For a long time, I’ve been kicking around the idea of a post about what women are to women. It never completely gelled, which is why I haven’t written it. And I suspect this post won’t be a full gelling of the topic, either, but it seemed a good one to explore on a day when so many other posts would be of the “Roses Are Red” variety. Understand that my thoughts here aren’t meant as blankets. They are noted patterns, and of course there are exceptions.
Of all the struggles women encounter in daily and more broadly-defined life, I think none is as challenging, heart-rending and sometimes crippling as the struggle to know what is best for them and their families when it comes to work. In the “old days,” most women stayed home and raised their children, generally regardless of whether they wanted to or not. It was expected of them. They were greeted at the end of a long day by a husband whose further expectations, be they real or perceived, were only more wearying. Some men did help. Some expectations were merely societal and not personal. And there were fewer single mothers then.
It was nearly unheard-of for a woman to say she wasn’t sure she was cut out for it. Not sure she was doing the best job. Not certain she wasn’t supposed to be doing other things that might enrich her life, make her happier. She felt, well… a little trapped, maybe. A little let down that the “dream life” turned out to be kind of banal and maddening sometimes. And she felt guilty as hell for not being completely pleased to stay home and raise the children she’d always wanted and deeply loved… even when she thought about leaving them in a store for good.
Now, things are different. A lot more moms work. They do it because they need the extra income, or they do it because they’re the only income, or because someone invested in their education and they don’t want to waste it, or because children came later, or because they know they’ll be happier women, and therefore better moms, if they get out of the house and away from their children. They tell each other and themselves that they can handle it, that they can do it all, with help from friends and supportive partners. Or without. But always, they go to bed feeling they’ve fallen short somewhere in the day. And they feel guilty as hell for not staying home all the time, or for not wanting to stay home all the time.
These are stories to which every woman can relate – even those, like me, who don’t have children. Somewhere above is at least one thought that has crossed all of our minds, that has kept us awake at night, whether because it was our reality or our considered possibility. And with all this inner conflict, with all this uncertainty, with all this fear and worry and unspoken aching, what do we women do for one another?
We pretend to support each other while we tear each other apart.
We judge each other. Stay-at-home moms are weak, less bright, less driven, more dependent, more likely to become depressed, less likely to be truly happy with motherhood because they’re not fulfilling themselves intellectually and professionally. Women who work are selfish, arrogant, controlling, unfocused. They don’t love their children enough to make a less self-glorifying choice.
In the absence of those particular judgments, there is jealousy. Those who work and don’t malign stay-at-home moms envy them instead. Those who stay home and don’t malign working moms wish they could go to work, too.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met a mother, of any persuasion, age or station in life, who was truly happy with her place. With her choice. With her options. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a mother who didn’t sometimes wonder whether she’d done the right thing.
And then there are those of us who don’t have children. Some of us can’t, and dread the moments when friends or relatives ask when we’re having babies or why we haven’t, carrying in our wombs the ache of that which we want but cannot do. Others of us choose not to have children, whether it be because we don’t feel we would be good mothers, or because we’re not solid in our partnerships, or because we don’t like children, or simply because we’re not sure it’s what’s right for us. Some of us are childless as a matter of timing and a long search for the right partner. We all listen to the clucking of our loved ones musing that time is running out. We hear people accuse us of being too focused on our careers, as if being childless and destitute would be the better option. Or we endure the supposedly inspiring cheerleading of our “empowered” friends who insist that we put aside our “fears” and believe in that which our bodies are designed to do. They urge us on and insist that we can do it, without ever asking us whether we want to do it. And if we don’t want to do it, well… there must be something wrong with us.
All the time, what I hear and read and see is a battle of women against women. I believe, by and large, it is no longer men who hold us back, be it in the workplace or the home. It is the voices of our mothers, our sisters, our friends, our envied counterparts, our own doubting selves, making us believe that whatever we are doing is not enough.
I’ve long wondered why women are so hard on each other. For all that wondering, I have come to believe that the answer is simply that we criticize in others that which we do not like within ourselves. In the end, if we strip everything away, the problem we have is not with that other woman, that other mother, who does the opposite of that which we do. The problem is that we are afraid that, after all our self-convincing, all our preaching, all our liberation, all our choices and all our acceptance of whatever comes… we were wrong.
We are afraid that we are not enough.
That the voices are right.
That she is better.
That we have failed.
Failed our partners.
Failed our children.
Failed our parents.
This Mother’s Day, I ask every woman to shut out the voices that tell her she is not enough and listen to her own. I ask her to ignore what tells her she is not enough, and to decide for herself and her family what is best.
And I ask all the other women who are not her… to mind their own damned business.