A Conversation about Becoming a Mother

Some twenty five years ago my mother gave me the painting at the left. She’d seen it in a little restaurant in Atlanta that she frequented. I was in the thick of mothering and striving to get a freelance career off the ground. The painting’s message was spot on.  

The mother’s arm holding the paintbrush is rendered awkwardly but the point of the whole painting is the arm holding the flailing baby. Firm beneath her mother’s forearm, Baby just has to chill. Mama is conversing with her Muse, determined to hold on to a treasured piece of herself all the while hip deep into taking care of Baby.  Maybe the babysitter cancelled that morning; or an ear infection kept Baby out of day care. No matter what, Mama has to paint. My mother’s gift acknowledged my struggles to balance work and motherhood.

On a past trip home, my daughter claimed the painting.  “I want you to give this to me when I become a mother,” she said.  “I want the reminder that I can still create art even if I’m a mom.”  I thought of her comment after reading a recent article in the New York Times profiling young women who do not want, or are not sure they want, children. 

While I thought “not having a partner yet” was a sage reason to wait, and others — wanting leisure time and personal freedom — are legit if short-sighted, the one factor that stopped me cold was that a quarter of the respondents to a survey conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times didn’t think they’d be good parents. A young woman quoted in the article had such, “high expectations for parents that she wasn’t sure she could meet them….I would have the responsibility to raise this person into a functional and productive citizen, and some days I’m not even responsible.”

Heck that’s what it is to be a parent — living up to your own expectations is an ongoing challenge. You won’t always meet meet them. In fact you often won’t. Some days parenting levels you, knocks you on your ass and makes you cry uncle. Those children you are raising?  Little mirrors reflecting you at your worst and your best. This is what it is to be a parent: to grow; to forgive yourself your human failings; to strive to do better.  And this is what it is to be a parent: the littlest things become daily miracles as you watch your baby discover a shaft of sunlight crossing her line of vision, hear his first laugh and bear witness to their growing discovery of their world, a world in which you are the sun, the moon and the stars. Our children summon from within us strengths we didn’t know we had. Ask any parent who’s survived their kids’ adolescence. Or first trip to the hospital. Or broken heart. Or, God forbid, a life-changing diagnosis.

As for the the functional productive citizen stuff? Drop it.  Celebrate your child’s sense of wonder; protect their joy; follow their lead and guide gently. Focus on instilling patience, empathy, manners, honesty, respect.  That’s the stuff of good citizenship, anyway.

My daughter recently expressed many of the same reservations of the women quoted in the article. I held my counsel. Mostly. The thicket of doubts and uncertainties is hers to maneuver. While it’s difficult to wrap my head around the possibility my daughter may choose not to have a child, the painting is hers no matter what. She will determine what her left arm will hold. 


8 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Linda Trammell says:

    You put words to the feelings deep in my heart, and reassure once again.

  2. Wonderful essay, Debra. And I love the painting.
    My thoughts are that for many women, the “productive citizen stuff” is part of their creative process, activism is the paint on their canvas. Women who feel passionately about the future of the environment, their communities, and a whole host of issues that impact our lives on the planet, can continue to be advocates when children arrive on the scene. The gift of a child raises the stakes. It’s all about incorporating values into day to day life. And yes, I agree wholeheartedly, that a parent’s most important role may be helping their child develop empathy, honesty, patience, and respect.

  3. Shelley Shindler says:

    This piece is right on!! Sometimes we have to just overcome our fears and jump into parenthood . I feel so lucky that I had my children When I was young , before I really get a chance to consider it . Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking piece

  4. Betsy Appleton says:

    Love this.
    Will save and send to my 30 yr old, if and when she becomes a mom!

  5. You have such a nice way of taking a big social issue and focusing on it in a personal sense – such as to have a child or not. Your insightful approach to the topic is so like you with the ability to see both sides and yet take a stand where you mind and heart meet. Keep writing, keep giving advice and keep being yourself!

  6. Gary P Enoch says:

    Hi there. Letting you know I am here! Welcome back.

    I have often commiserated with my wife about how close to zero preparation and training most parents have in child rearing until that stark realization in the wee hours of the first night your first baby is home from being born in the hospital. “OMG! Now what?”

    You need drivers ed before you get your license. Hours in the cockpit and simukator for a pilot license. Safety courses for boating, and hours of technical training, college or graduate school for you to qualify for a job.

    But outside of MSW, counseling, Psych, or clergy training nothing to prepare you to be a parent.

    It is no surprise that so many lack the confidence in their ability. This is probably compounded by the rate of depression permeating today’s parenting eligible.

    Having raised three we learned it’s not easy. There are challenges every day but that is life. The payoff is facing up to the pressures and challenges and seeing that smile, getting that hug, or hearing that sweet voice of your child.

    My advice is to jump in. You won’t drown. You’ll figure it out. And while you will change you can still be you – with benefits of being us.
    in dealing with the challenges as best we can

  7. Ginger says:

    I enjoy your writings and wisdom! Thank you for sharing your gifts with the world.

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