There’s a thought-provoking piece at Vox by journalist Rachel Cohen on “How Millennials Learned to Dread Motherhood.” Cohen does justice to the complexities and uncertainties most people feel about having kids these days, and to the challenges mothers in particular feel “to do it all.” But she also helps us step back from the narratives that have come to dominate the literature in recent decades and gives a more balanced view.
In Cohen’s attention to this specific topic, a more general cultural theme emerges: we have a lot of space for the bad news, and for perceived victims; but not much for good news — for what is good and joyful — in this life and for those who contribute to it, which good and loving parents certainly do.
While Cohen is attentive to what’s hard about being a parent and, in particular, a mother, she does note a couple oddities. One, the people who are most vocal about how hard it all it is tend to be the most privileged.
“How to explain why, in survey after survey, it is women with the most financial resources, and the highest levels of education, who report the most stress and unhappiness with motherhood? We hear often that the US is the least family-friendly country in the industrialized world, but American women who describe the most dissatisfaction are also those most likely to work in jobs that do offer maternity leave, paid sick days, and remote-work flexibility. They’re most likely to have decent health insurance and the least likely to be raising a child on their own. Understanding what’s driving these feelings might be key to changing it — for me and millions of others.”
The prevailing narrative in which millennials, like Cohen, have been schooled is one about how awful it is to be a mother and how much you have to give up. She cites story after story, book after book in the contemporary Bleak House compendium of the last decade:
“Or survey recent titles of mainstream nonfiction on the topic: Mom Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood; Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood; Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America; All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. (These are also almost always written by white, middle-class authors.) And then there are the anxiety-inducing news stories, like “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (2012), “The Costs of Motherhood Are Rising, and Catching Women Off Guard” (2018), “Mothers All Over Are Losing It” (2021), and, of course, “These Mothers Were Exhausted, So They Met on a Field to Scream” (2022).
“Should we stumble across moms on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok who do seem to be enjoying the experience of child-rearing,” continues Cohen, “we’re taught to be very, very suspicious. Assume they’re ‘pitchwomen.’ Assume they’re ridiculously wealthy. Assume, as New York Times columnist Jessica Grose put it, that they’re mostly peddling ‘pernicious expectations.’”
Other narratives, about the satisfactions of parenting and motherhood are either considered, as Cohen notes, suspicious, or they simply go un-reported. Here’s Cohen on the un- and under-reported:
“This year, I stumbled across a New York Times headline that fit squarely into the ‘grim motherhood’ genre: ‘How Parenting Today Is Different, and Harder.’ Using a new national Pew survey, the article reported that two-thirds of parents say parenting is harder than they expected, including one-third of mothers who say it’s a lot harder.
“But when I went to see the new Pew survey for myself, it told a story fairly distinct from the one in the Times. Eighty percent of respondents actually described parenting as enjoyable all or most of the time, while 82 percent said it was rewarding all or most of the time. Low-income parents, and those who are Black or Hispanic, were most likely to rate it highly, but happiness crossed all racial and economic lines. Despite ubiquitous depictions of moms on the verge of collapse, only a third said parenting was stressful all or most of the time. The data was a far cry from a miserable portrait.”
I realize my own cred for commenting on these matters is likely suspect. I am a guy, a father, a man of a certain age. And yet it seems to me sad that stories of the value and satisfactions of raising children go largely untold in the present dispensation. People who are happy in parenting, says Cohen, tend to self-censor for fear of giving offense to those who are not.
Cohen’s report makes the larger point that we privilege the grim narratives. It seems to me somehow worth pondering that we have such a big space in our lives these days for the grim, for the hard, for the sad (of which there is plenty, to be sure) — even for that which promotes guilt — but not much space for the glad. We need more stories that balance life’s troubles with grace and which suggest to us that the whole human enterprise, though hard, is worthwhile.