On a Tuesday morning last year, my childcare plans fell through, so I brought my then-18-month-old to a doctor’s appointment with me. Armed with board books and snacks, I strapped him into his stroller and tucked him into the corner of the exam room. When the attending physician came in, she seemed taken aback. “You brought your kiddo with you,” she said. It felt more like an expression of commiseration than an observation because of what she said next: “It’s hard to take care of yourself when you have little ones.”
The implication was clear. To her, I was a woman who couldn’t even get herself to a doctor’s appointment without having to schlep a kid along. But to me, it was an exercise of my own flexibility. My son didn’t mind this twist in our plans, and neither did I.
But since that appointment, I’ve started to notice a trend when I take my kids to public places. The comments, the almost apologetic looks, the questions about why my kids are with me, and the statements about having my hands full: it can feel like a deluge of negative dialogue about the difficulties of navigating day-to-day tasks, let alone thriving personally and professionally, with young children in tow.
I believe that two problems stem from this cultural narrative about the incompatibility of parenting with personal wellness, flexibility, and adaptability. First, the stated (or implied) message that mothers cannot be expected to manage their daily tasks with children by their side sends deflating, disempowering messaging about women’s capability. And second, this narrative worsens our society’s tendency to be inhospitable to children and families.
A Joyful Juggle
Comments about how hard it is to parent children and take care of ourselves is, in many cases, cloaked in compassion. I doubt my physician was throwing barbs when she made that comment. But after a while, even well-meaning words can seep into the maternal psyche and become a part of our own internal dialogue. Yes, these kids are really exhausting, aren’t they? No, I don’t ever seem to have time for myself, do I? Guess that’s life with kids, right? Far from helping mothers cope with the inevitable challenges of parenting, these refrains just reinforce the difficulties and set the negative dialogue on a sour loop in our own heads. And on a social level, they can take the shape of ills like so-called “wine culture,” the cultural phenomenon that, instead of offering loving support and compassion to women in the trenches, is at risk of disguising substance abuse as a normal coping mechanism to temper the challenges of parenting.
For centuries, women have proven capable not only of caring for themselves but also nurturing friendships, growing businesses, and responding to community needs, all while raising children. Yet now, so much of our dialogue (reflected in my doctor’s response to my child’s presence at the appointment), is that kids get in the way of our ability merely to survive, let alone thrive.
Granted, children do add a few layers of complication to daily life. But constantly reminding ourselves of this fact undercuts our very ability to withstand challenging circumstances. It’s a logic that implies that women, in choosing to succumb to the natural, life-giving biological reality of motherhood, choke out other options, whether they be ascending to greater heights in their careers, pursuing life-giving
hobbies, doing charitable work, or generally thriving as individuals primed to bring energy, joy, and beauty to their communities. Instead of this is so hard, a feedback loop that says something like it is so good and natural and exhilarating to do difficult things could serve us much better.
Families Need Not Apply
The implication that kids make it hard to thrive seeps into our cultural groundwater. What springs from this soil is a society that is increasingly inhospitable to children and families, a society where kids are gradually more unwelcome. This lack of accommodation, in turn, reinforces the sense that it’s difficult to thrive, and even function, as a parent. Since becoming a mother, I’ve noticed a trend when I take my kids to public places: the coffee shop with only one highchair; the restaurant that feels friendlier to dogs than children; the removal of the child seat in grocery store shopping carts. I only have two children, and they’re young (and portable), but I cannot imagine how parents of much larger, active broods must feel navigating spaces and places that feel increasingly less welcoming to them.
Granted, there are times and places best suited for an adult presence only, and the antidote isn’t bringing our kids everywhere or insisting that their presence is appropriate in every context. It’s appropriate, for example, to politely exclude rambunctious toddlers from a professional musical or theater performance in order to be charitable to the other viewers. Rather, a slight posture shift is in order. First, it’s about normalizing the presence of children in daily activities, from a physician’s office to an airplane, a grocery store, a restaurant, or even a conference. Then, it’s about embracing those who choose kids and choose to thrive, whether that thriving means refusing to cancel a routine appointment simply because childcare fell through that day, or introducing their kids to the responsibilities inherent in adulthood, like running errands, working, or traveling.
Sometimes, this means that kids will be present at places we might not expect to see them. A recent LinkedIn post depicting the Senior Counsel of a nonprofit holding her infant at a conference comes to mind. The less we perceive this as an oddity, the more frequently we’ll see talented women who have chosen motherhood and a full, abundant life sharing their incredible creativity and talent with us. In other words, both our physical spaces and cultural attitudes can either help parents manage their responsibilities with grace, or disempower them by reinforcing the message that parenting makes everything difficult.
Bringing Back Community
Navigating life’s demands while parenting cannot be achieved in a vacuum. There is a cure, and it’s seeking and nurturing robust support systems. Those of us who have chosen to pursue childrearing alongside other goals, priorities, and callings need our communities. We need to normalize living near (or even with) extended family. Those who lack that proximity to helpful grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings can nurture friendships with those in similar life stages and offer mutual support, like taking on each other’s kids from time to time, or serving as emergency back-up in times of need. Even the simple act of getting to know your (literal) neighbor can provide a safe place to land should your family experience hardship: at our old house, for example, the retired lady who lived next door frequently offered to care for our kids, our house, or even us when we walked through a particularly harrowing season.
Without community, we starve ourselves, our families, and our dreams. Too often we expect ourselves to manage families, work, and life alone, through brute force and without help, and there is simply not a person on this earth who can manage that.
But we also have a collective responsibility to extend radical compassion toward parents deep in the trenches of raising young kids while still trying to better themselves and contribute meaningfully to society. At a Christmas Mass this past year, my youngest child threw a very public (and very embarrassing) tantrum in the communion line. I ducked out of the line and ran him outside to calm him down and restore peace to the sanctuary, when I heard a voice at my shoulder. It was an usher, and just behind him was a Eucharistic minister holding the communion plate. For a moment, I thought he was going to admonish me for disrupting the Mass, but instead he smiled and said, “We brought communion to you.”
Yes, children try our patience. They steal our sleep. They drain our bank accounts. They take and take without giving back, and they may never love us as much as we love them. But this is not the end of the story. It’s a part of the grander picture of the sanctifying, self-emptying act of parenting, of forming souls, who will, God willing, accomplish great good. Parenting is an extension of the creative love that brought us into being. And on its best days, it does bring its joys and perks: no one makes me laugh like my three-year-old does.
Mothers don’t need constant reminders about how hard it is to be a parent. What we need is a steady IV-drip of assurance that we were—quite literally—physically, spiritually, and emotionally designed for this.
Better yet, what we need is a community that will follow a mother and her screaming baby into the biting December cold with the communion plate. Then and only then will we see a generation of women opting into the challenges and joys of building a family while believing they can not only manage, but flourish.