“The good mother, the wise mother… is more important to the community than even the ablest man; her career is more worthy of honor and is more useful to the community than the career of any man, no matter how succesful.”
Theodore Roosevelt spoke these legendary words about 120 years ago1 when roles between women and men were divided disturbingly clear: a man provides for his family, a woman runs it.
Back then the career of a mother came down to being a mom and a wife, period. Luckily I grew up in a time and an environment where girls study, where women become doctors, judges, politicians, artists, ceo’s, … whatever they want. For my generation being (financially) independent is fundamental. When you go on a date it’s normal to share the bill – although I never went on a second one if he actually let me pay #sorrynotsorry.
As a young Western European woman I studied, I went for a career, for independence, for myself. Exactly as I was told to do, exactly as I wanted it to be. Today I realise that in all those years I did not learn one quality that comes to use in my daily life now as a mom of two little ones. I often wish I had a masters degree in patience, living without sleep, (health)care, singing, enjoying Baby Shark,…
To summarize the “normal way” today I understand that up until (the latest) your mid thirties you have to focus on yourself and build a career. Oh yes and find mister right. Then one day you pass the age line and all eyes are suddenly on your (still flat?) belly. From a corporate focused lady with balls you have to transform into a fertility goddess on a pink cloud. Of course you are extremely grateful if all goes well and you give life to a healthy little miracle. After three months of pure love and bounding (forget for now the hormones, the physical recovery, the momxiety, the sleep deprivation…) you drop your tiny bundle of joy in daycare for an average of 8 hours a day. You walk back into the office with the same focus and drive as before, a breast pump hidden under your impeccably ironed blouse…
With endless respect for women who manage this “normal way”, it’s just not for me.
I do nothing
A few weeks ago I was at a party and someone asked me what I did. I answerred -rather proudly- that I’m a mom of a little boy and a girl. As if my answer was similar to a big sneeze after telling I was covid positive, this person disappeared to the washrooms and I never saw him again.
Later that night I wondered that maybe I would have reacted exactly the same way a couple of years ago. I admit that my ideas on being a housewife were rather negative. “So she stays at home ànd has a cleaner, really?” could have easily been something that ran through my judgemental head at times when I had absolutely no interest in starting a family. Obviously all of that changed drastically. Before becoming a mom I would think of how cosy it must be to spend so much time at home playing with little creatures you made yourself. Now I understand that it is a never ending job that deserves nothing less than the highest recognition.
Personally, I do find it confusing. At one hand I long to go to an office, to get my brain working, to see colleagues, to receive a salary and mostly to have a silent space where I can actually sit down. At the other hand, I enjoy the freedom of spending time with my children during this short period of their lives when they need me the most. Also, honestly, I don’t think I could stand having a boss these days. For now, I prefer something in between working and staying-at-home, a grey zone, or a pink one if you like.
Yes, I realise I am privileged to have a choice and an incredible husband. With helping hands around I can actually focus on what I really want while being a present mother. Because even with help, there is one job that just can not be outsourced and that’s being the mother of your children.
An elephant solution?
Sometimes I think having kids at a young age might be the best way. Physically it definitely must be. Professionally it can give you the focus in your thirties to chase that career. But when you’re in your early twenties what financial security do you have? Or which partner? In my case that would have simply been a disaster.
I often wonder how many mothers actually can say that they have both: the family and the career they always dreamt of? The happy balance? With daycares over crammed and under valued, nannies being too expensive, grand parents playing a different role from when we were kids, it is absurd to say that young mothers don’t pay a price for wanting to be a mother. 3 Of course (and luckily) there will be examples to prove me wrong but (too) often the only option is to slow down or to step off the career ladder missing out on crucial opportunities. Or in the opposite direction, when it’s not possible to slow down there is the risk of having children you hardly even know. So I do believe a new approach to “the normal way” is needed in order to really have it all. Inspired by nature there might be a solution.
Elephants are probably the most protective moms on this planet. Two elements are key in the survival of baby elephants (and their moms): help from other elephants and the pace of the herd. A new elephant mother gets the help of one specific younger sister, cousin or niece. This is beneficial for all. The mother and baby get help and the younger one gets to learn. The whole group travels together in a circle with the youngest member on the inside, well protected from predators. The oldest elephants make sure to adjust the pace of the herd so the calf can keep stride.
Those key principles can be implemented into our human modern lifestyle. I’m not talking about parental leave or the prolongation of it. Lots of young parents don’t want to be at home for a year, they don’t want to put their careers totally aside and they shouldn’t. I would like to focus on a longer period of time: the challenging first four years of a child. This timespan often coincides with a demanding time in one’s career. That’s where the help of the younger elephant comes in. Imagine for those four years you could delegate a part of your job that is rather time consuming but not really your core business. I think of all kinds of admin, logistics, research,… Naturally this will vary based on the function, the position, the seniority,…
What stroke me after graduating from university is how little I knew about what to expect from an actual day in a workplace. Many academic programs are so theoretical that they alienate you from the real world. Besides the fact that all this theory rammed into our brains is excessive, it must cost society a lot of money. All these years where you don’t contribute to the community, where you don’t have a clue what career you will actually start. With a pretty high risk to find out later that you don’t like it… What a waste of time.
Imagine students getting real practical experience from an early stage in their studies while helping parents balancing their young family life and career. It could be part of a student’s education, mandatory to get your degree and unpaid. So I am not talking about fancy internships in big firms that only look good on your cv when in reality all you learn is how to build an unnecessary ego while filing old binders in the basement.
This new way could help students to have a better understanding of what a particular job entails. It could be organised in an interdisciplinary way so that in the course of their studies students can switch between sectors to make a well informed choice after graduation. It could be open to the public and the private sector. It just needs a good collaboration between the professional world and the universities. It would also close a certain gap between two generations. They would learn from each other. The bags under the young parent’s eyes might actually scare the student into being more serious about using protection so this will benefit the general health of young people.
For companies or public institutions it could mean free help. For the parents (moms and dads) it would mean more time to focus on their core business and their families. They would gain more flexibility, more space to breathe, without the fear of someone stealing their job.
It’s a win-win-win situation. It just needs some framing but the main principle is simple: extra help from the young and adjusting the pace.
A child gives birth to his mother
When I was pregnant for the first time, I was hugely interested in the physical part of it all but I kept away from all the mommy-to-be advices. I would figure things out myself once I actually became a mom. To me it seemed that there were just too many different mommy opinions out there. So I decided to follow none but my own. As if everyone who ever got his drivers license would open up a driving school, that’s how I felt about the flood of mom things on social media. (Indeed, look at me writing a momblog now…)
For months I felt you grow But when the day had come Little did I know How to be your mom2
After her birth I wrote my daughter a poem about how I (happily) needed to be reborn. Not knowing is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Hoping for the best, expecting the worst. If you overthink things you often end up never doing them. Especially the greatest and the best things in life. I would not have quit that job, jumped out of airplanes, went white water rafting, moved to the Congo, fell in love… if I had given it all a bit more thought. But I am very happy I did. The same goes for having our babies.
I admit, having two children within 17 months during a pandemic in a far away country is a lot. But that’s not my kids’ choice, let alone their fault. A very dear friend of mine told me once: There is only one chance in raising a child. I agree. These little humans don’t owe us anything. It’s their own life and it’s our duty to give them a stable, loving and secure start. There is no bigger responsibility in life than becoming a parent. It is shit scary. It is failing and succeeding every day, non stop. 3
I try to be kind to myself. At the end of every day I ask myself, of all the things I did, what will matter in 50 years? Raising two happy healthy children will. Writing will (yes, even if only my own family ever reads it). So if I manage to cut half a toenail, I insist to consider the day a success.
There is this old American children’s picture book “The giving tree” that describes the selflessness of motherhood in such a beautiful (and slightly dramatic) way. It tells the story about a tree that gave a little boy apples to eat, branches to climb and shade to sleep under. When the boy became a man, the tree gave him her apples to sell, the branches to build a house and her trunk to make a boat. As the man became old, the tree, nothing but a stump, offered him all she had left to rest on. The last line goes “and the tree was happy”.5
Back in the days when our grandmothers were young mothers there was clearly too little information on all the different aspects and layers of motherhood. I can not even start to imagine how traumatic it must be going into labor not really knowing what is happening or like my granny, who was lying on the kitchen table after she gave birth hearing the doctor saying “you’re not finished ma’am, there is another one coming”.
Grateful for all medical and psychological progress I do have the impression that today we are living a bit too much the opposite way. The archaic approach of “just get on with things” transformed into seeing problems everywhere. Like no, not every tired mom has a postnatal depression.
Again it comes down to finding a healthy middle way I suppose. I find it a pity that nowadays the fun of parenting sometimes gets lost in a pile of (well intentioned) concerns. It starts from the minute you announce your pregnancy and it doesn’t stop.
“Oh you’re 3 months far, the vomiting is nothing compared to the sleepless nights in the last trimester” “Sleep while you can!” “Wait until they can walk” “Wait until they speak back to you” “Wait until you have a second one” “Wait until they are teenagers” And so on…
I wish this kind of negativity could become unpopular. That people would just be supportive, that they let a tired parent complain without judgement and without examples of how it can be worse.
Back to the stars
There is no point in denying, there is a life before and a life after having children.
“Wait until you have kids” damn, that little phrase used to annoy me.
Now I understand. I would like to apologise to everyone I know who had small children before me if I ever took it for granted that you arrived on time, that you were kind to your other half, that we had a nice conversation, that you even smiled, that you wore clean clothes. Sorry if I didn’t understand what it actually means to celebrate a first birthday, that I didn’t praise you for the combed hair of your toddler, that I didn’t congratulate you for keeping your cool when your baby had a fever. I know better now.
Caring for little ones it quite something. It makes you so extremely vulnerable yet so confident at the same time. When things get overwhelming you discover a strength inside you never thought was there.
Nobody said it was easy No one ever said it would be so hard I’m going back to the stars
Sure Chris Martin wrote this Coldplay song when he had two kids under two. I imagine “the stars” must be a bar full of carefree party people.
But as much as you want a break sometimes, you don’t want to miss out because being a parent is the most exciting, most terrifying amazing thing in life.
- Gender neutrality did not exist back then. Feel free to read woman as man and vice versa throughout this post. I write from my own experiences as a woman married to a man. I deeply respect any other possible family composition.
- Read the entire poem on my Instagram page @twigaroad
- Very interesting read “The price of motherhood, why the most important job in the world is still the least valued” by Ann Crittenden
- I can highly recommend any parent to read the bestselling “The Book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did)” by Philippa Perry
- by Shel Silverstein