The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The upside of motherhood you don’t hear about

Parenting can be fulfilling, fascinating and actually a lot of fun. So why isn’t that discussed more often?

An illustration of a mother holding a baby in front of some flowers
(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)
7 min

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My work as a journalist has taken me around the world and allowed me to meet titans of industry, actors, academics and even a former president.

But by far the most interesting and educational job I’ve had is being a mom.

That parenting can be fulfilling, fascinating and actually a lot of fun isn’t discussed very often. There is an entire genre of books dedicated to the misery of motherhood, focused on how women are “screaming on the inside” and “why mommy drinks.” Plenty of women identify with this. I know a woman who has felt so overwhelmed by motherhood that she has, on more than one occasion, checked into a hotel to take a break from her family.

It’s true that society doesn’t give enough support to parents, particularly low-income parents who would benefit from free or subsidized day care, housing and food assistance. And data shows that the burdens of child care appear to be pushing more women out of the workforce: The number of mothers with preschool-age children who worked outside the home has steadily declined over the past three years, with the sharpest drops seen among Black and Hispanic mothers.

Clearly parents, and mothers in particular, need more support. But one way we can support them, particularly new parents who are anxious and uncertain about the job ahead, is to remind them that there are many upsides to parenting. The juggling of work and family is a daily challenge, but raising children can also feel empowering, create new opportunities and lead you to new relationships with people you would never have met if you hadn’t become a parent.

Motherhood doesn’t have to narrow your world — it can expand it.

“It’s like a daily science experiment,” said Amber Coleman-Mortley, a mother of three daughters, ages 12, 14 and 15, and a gender equality and education advocate. “You think: ‘What do I want to try today? Can I use reverse psychology? Can I find more carrots than sticks?’ To me it’s a very fun, challenging learning experience.”

“This is fundamental, essential work,” said Angela Garbes, mother of 5- and 8-year-old girls and author of “Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change.” “Mothering is an opportunity to shape the world we want. These children are the next generation of writers, politicians, neighbors and community leaders.”

The experiences of mothers around the world are vastly different. Women who work on factory floors, drive buses or work as caregivers for others often don’t have the luxury of flexible schedules and time off when a child is sick.

And my views of motherhood are influenced by my own privilege of having a flexible job and a network of other working moms who shared the burdens of parenting with me, such as carpooling to dance class and scheduling sleepovers when I needed to work late or travel. But I always wished I had extended family to help; my mother died when my daughter was 5.

One of my greatest worries as a new parent was that parenting would stunt my career. What I didn’t anticipate is that motherhood gave me focus, a North Star to help me set priorities. It introduced me to a new group of parents who offered not only support but networking opportunities and career advice. I ended up meeting my closest friends through my daughter — hard-working, interesting and supportive moms with diverse views of the world, none of whom I would have become acquainted with if she hadn’t befriended their children.

I also underestimated how much I would learn from my own child. Supporting kids through elementary and middle school is like taking a survey course in American history, geometry and science. As they grow up, your children give you insights into generational differences, pop culture and a refreshing new take on life experiences you once took for granted.

There’s also healing. Before my mom died, we talked about my own childhood and her love of my daughter. She felt guilty for some of the choices she had made as a mom, and I reassured her that as a grandmother, she was perfection.

Garbes said she understands why conversations around motherhood have taken a dark turn. Part of the problem is that women themselves have often been asked to solve the problems of motherhood. One example: Women are under tremendous social pressure to breastfeed for the health of their children. Increasing the rates of breastfeeding is a major public health concern, and yet women in the workplace often must fend for themselves to find a place to pump breast milk because employers don’t provide one.

“I think we’re focusing on the negative because we don’t have a social safety net in this country,” Garbes said. “A lot of women are like: ‘Wait a second. Why does this all come down to me?’ It’s a failure of structures.”

Coleman-Mortley, who works as a senior director of community and culture at the Female Quotient, an equality service organization, agrees that conversations around parenting often focus on the wrong things. While mediating sibling spats over television time and driving to endless sports practices and games can be exhausting, the children themselves are not the problem, she said.

“Sometimes I don’t want to have to do the cooking,” Coleman-Mortley said. “It’s not the kids that annoy me. It’s the tediousness of chopping onions and garlic so we have a perfect meal. Society hasn’t given mothers the space to zero in on and distill the actual annoyances. The real problem here is that moms are doing everything.”

Conversations around motherhood rarely focus on the learning and enrichment that comes with parenting, she said. She suggests asking your kids philosophical questions such as, “What is purpose?” or ​​ “Why do people treat each other the way they do?”

“I’ve worked in all kinds of spaces and with all kinds of people, and raising kids pushes you in ways you’ve never imagined,” Coleman-Mortley said. “I want to challenge more parents to be open to following their kids and going on this metaphysical journey with them. It’s going to be wild and awesome.”

Garbes, a first-generation Filipina American, said that even though society still devalues mother’s work, she believes women can make the world a more equitable place through mothering.

“Having my kids radicalized me,” she said. “I just want the world to be better for them. It gave me a clarifying force, this idea of service. I want the world to be better for my kids.”

Push-ups for everyone!

Can you do a push-up? Do you start from your toes or your knees, often called a “girl” push-up? This week, Gretchen Reynolds takes on the push-up with a manifesto of sorts to eliminate the “girl” push-up.

She writes: “Push-ups are a fundamental human movement. Babies push up to see their world. Adults push up to rise from chairs. Push-ups, as exercise, build strong, capable muscles in our upper-body, back and core. But push-ups can be surprisingly political, a harbinger of vestigial sexism in sports.”

What do you think? Learn more about the politics of push-ups and how to do one correctly.

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