The Myth of Motherhood, otherwise known as, How to be a Quintessential Mess

I ran into a friend yesterday. We don’t see each other very often. We both have these insane lives filled with jobs, kids, partners, drama, passion, boredom, boogers, and occasional body secretions our mothers curiously forgot to warn us about when we dreamed of having kids.  But we have this funny reoccurring meeting place: summer camp.

We don’t see each other all year and then out of the blue there we are hugging and laughing at the fact that in a city of over a million people we’ve registered our kids in the same summer camp in the same week, again, completely unplanned and unscripted. Every time I see her I remember what kind of woman I always hoped to be: smart, elegant, classy, thoughtful, accomplished and absolutely beautiful (yes, she is real! She is not my imaginary friend!) And every time I see her I’m excited to catch up on what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. And then invariably, like most mom’s, even smart, accomplished, thoughtful, gorgeous ones (her, not me, I can barely dress myself!) our conversation turns to kids.

Her youngest is four and in his first year of camp. Those are glorious and terrifying days when your children are finally old enough to go to pre-school or kindergarten or camp, in fact, any activity that doesn’t have them stuck to you like a wad of Bucky Balls to the fridge, and I commented on it.  She breathed out that praise-the-Lord-I-finally-have-10-minutes-to-myself breath and said sheepishly, “Yes. It is. Ya know, I kinda found out, I’m not really a baby person. I didn’t really love when they were little.” Then she paused and looked at me from under her naturally lush eyelashes and said,  “But I shouldn’t say that to you….you’re the quintessential Mom.”

Wait. Stop. Just wait. Queue screeching car tires a la Dukes of Hazard.

Quintessential mom? Me? No, no, no, no, no.

No.

Not really at all. Nope. Not at all. I’m not that woman and I’m not that mother, but it wasn’t that that made my tires squeal. It was this beautiful, accomplished, amazing woman looking at me, concerned that I’d judge her, that really hit me squarely in the uterus.

I know that for many, many women motherhood is a spectacular, life-enriching endeavor. One that fulfills them and makes them truly happy. They make it look easy and beautiful: through tantrums and teenagers, through poop and puberty.

I am not one of them. I’m one of those women who makes motherhood look hard, and messy, and entirely unkempt (you’d recognize me: the one in pharmacy line up with the tube of Yeast Infection cream, the red wine stain on my shirt, just over my left boob, the smell of gin on my breath, and the cart full of frozen french fries and cheese string).

I came to this understanding about myself rather ungraciously, and I fought the knowledge for years (which incidentally, the fighting-self-knowledge part, I’m convinced is the real reason for stretch marks). I grew up, like many little girls with the insidious belief that my life would be full and complete when I found a partner (a male partner to be exact), got married, and had children. I couldn’t have been older than 9 when I started choosing names for my future kids, or writing my first name with the last name of some cute boy in my class, or planning my wedding, or deciding how I’d decorate my first family home.

I didn’t even have pubic hair and my entire future happiness hinged on this glorious family life I planned and carefully constructed.

Then, I had what I spent my entire life dreaming of. I had a husband, three beautiful preschoolers, a nice home, and the financial option to be a stay-at-home mom: in essence, I had the life I believed was perfect. The only snag? I was hanging on by my broken, tatty fingernails (and shocking cuticles).

I wasn’t happy. I had a lovely life but I wasn’t so lovely. I was frustrated, snappish, tired, and overwhelmed. I loved my kids like the sea loves the sand, but I was miserable. I believed for years that something was wrong with me. Really, really wrong with me.

It turns out, there was nothing wrong with me exactly (actually there’s plenty wrong with me but I’ll save those tidbits for other blogs, shall I?), though it took the collapse of that marriage, years as a hungry, tired, absolutely flat broke single parent, and the ensuing fall-out to teach me that it wasn’t me, it was us.

All of us.

Especially us women. We have a secret language, we women, one that carefully rewrites and revises the truth about motherhood.

The Vatican Library (not unlike the motherhood vaults)

And our secret language comes from our secret club where we store all the dirty little secrets in a vault and demand silence from our members. We may laugh or sigh or commiserate at the stories of diaper rash days or throwing up nights, but we don’t allow each other to say the really troubling things in our hearts. Things like, “I’m not really a baby person” or “I really hate being pregnant” or “If I hear one more person tell me they’re bored, or I make one more pot of macaroni I’m going to stuff the little buggers in the coat closet and hoof it to Mexico where I’ll live on the beach with my Latin lover eating crab and sipping tequila all day!”

The truth is we don’t tell each other the truth. The truth about how devastating it can be to become someone else’s everything.

The truth about how unfulfilling it can be to stay home day after day changing diapers and wiping bums. The truth about how tedious it is to make supper and wash floors and clean toilets. The truth about how lonely and hard and emotionally challenging and intellectually depleting it can be to be a mom. And we certainly don’t tell young women and girls these truths. We perpetuate the myth of motherhood: the myth that says we aren’t complete or whole women without children, and so another generation of girls are brought up believing that their lives will only be complete when, not if, they have a husband and a baby.

But, and here is my fervent hope, we can unlock the vault and start being honest. We can start telling each other it’s okay to not love the baby stage: that it doesn’t make you a bad mother. Just another entirely human mom, loving her kids and struggling with them at the same time. We can start by listening to each other and hearing the frustration, anguish and loneliness, and instead of reacting with judgement because we’re afraid of those feelings in ourselves, acknowledge them and expose them to the light so we can learn to support each other through this gorgeous, filthy, joyous, overwhelming, exhausting endeavor called motherhood.

So let’s rewrite the myth to allow for motherhood to be everything it is: fulfilling as well as not nearly enough to make a whole woman, wonderful as well as devastatingly hard, joyous as well as heart-shattering, uplifting as well as endlessly challenging.

Let’s blow the doors off the Motherhood Club House and invite in all the amazing, brilliant, exhausted, fed-up, frustrated, elated, angry, thrilled, resentful, less than perfect moms. We can use one of my own Mom’s phrases for our motto: “Motherhood is a life joy, a life challenge, a life pleasure, and a life sentence.” 

But damn! I have to run….my 10-year old daughter just dared my 12-year old son to swallow 27 Buckyballs, so this quintessentially harried mother is off to emerg! Just another day in paradise.

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