On maternal instincts and the matriarchy.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here. I am also a holistic personal development coach. You can learn more about working with me here.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about remothering yourself — what it means, what it looks like, why it’s important, and how you can do it. It got me thinking a lot on where I stand on my own version of mothering — and my current thoughts on if I will ever have children of my own.
This is the truth: I had genuinely never thought about having children, or even asked myself if it was something I wanted. It was just something I… assumed would probably happen. Like sort of how abstractly you know that your hair will turn gray one day. It’s just a fact of life and rarely do you get asked your opinion on it. Rarely did I ask myself my own opinion on it.
It’s only been the last few years that I’ve been thinking long and hard about what mothering will look like for me.
And it’s confusing. Because I have POWERFUL MATERNAL INSTINCTS! Like… I’m the mother hen at work. There is no question in my mind I would throw myself out of a window if it meant it would make the lives of my niece and nephews even a little bit easier. I don’t like this term necessarily, but I have a LOT of protective mama bear in me. And I’m genuinely fabulous with children of all ages — I love them and they love me. I see so much beauty and possibility and vulnerability in new and small souls, and I adore being around them.
I am starting to wonder if my maternal instincts exist for a different purpose in this world — for the healing and empowerment of others. Whatever my path, I know I want do want to continue to mother. And I think, in a lot of ways, I already do mother. If mothering means help guiding, healing, reflecting, accepting, loving. I do it for my clients; my employees; my friends; my sister. Myself.
Mothering, I’m good at. And I think if we want to grow and heal as a society, mothering — whether biologically, traditionally, or in other ways, is going to have to take front and center, for and by all of us. We have a lot of work to do on who we are and how we care for one another.
I also think it is critical to support mothers and those who want to have children in this society, not least because it’s a hyper-feminist issue. So it’s very important to me to understand, even if I’ll never have kids of my own, what mothers in this society are actually going through so that we can support them and eventually create the matriarchal society of my dreams. Because even if you are childless, dislike children, never want to have them: inevitably a large percentage of women will. So to support women, I believe we should support mothering and work as hard as we can to understand the perspective of mothers.
Because I was curious for the reasons above about what maternal instincts and motherhood has mean to people I know and love, I asked a few friends who are moms to share a little bit about what being a mother means to them. These four (Lian, Jessica, Julie and Lauren) are my closest friends from middle school, which means we’ve known each other all for 25+ years and yes, we are thisclose to having our bodies crumble into dust. Two live in Virginia; two in Silicon Valley. Two are Asian-American; two are white. Two had their first baby at age 38; two started in their early 30s and now have three children each. Two went back to work; two stayed at home for at least part or almost all of their motherhood so far. Most critically, all four have been peed and vomited on by their children on the regular.
In particular, if you don’t want to read all of the below (I acknowledge it’s a lot; they just had such good insights), I encourage you to at least jump to the section where Julie and Lauren talk about parenting and raising boys in today’s society. Their thoughtfulness and the work it must take to think the way they do has blown me away.
Here are a couple of snippets from our discussions below. But first, want to know what else I’ll be writing about in coming weeks?
- The moral imperative of getting in touch with yourself and your intuition
- Reframing rejection
- Tips on the process of turning fears into desires
- Why optimism can be toxic
- And lots more
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How did you feel about gaining the title of “mom”?
Lian: I think I still haven’t quite come to terms with this. While I love my baby tremendously and can’t imagine my life without him, I think a part of me is still trying to keep everything the same as before. I still try to go as hard (if not harder) on my career, travel as much as I did before, keep up with my friends as much as before, keep my home in order and as tidy as before. It’s exhausting and I’m still trying to work out what compromises feel ok to make.
Jessica: I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome my whole life so it was no surprise to me that that familiar friend came back this time. However, this time instead of actually being 120% qualified as was often the case with work or school, I KNEW factually I wasn’t qualified. There was no certification or internship beforehand. I obviously have a mother and have mom friends but drinking wine and making wine are very different skills. Luckily, the answer to both career- or motherhood-based imposter syndrome is the same — just get on with it and it’ll work itself out.
Lauren: When I went back to school to get my teaching credential, I used to tell people I was “going to teach” but never that I was going to “be a teacher” because I felt silly calling myself a teacher. Then, I started teaching and it was such an all-in experience that the label “teacher” quickly came to feel like a fact. I think it was probably the same with “Mom” though I don’t truly remember. Just recently, I’ve started to realize that I can feel maternal towards college students! That is pretty disconcerting!…At some level, I also think I’m the same person I was in college. I’ve also started to realize that there are classic things kids do and classic things parents do..and I can remember being on the kid side, but now, somehow, I’m on the parent-side of things (“Why can’t I have cake for breakfast, etc.”) It’s weird to think that my children can’t truly comprehend that I was once a kid too!
How did becoming a mom change your relationship with your own mother?
Lian: This one was real interesting for me. In my 20s and 30s, I kept my parents at arms length so I could develop an independent identity and sense of self. Pretty quickly after having my baby (maybe a month or two), I became so grateful for a closer relationship with my parents. This is both on a practical level (they come over several times a week to babysit or just hang out with their grandchild), but also on an emotional level. It’s been great getting to know each other again, and instead of a parent/child relationship, there’s an added dimension of us as a team/peers (which I’ve always wanted). One quick add: we sent my parents to “grandparents class.” I’ve heard some grandparents taking offense that they need to re-learn how to care for an infant, but a lot has changed in 40 years. It also was helpful for a neutral third-party to outline healthy boundary setting: i.e. it’s not your kid so keep your mouth shut and let the parents decide how they want to raise their kid.
Julie: This is hard, I’ve never really thought about it before. I guess the boring but true answer is that I certainly appreciate her more and how she always seemed in control and calm and able to handle anything. I had hoped that I’d be able to ask her questions and get some amazing sage advice but I think she suffers from some major mom amnesia. Another change is that I feel more assertive in my interactions with both my parents. I never really went through much of a rebellious phase so becoming a parent really hit home the idea that my folks are human too. They make mistakes but also the way they do/did things is not always the best way for me and my family, our discussions are more as equals than they ever have been before.
Lauren: Hmmmm, during early adulthood we did things like have conversations or do an activity “just for fun.” Now, when my parents come over, it’s more like, “ great to see you — will you watch the kids while I go do x/y/z without them?”. Then we’re not even really spending time together. When we are together, conversations are often fragmented or censored on account of the kids.
How did becoming a mom change your relationship with your partner?
Lian: Someone put the “why” of having children to me very beautifully: having a child together expands the love between you and your partner. It’s not a zero-sum game; I now love my husband even more as my partner and as a father. But I’m not going to lie; it takes a tremendous amount of work to not get annoyed at each other, not take each other for granted, and/or to take time to nurture our own relationship. We go to couples therapy on a regular basis, even when things are going well. Having a child fundamentally changes your relationship with your partner (for good and bad), and it took us several months to adequately recognize that.
Jessica: It added a new dimension. With romantic or friendship based love, the concept is that independent beings made a choice to come together. But familial love (at least to me) just unquestionably exists. So now we’re not so much a coalition that was formed but instead a team for the ages. Our team also probably spends way too much time discussing the team’s bodily functions.
Julie: The two of us are almost always on the same page with how to raise the kids so there hasn’t been really added strife aside from what you might expect from two people living in the same house who haven’t had a full night’s sleep in 5 months. There’s a certain level of comfort when you move in with someone and share a room and bed every night, and then there is a certain level of oneness of action and thought reached when your child climbs into that same bed and quietly announces “I feel like I’m going to throw up”. The shared all-consuming purpose and love of your kids can bring two people together like nothing else.
All four of you have boys. Can you talk about how or if you plan on raising your boys to be men in this world, and where or if you think society has been falling short on that front?
Julie (two boys, one girl): Raising children who by default believe in the equality (not sameness) of boys and girls is very important to me. From a biological perspective males and females are different, this is undeniable. The importance for me is teaching where the biological differences end and the cultural differences begin. This is a fuzzy grey area that is constantly being updated. Having a husband who is on the same page (he does consider himself a feminist) and probably even more aware of the need to fight for this in our children makes this struggle a million times smoother. As it is, I feel like it is a constant battle. I struggle against nearly anyone in our parents’ generation that interacts with my children, I struggle against many parents in my own generation, I struggle against certain media geared towards children (ugh the constant pink bombardment of girls), I struggle against my own cultural indoctrination, but most of all, once my oldest entered elementary school, I struggle against his peers. As far as I can tell humans have an innate need to categorize the world around us, and one of the most fundamental ways is to categorize into male and female. In early elementary years, I believe this need is especially strong. My goal is not to fight against categorizing in general but in molding those categories into something that will help him grow into an adult who can recognize cultural constructs for what they are and treat people according to his own moral compass. My three key methods are discussion, questioning, and modeling. We discuss these things with him when we can in a way that he can understand. We question his statements in a way that we hope makes him think. We model correct behavior in our home. I do not attempt to alter the way other people view the world, it is not something that can be done in a grocery store checkout line, making reactive comments no matter how well intentioned can so often offend and create conflict in a situation that I feel is not appropriate. I do however use them as teaching moments as much as possible.
Lauren (two boys, one girl): Luckily my kids have a dad and family friends who model non-toxic masculinity. Also, we found preschool and daycare communities that were mindful not to reinforce or impose gender stereotypes. Because my kids are still young, modeling has been our primary tool. The fact that we give our kids very little media exposure probably helps too at insulating them from gender stereotypes. Also, the fact that we rarely take them to toy or clothing stores. Last week, I heard my 7 yo say to his brother “You like pink? Pink is boring.” This was the first time I had seen evidence of him consciously encountering a gender role. I imagine there will be more to come in the near future and that we will have to become more explicit and deliberate in the coming years. My boys have many stereotypic boy interests (balls, construction vehicles, roughhousing, sports, battles). These are clearly intrinsic interests for them that manifested during toddlerhood. However, I don’t think they believe these are “boy” interests. Perhaps this is because they have lived pretty sheltered lives, so far. My boys have known several male peers who wore rainbow colors, tutus, etc. We rarely take our kids to stores other than the grocery store, but when we recently did, I realized how much preschool boys also like rainbows, sparkly cats, etc. (And I guess realized that we don’t naturally bring those things into our house. Girlish things are more likely to seemed gendered than boyish things, which sometimes just seem normal. I probably wouldn’t instinctively buy those things for my girl, either). I do make a point of reading stories and biographies that have female protagonists. In general, both my boys have gravitated to playing with other boys — but at the moment, they each have a female best friend. Up until now, I think modeling and acceptance (combined with sheltering) have, appropriately, been our primary tools. I think we’re going to have to be more explicit and deliberate in the coming years, though. (My preschooler did say something about boys driving trucks recently, and I told him otherwise, both on principle and with examples from his own life. I’m sure they are taking in impressions that they don’t always express. Still, for the young ones I think modeling seems generally reasonable as compared to explicitly teaching things unless it arises. When my preschooler talked about someday having a baby in his tummy (or when the other said he was going to grow up to be a “pumper man who gave milk to the babies in the hospital”) I didn’t correct them. Partly, this was because it was cute and I knew they’d learn eventually, but also, because I knew they would have been so disappointed at that point. Might as well give them practice role-playing nurture. We also let the boys express their emotions. I’ve read that beginning at age 6, boys face pressure not to cry, but only to show anger. My focus is on letting people be who they are, without judging them. My husband and I live out some gender stereotypes that I wouldn’t have foreseen when I was younger (ex: he usually drives if we are all together, he is the handyman, he is the breadwinner). I could let myself feel bad about this, but I remind myself that the goal isn’t to force women to do stereotypically male things, it’s simply to open up space for choice…..On a related note, when I was the mother of just two boys, I’m sure it never crossed my mind to use the word ‘girly’ but since my daughter was born, I’ve caught myself saying in front of the boys that I don’t want to buy such and such because it is too “girly.” I realize that that is counterproductive. Trying to rescue my daughter from girliness implicitly sends the wrong message to all my kids. While I don’t consciously spend a lot of time teaching them not to sexually assault someone in the future, but some things we do do are: give the kids space to work things out with each other (ex: is this too rough? is this fair?) and with friends so they can learn to read each other’s feelings, not just rely on someone else policing their interactions. (Not too long ago, I remember some older neighbors laughing when I yelled “Does he like that?” instead of “Stop!” in a moment when I thought an intervention might be needed). When my boys need help resolving a conflict, I go back and forth letting them state their perspectives and reiterating them in ways to help them be better able to put themselves in the other’s shoes and realize the impact of their actions. However, when the boys are rough-housing, it’s understood that if one of them says “off” or “stop,” those are magic words to be obeyed immediately. I caught myself saying “No means no” the other day when a brother wanted to hug baby sister, but she wasn’t in the mood. I try to respect it, too, when they aren’t in the mood for a hug or kiss — though that can be hard sometimes :)
Finally, a “mom fail” from Jess (who has a new baby) that had me in hysterics: [My mom fail is] changing his diaper and having him cry and pee like an out of control water hose all over the room. Then the stream arches just so to hit directly into his tiny crying mouth. You look at your dirty, wet child who is now screaming because he’s drinking his own pee and think “Wow. There’s a lot here that could be improved.”
Thanks to my dear friends for sharing. As I strive to better understand parents and how I and this society can support them, while maintaining my own independence and boundaries around the fact I believe what I do in this society is just as important even if I don’t parent, true and wonderful conversations with friends are what takes me forward.