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My Experience With Motherhood: a Struggle and a Joy

Marie Grantham Photography

By Lindsay Denton, Supporter and Mother’s Day Honoree

Last week, my daughter asked me what my favorite day of the year was. I told her it was probably Christmas, then asked what her favorite day was. “I think it’s Mother’s Day,” she said. “I just love making crafts and presents for you.” I was touched and a little surprised, but then I realized she’s right: Mother’s Day is a great day at our house. My husband makes a gourmet meal, the kids give me gifts they’ve made themselves, and we often get together with extended family. It’s a day we reconnect with our mothers and grandmothers and remember the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who have passed on.

So why does Mother’s Day bring up such complicated feelings in me? 

I know I’m not alone. There are many reasons people experience grief or dread around Mother’s Day. For some, it’s because they’ve lost their mother or have difficult family relationships, or it reminds them of infertility or the loss of children. For others, it feels like a day filled with disappointment or hollow appreciation with no action on the other 364 days of the year. And for some of us, it feels like a reminder of all the ways we don’t measure up.

Becoming a Mother

I was raised in a culture that taught me that my most important role in life was to be a mother. From an early age, I harbored a deep sense of uneasiness about this. Even when I was a child myself, children were alien creatures to me, and I preferred talking to adults. I was surrounded by female peers who loved playing with children and babysitting and who fought over holding babies. For me, those things were a chore.

In my mid-twenties, I married my wonderful husband. Once I graduated with a Master’s degree, we decided to start a family. I felt terrified and unsure, but it seemed like the logical next step. After several months with no success, I went to a doctor and was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that causes varying levels of infertility. Learning that I might not be able to have children transformed my uncertainty into yearning. I remember crying at night after my husband went to sleep, feeling like I was broken and worried that I would never get to be a mother. Infertility was a physical and emotional trial, but it also helped me decide I did want to have children. With some medical assistance, we were able to eventually have two daughters and a son.

A Paradox

My third pregnancy was unplanned, and sickness racked my body like it hadn’t during my first two pregnancies. I was not ready to have another child and grappled with feelings of anger, resentment, and guilt. I remembered what it felt like to desperately want a baby, and my emotional response to this pregnancy felt disloyal to my past self.

I had an unarticulated fear for decades of my early life that I wouldn’t be able to bond with my children any more than I had bonded with the babies I reluctantly held as a teenager. The fierceness of the love I felt for each of my babies when they were born came as both a surprise and an enormous relief. 

When I reflect on motherhood, the paradox that some people who don’t presently want children get pregnant and some people who desperately want children can’t is one that I sit with often. My grief during infertility and my grief at an unplanned pregnancy were both valid. Hardships all across the spectrums of motherhood and fertility are each their own shade of tragedy, and we need to hold space for them all.

Motherhood hasn’t felt instinctive to me in most aspects, but I have worked hard to cultivate good parenting skills. I often fall short and feel inferior and am constantly in awe of the mothers who seem to come by their patience and parenting skills more naturally. I still don’t generally enjoy children, even though I love my own deeply. I’ve always struggled with the interpersonal aspects of motherhood, like breaking up my children’s bickering, teaching them new skills, or listening to long monologues about their interests, but the physicality of motherhood has been an unexpected joy. There is nothing in the world like feeling a small human relax into me so completely that our bodies are almost as merged as they were when we once shared my body or stretching out my hand behind me as I walk and feeling a chubby little hand willingly slip into mine.

Helping Raise the Next Generation of Feminists

When I was a child, I sometimes recognized that I was treated differently than the boys around me, but I didn’t feel like I was allowed to acknowledge it or admit that I wanted something that appeared to be off-limits or for boys only. This generation is different: my children recognize inequality and aren’t afraid to name it. Their idealism has brought hope to counter some of the despair I feel from witnessing the inequality girls and women continue to experience globally. 

One way I’ve tried to model advocacy for my children is by working with my daughter’s school to change their dress code procedures. My daughter was dress-coded earlier this year because her dress wasn’t long enough, and for the whole day, she had to wear a long pair of bright orange shorts with “dress code” written on them in large letters. She was in tears when she came home and told me how embarrassed she felt. It has taken a lot of persistence in working with the school administration, but we are on track to implement new policies for next year that do not involve publicly shaming children as punishment. I hope my daughter sees both that I am willing to advocate for her and that it is possible to kindly but firmly advocate for change.

My children are fairly young (7, 9, and 12), but I’ve found that most difficult issues can be explained in a basic and age-appropriate way. Sometimes I have intentional conversations with them, but most of our conversations about feminism and social justice issues come up organically or from questions they ask. Teaching opportunities can be as simple as pausing a movie or show to point something out. We watched ‘Hidden Figures’ as a family during Black History Month, and we took brief breaks throughout to give context, point out the racism and sexism, and explain that the racial language in the film is outdated and inappropriate for us to use today. My children know that I am passionate about women’s representation and empowerment, but we make it clear that they get to choose the causes that matter to them as we all do our part to make the world a better, more equitable place.

This Mother’s Day

When Equality Now asked if they could feature me for Mother’s Day, I wanted to tell them to find someone who was doing more than my sporadic efforts to teach my children about injustice, someone who was a better example of consistent advocacy, someone who was a more involved mom, or even just someone who could carry on a conversation with their kids without immediately spacing out due to boredom. Writing up my triumphs without mentioning any of my struggles with motherhood felt disingenuous, and the last thing I wanted was for another mother to feel worse after reading shiny, cherry-picked parts of my story that reveal none of my insecurity or inadequacy. I decided to move forward despite my hesitation because I thought that maybe a portrait of earnest but flawed and mostly average motherhood is just as worthy of celebration as any other.

Motherhood, for me, is comprised of moments of profound joy and profound struggle. As Mother’s Day approaches, I am reminded of the importance of self-compassion and empathy as I try to reconcile my own shortcomings with the mother I aspire to be.

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