Start Talking, The Village, Obligatory Motherhood, Perfection

With full acknowledgement of many potential inherent contradictions contained here, I have always bridled at the notion that parenthood—and perhaps, because it’s more often treated this way, motherhood—is a job. Contradictions arise before the sentence has a period, I know, because raising a child involves so much labor some say it takes an entire village for goodness sake.

I bridle at the idea of job or work—and don’t get me started upon the notion of motherhood as career—because all those ideas, it seems to me, focus upon two things that perhaps miss what’s—again, for me—the point: 1) I believe the central concept to families, to parenting for sure, is relationship and 2) it strikes me that the way professional and parenting go together often places emphasis on the parent’s astonishing skill set rather than the give-and-take between parent and child.

Wrestling with this has come up for me recently from disparate places.

As a longtime reproductive rights advocate and supporter of abortion rights, there’s an unsettling apologetic tone that so often surrounds abortion, along with emphatic assertion that abortion is not birth control. I stand by every child a wanted child. We tend to lump preparedness and want together and sprinkle in an assumption that once ready, desire will and should follow. Preparedness in this case means being able to manage parenthood logistically and financially. Society should support this definition of preparedness far, far better than it currently does.

Let’s go a step further. If we were making a more parent-friendly world, shouldn’t we also be careful not to assume that parenthood at the right moment is the best for every single person (read here, woman)? Can’t our larger vision for people (read here, women) hold not as a less-great-than motherhood option not becoming a mother? Because that’s what supporting reproductive justice would be all about, right?

When I write, as a very engaged mother to four about abortion rights, I worry about a pro-parenthood bias coming through, one that I do not actually support. Although I am beyond delighted and grateful to be a parent, I don’t believe parenthood is an experience every adult must aspire to have.

I also approach my writing (that’d be my work) with a keen sense that I write about parenthood a lot and I’ve set up my work life with more than a passing nod to my parental priorities and responsibilities. I have a great deal of flexibility doing the work I do. I can pretty much pick my kids up at school, or make it to the event in school during the day, or alter my routine in order to care for the fourteen year-old who was home sick this week, as needed (he hasn’t needed much, and I am, frankly, a lousy nurse). In that light, I found myself especially intrigued by Julia Baird’s piece in Newsweek recently, in which she argued that we—mothers—have raised the bar too high, and it hasn’t made for better adjusted children nor happier parents.

First off, I read her essay right after I backed out of a field trip in order to attend a meeting for my work. Two things happened: 1) I got to go to a meeting that I wanted to attend, 2) the nearly twelve year-old heard me thank him for his flexibility. Regardless of whether he wanted to be flexible, he was praised for that pretty critical quality.

Baird’s words echoed that much more loudly to me these days, as I’ve been conducting a mini self-study in design blogs, although I am about as un-crafty as a person comes and live in a chaotic, messy, decidedly not design blog-worthy house. As I look—and look more—at the efforts toward a sort of professionalization of home, and homes with children, I find myself a teeny-tiny bit dumbfounded at what seems a kind of idealized perfectionism guiding many of these design-y parent-y pictorials. It is very pretty, indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I’m actually in awe at whipping up a tutu or having color-coded bins for toys to land in the right ones. Sometimes, I yearn for order and other times, I’m pretty content with my kids’ rag-tag-iness.


Look, we cannot say we fully support reproductive freedom if becoming a mother is considered an ideal and an obligation for women—and if not doing this is somehow, always, good for a raised eyebrow (need an example? Look no further than press about Elena Kagan). We really cannot believe that idealized iterations of motherhood, ones documented by soft-edged prints or guided by a set of values like attachment parenting can or should speak to everyone. We must question models of parenthood that demand all our time and energies and resources (and even resources beyond ones almost all people could ever dream to have! Part of why the intensive focus on celebrity parents is so very disturbing is that no one needs J-Lo’s children’s six-figure nursery, not even J-Lo’s children.).

It’s not that we should neglect or shun our children (benign neglect, in my opinion, is a very good thing, yet so is attentiveness; there’s room to aspire to both). I question whether the conversations these days are the right ones. I’m not even sure how, but I think we should start talking.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for our daily newsletter!

You don't want to be left out, do you?

Sign up!

You have Successfully Subscribed!