Last night my friend Moriah tagged me in a Tumblr post about not demonizing women who want to have families, with the following comment:
because I like to hear you rant… I’m tagging you in case you have Thoughts™. 😉
I kind of love that having Thoughts™ on subjects like this is something that I’m known for. My response ended up becoming a bit of an essay, and it seemed to hit a chord with a couple of friends and my writing group, so I thought it warranted posting publicly.
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The crux of the original post was that women who chose to get married and have children—especially in their early twenties—are often judged harshly by their peers who are focusing on their careers. That these women are made to feel that they’ve failed at being feminists because they’ve chosen a more traditional route, even when the emphasis is on the fact that they’ve actively chosen this life. Personally, I don’t think I received a lot of flak for getting married at 20 and having a child at 22, but this is most likely because I spent a lot of time in Christian circles at the time, and marrying young is definitely more common in that culture.
I know a lot of women who have proclaimed that all they want in life is to get married and have a family, and at one point, I was one of those women. I’m not entirely sure how I found myself saying those words, as I’ve been writing “novels” since I was six years old. Getting married and having children isn’t something I actually thought all that much about until I was older. I never expected that I’d get married while I was still at university, but it happened, and I found myself falling into the lie of believing that I was “called” to be a wife and mother, above everything else. It kind of makes sense in retrospect—I’d never been interested in a traditional career, one that put me behind a desk from 9-5 every weekday and actually paid a living wage—but having come out the other side of this period of my life, I can see how this line of thinking was actually pretty toxic.
While I entirely agree with the sentiment in the original post about not judging women who chose to marry and have children in their early twenties, or just women who don’t have any desire for a standard (read: corporate) career, I feel pretty conflicted about the rhetoric of “but what if some women just want to be wives and mothers and nothing else?” I could de-gender this statement, but I honestly haven’t heard any men say that they only want to be husbands and fathers. Even my dad, who was a stay-at-home parent way back in 1991, had hobbies he worked on when my brother and I weren’t demanding all of his attention. He occasionally made money off these interests, but the crux of it was—he had stuff he did outside of being a dad, and that was an integral part of his identity.
It seems incredibly healthy to have interests and hobbies and just stuff that you do that isn’t related to the people in your life. Whether you’re male or female, married or single, childless or a parent, you need to be fulfilled by something other than relationships with other humans, otherwise you’re going to be incredibly disappointed, because people are flawed and screw up and disappoint you. Even the ones you love. Even the ones you gave birth to. Again, I think this is an issue that particularly pertains to women. Stay-at-home dads are frequently praised and kind of given superhero status, and no one is going to sneer at them for having a hobby that doesn’t relate to their kids, or for wanting one evening every week where they can skip bedtime so they can participate in some activity or just go to the pub. The same cannot be said for women, especially when their children are babies or toddlers. And truthfully? It’s often other women judging the mothers who carve out time for themselves, away from their children.
I absolutely do not think that every woman (or person, for that matter) should be pushed to have a career, or earn money, or even go to university. The fact that we have the right to do all of these things doesn’t mean that we all have to do them. I do think that it’s incredibly important to just have some hobbies or things you’re passionate about. Scrapbooking! Airfix Models! Tennis! Gardening! Amateur Radio! Literally anything that interests you and gives you a sense of fulfilment. Becoming a parent might even ignite in you a passion that you’re able to continue once your child has left home—I know many mothers of older children who are still breastfeeding counsellors with La Leche League. Just…find something you’re passionate about that isn’t reliant on pleasing other people. Because people can fail you. And pinning your entire life’s purpose on being a wife and mother can come crashing down if you aren’t able to actually become a wife and mother, or those roles look entirely different from how you imagined.
I hit fertility problems after my first child was born, and suddenly my entire life-plan of having 3+ children and having them all close together and staying at home to homeschool them entirely collapsed. It affected my mental health really badly, as I wasn’t able to live up to the my/society’s standard of what motherhood looked like, and since that was what I was basing my worth on, everything just imploded. I had reduced my entire personhood to Rachel the Mother, and I’d forgotten who I was outside of that. It took me a while to figure out who Rachel the Human was, and fall back on the hobbies I used to be interested in before I became a parent. Writing helped me to figure out who I was outside of being a mother, and it’s something that I can continually work at and improve on. Having more kids? That’s not something I can just “try harder” and get better at, in spite of the insane amount of fertility charting I conducted. Every month that I didn’t get pregnant, it felt like I was failing at achieving the idea of motherhood that I’d been presented with.
It took me a while to accept that my experience as a mother to one child was just as valid as that of a mother of three or five or nine children. That just because I didn’t have that joyous messy image of mothering multiple tiny children at once—as is presented in so many Christian memoirs and self-help books—it didn’t mean I was any less of a mother. For now, I have one child, and he’s growing up incredibly quickly and becoming less reliant on me by the day. In this season of him becoming more independent while my friends are having their second, third and fourth children, I’m finding it incredibly helpful to have other interests. It’s ended up being an entirely essential form of self-care, and I think think having interests outside of mothering would still be pretty important even if I did have more than one child.
There are many, many days where I feel like I’m utterly failing at being a good mother, and it’s so encouraging to have something else I can focus on that I know I can do well. For me, it’s writing, but for other stay-at-home parents it could be something as simple as baking a cake or knitting a scarf or getting out of the house to play a board game with friends. Literally, just, having a hobby. It’s not something stay-at-home parents should need to fight for the right to have, but in a society that wants mothers to forget their own needs and martyr themselves on the altar of perfect motherhood, we often forget that we need to do something unrelated to our families.
[As a side-note, I want to call out the phrase “good mother”, even though I just used it. I don’t want to label anyone, even myself, as a good or bad mother, but it happens almost unintentionally when we claim that being a mother is our “job”. We’ve established that it’s an entirely valid life choice to not want to have a career outside the home, and that raising a family can be a full-time job, but if we view it in that light, we can fall into the trap of measuring how “good” we are at parenting. After all, you can be a good writer, a good programmer, a good chef—but if your job title is wife or mother, measuring those roles in this way feels super problematic. Let’s just not do it.]
Honestly, if we don’t tell men that they should feel entirely fulfilled by their relationships to their wives and children, we shouldn’t have the same expectation for women. It’s okay—nay, incredibly healthy—to have something else you enjoy, besides caring for your family.
So, yes, support women who choose to get married and have a family, who don’t get married but still have children, who get married but don’t have children, or who stay single and have no desire to ever have children. ALL of these options are valid. But whatever you’re doing with your life, don’t fall into the trap of basing your entire self-worth off your relationships with other people. Being a wife or mother can be incredibly fulfilling, but it isn’t the only thing that defines you, and it’s entirely normal and healthy to need time to do something, anything else.
I’m Rachel the Wife and Rachel the Mother, but I’m also so many other things. I’m a feminist, an anarchist, a romance novelist, and a book reviewer. I’m sometimes an editor, an historian, and a bit of a goth. I listen to a lot of metal and play board games. If I could make time for it, I’d love to do more non-written art. I can’t find the words to accurately describe what I believe spiritually, but I’m working on that, and I’m always up for talking about it. I bake on a regular basis, but mostly out of habit and so that I can listen to podcasts and audiobooks undisturbed. I do know a lot about breastfeeding and babywearing and cloth nappies, so feel free to hit me up about those things, but on any given day I’d much rather discuss toxic masculinity than my favourite kind of sling. I have too many descriptors to fit into a Twitter bio, and it feels rather liberating.