfilled me because my life was unwittingly incomplete before I had them. It wasn't. My life was effing great and well-rounded and delightful. And then I had kids and my life changed in some really wonderful ways that wouldn't have been possible without them. But it's not like I was incomplete without them. I'd be incomplete without them now that they exist, but I wasn't just sitting around waiting for them to happen to achieve "fulfilled woman" status.
"Being A Mother Is The Highest Paid Job In The World Because It's Paid In Pure Love"
Awesome! I can't wait to tell my mortgage lender that I'll be paying them in love from now on. I'll bet my credit card and grocery store, and other local retailers will be thrilled to be paid so handsomely.
Come on now, you guys.
I could delve into the idea that this encourages women to de-emphasize financial goals and, in return, professional ambitions, but, honestly my main issue with this is that it's corny as hell.
"Cherish Every Moment; You'll Miss This When It's Over"
Will I, Karen? Or have you just forgotten what a 3 a.m. tantrum looks like? I'm thinking you have a very rosy view of what it was like to raise children.
And hey, I'm going to give it to you: you have the perspective of someone who has been through more stages of motherhood than I have and, therefore, has a perspective I don't. So if you were to tell me something like, "It's hard now but when it's over you're going to remember the good things more than the bad things," I'd be like, "Yeah. I buy that." Because even now my kids are 5 and 7 and the positive memories I have of their infant and toddler years are stronger than the negative. But please, please, don't tell someone hanging on by an existential thread to cherish their crisis.
"A Son Is Your Son Until He Takes A Wife, But A Daughter's A Daughter The Rest Of Your Life"
Like... ... any interpretation of this is just so creepy. Because either you're saying that a mother and a son have a comparable relationship to that of a husband and wife (paging Dr. Freud) or you're suggesting that it's in the nature of being a wife to keep her husband from the family that raised him, which is... bizarre? And perpetuating the weird idea that all women are in competition with one another? And also what kind of emotional reliance are the women who believe this putting on their daughters. It's just all bad news (to say nothing of the fact that it perpetuates the idea that all relationships are heterosexual, but I digress).
Anything That Threatens A Child's Future Romantic Partner
Any t-shirt, wall-art, bumper sticker, or social media meme that unironically lists "Rules For Dating My Son/Daughter" needs to be struck down, set on fire, scattered to the four winds, and the Earth where it lands must be salted so that nothing may grow there henceforth.
Be better than threatening imaginary children in a sexist, possessive way like some sort of ranting weirdo.
“Birth Is The Epicenter Of Women’s Power”
This one, sadly, comes from feminist icon Ani DiFranco, though she is hardly the first or only person to express this sentiment. And I'm willing to cut some slack here because she said this more than a decade ago reflecting upon the birth of her child and, as anyone who's given birth can assure you, it's a profound experience and it's completely reasonable to find empowerment in it. But, sorry not sorry, the idea of female power being based in having a particular kind of body that can do a particular thing is yucky. (What about trans women? Infertile women? Women who have a lot of miscarriages? Are women who choose to be childfree just shirking their power?) And if birth is the epicenter of an individual person's power: awesome, I get it. I draw a lot of strength when I reflect on my birth experiences and my motherhood. But the epicenter of my power is and always has been the gooey electrical system in my skull. AKA, my brain.
Anything That Suggests Mothers Are *Oh So Happy* To Sacrifice All Of Themselves For Their Children
Will I sacrifice for my kids? Yeah. And I have. A lot. (Will I sacrifice everything? Like, I'd die for them, but I'd never give up my identity for them. Not if I can help it. In the long run I think that's actually better for them anyway.) Sacrificing any number of things for my children is something I do and, usually, I ain't even mad about it. But it's not like I looooove not traveling or seeing my friends as much. It's not like I gleefully fork over money that otherwise would have gone for something frivolous for me to pay for another semester of ballet lessons. Let's not act like sacrificing for my children is something I get off on.
"Motherhood Is A Woman's Highest Calling"
Blessed be the fruit, fellow handmaids! May the Lord open!
BRB. Vomiting forever.
Anything That Suggests Moms Are The Only Person In A Family Who Can Do Anything Right
There's certainly something to be said about the fact that it's often the mother in the family who is doing a lot of the visible and invisible labor that keeps the household running smoothly, but I think there's a danger in acting like it's some sort of natural gift she possesses instead of calling out the fact that this is trained dependence on one person, based primarily on their gender, who is doing more than should be expected of them.
Is mom the only person who can do these things? If so, how about instead of making a glib joke about it you get off your ass and learn how to help her?
"You Never Know Real Love Until You Become A Mother"
I feel genuinely sad for anyone who says and believes this. Did you seriously never feel love before you had kids? For your own parents? Siblings? Friends? Partner? Yes, the love a mother feels for her child is unique and powerful and unlike any other love you've felt before, but that doesn't make other kinds of love unimportant and certainly not non-existent. It doesn't make non-mothers shallow hags who just don't feel feelings like you, a mother, do. Let's not seek to erase love because we've somehow felt the need to make a contest of it.
The world needs more love, not less.