Debunking the myth of mothering
As a mother, you may be falsely assured that your maternal or natural mothering instincts will “kick in”, that you “are made for this”. This may be said in an attempt to put us at ease, but it’s actually an antiquated and potentially harmful sentiment.
The “myth of mothering” is that we are endlessly nurturing beings with a constant wellspring of energy to give, that there’s a picture of mothering that would should effortlessly achieved and that mothering is pinnacle experience that should satiate our multi-faceted selves. The preconceptions we have about “motherhood” and “maternal instinct” have become persistent, and unfortunately are dismissive of the skills that actually must be learned to parent well.
When we feel we should already know how to do a task, but it’s something we’ve never actually learned, feelings of shame and inadequacy can bubble up. Almost none of our child-care behaviors today are 100% inherently and biologically programmed.
Think of everything that modern parenting requires. Soothing a crying child, nursing, feeding, changing diapers, pumping milk, swaddling, managing sleep schedules, dealing with diaper bags, car seats, and pack-n-plays, washing the dishes, meeting the needs of siblings… WORKING… Are moms really supposed to know and do all of these things… instinctually? Seamlessly?
No, it’s not natural to know how to do these things. We typically learn on the job.
Why is the mothering myth a problem?
The myth of mothering is injurious because it’s an untrue promise that sets us up to fail. We are NOT endlessly nurturing beings.
Relationships–with children, with spouses, with other family members–are demanding. We require rest and renewal to be able to meet those demands.
Every stage of parenting kids 0-10 requires some level of demand. Obviously, the newborn stage is an around-the-clock demand, but each developmental stage our children face requires us to show up in earnest. Parents are guides, mentors, unconditionally loving companions who exist to serve children.
Modern parenting makes us forget that we are not designed to do the work of “the village’ alone. We cannot possibly be the mommy, the auntie, the grandmother, all at once and without breaks.
This myth of motherhood exists under the surface of our conscious experience, which makes it particularly insidious. We become trapped from getting the help we need due to what were originally societal expectations, that translate into our own unrealistic standards of ourselves. When we fall short, it leads to disappointment in ourselves, and ultimately can bring about a deep sense of failure.
Who’s job is mothering?
Post-womb, mothers are not the single appropriate nurturer/caretaker. It’s harmful for everyone to believe in the myth of mothering, when we could instead be working on building the skills we need to be great parents, caregivers, and nurturers. We could be cultivating these skills in everyone–not just women or mothers. Imagine how loving such a world could be.
Playing the role of a modern mother who’s “doing it all” is not conducive to harmonious parenting interactions. Today’s mothers are stressed, fatigued, and needing to tap out… without anyone available to pick up the baton.
Meanwhile, the myth of mothering leads fathers to feel unnecessarily disconnected. Yes, for dads in the first year of parenting it can be hard to find your role, given that you lack breast tissue for nursing–a huge aspect of early parenting. But there are many things you can do to create secure bonds with your child. These include holding the baby, spending time skin to skin, and supporting the new family with your attuned presence, to name a few. For dads further into the parenting journey, you’ll have a wealth of opportunities to contribute to both child and household tasks, including the “invisible tasks” (scheduling, remembering) that are so often ascribed to a mother.
Moms and other family members need to let dads do these things. Too often judgement and fear creeps in as we assess each others’ parenting abilities. We have to give each other the space to find our own ways of being with the child.
Other relatives, friends, and service providers can also step in to fill various roles previously only played by “mom.” Many of us pay hard earned dollars for every ounce of childcare we receive and yet the experiences feel transactional and disconnected. We’ve got to find ways to increase connection and know that what we are doing is okay.
What makes a “good parent”?
Rather than buying into this myth of mothering, we can instead focus on parenting well, as we are, with full acceptance of our inherent flaws. The goal with any parenting should not be perfection, or doing things “the right way.” The goal should be “good enough” parenting– a version of parenting that creates secure attachment between children and their caregivers.
Let’s face it. We are not endlessly generous nurturing beings, we have specific capacities and limits. We are not our best selves when we give until we are dried up. We need breaks, we need to reset, we need support to have time off and time-out. You have to hold space for yourself, which will lead to a greater ability to hold space for others.
In the olden days we had actual tribes and later intergenerational homes with lots of loving, capable hands (sisters, aunties, grandmothers, etc). Now we have our partner and if we are lucky someone who can periodically help out. Now, more than ever, we need the skills of repair and resolution… but we also need genuine support.
What mothers need (instead of advice to follow their instincts)
- Realistic expectations — It’s okay that you don’t know much about what you are doing at any given moment.
- Genuine support — Expert teachers, trainers, and guides may be less critical than neighbors, friends, and family who are willing to pitch in.
- On-the-job experience — Don’t get overwhelmed looking for one best or perfect way.
- Time to observe and bond with our children — so we can better understand their cries, their silence, their health and emotional wellbeing.
- Renaming of what we once called “maternal instinct.” — A true “caring instinct” can be carried out by anyone close to a child.
Release yourself of this myth and all its contortions
It’s truly unfair that modern parents have so little support. We have so much on our shoulders and often collapse of contort under the incessant pressure of it all. These contortions create chronic problems and exacerbate the stress.
If we can see through the myth and get creative on how to nourish and resource ourselves from a cleaner place we can live freer and more unencumbered.
As a culture, we need to learn how to give healthily — Do you know when you are well fed, resourced, capacious… and when you’re not? Subsequently, you’ll need to know how to navigate a “clean ask” for support, partnership, and collaboration.
Sit with this information and notice what arises. What beliefs do you hold about mothering? Where do they come from?
Simply recognizing our assumptions is a big part of the work.