Blame it on the sunshine that’s baking my brain as I type this on my patio. Blame it on my inherent inability to stay out of arguments and a streak of the contrarian that’s part of my nature.
Whatever I blame it on, I just can’t stay out of this debate any longer.
If you’re a follower of mom blogs or mom groups, I guarantee by now you have encountered the saga of writer Meghann Foye and her idea that she deserves “ME-ternity” leave (i.e. maternity leave, but without the kids).
Not surprisingly, Ms. Foye appears to be earning herself a special place in the black books of mothers everywhere, who think she comes across as spoiled and entitled and needs to have a rethink about just what kind of a “vacation” maternity leave is. (Also not surprisingly, Ms. Foye is currently publicizing her new novel, Meternity, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the publicity she’s getting out of this furor is good news for her rather than not. You can’t buy the buzz she’s getting at the moment.)
Questions of motives aside, however, I’ve gotta jump in to this one and come to Ms. Foye’s defence. In the first place, the post that got everybody going was actually quite calm and rational, and had it not been attached to a rather inflammatory headline about the “perks” of maternity leave (words she herself never used), it would likely have passed without much murmur.
All she’s really saying is that everyone needs space to find a balance in their lives and to explore the things that matter to them and to help them find their “me.” I happen to agree with that. (You may happen to be in the camp that thinks people who need to go off “finding themselves” simply suffer from a huge case of firstworldproblemitis, and that’s fine. We’ll agree to disagree and move on.)
The reaction her piece has generated speaks, to me, of a rather pervasive mindset amongst parents (and mothers most of all) that non-parents just don’t get how tough we parents (especially mothers) have it.
That may well be true.
There’s certainly something to be said for the difference between intellectually understanding the parenting experience and viscerally experiencing it. Anyone who’s hung around parents has likely heard all about sleep deprivation, teething, tantrums, the hassles of finding child care, the difficulty of balancing mom life with office life, the trials of teenagehood, etc., etc. etc. – and most of those people can understand and sympathize with the stresses involved. But anyone who in fact is a parent doesn’t just understand; they’re there too, in the trenches, living it all, and they get it in a way no one else can.
That having been said, however, many parents (again, especially mothers) seem willing to take that one step farther and suggest that anyone who isn’t a mom simply doesn’t know what stress is. That non-parents don’t understand exhaustion. That anyone without children doesn’t have a right to call themselves “tired” or “busy” or “overwhelmed” or any of the other adjectives that we mothers (quite rightfully) apply to ourselves.
And that’s where I have to draw the line. Because for me to assume that all non-parents have it “easier” than me simply because there’s no one in their house who weighs under 40 pounds is, quite frankly, insulting.
I can think of a thousand reasons why non-parents’ lives could be equally as exhausting and stressful as mine – or, in many cases, far more so.
Sure, I have a three-going-on-four-year-old who manages to embody both the best and the worst qualities of those ages and who brings to my life both inspiration and exasperation.
I also have a good job with great co-workers and an understanding boss; a small but cosy house that we bought before real estate prices went crazy; enough money to know I’ll always be able to buy food, keep a roof over our heads and pay for great child care; a supportive and hard-working partner who’s the most dedicated dad you’ll ever meet.
What about a non-parent who’s found herself unemployed and at risk of ending up on the street? Or one who works two or three jobs to pay off crippling student debt? Or one who’s caring for an aging parent, or a partner with disabilities or health problems? Or one who has serious health challenges of her own (which she may or may not ever talk about, and which may or may not be visible to other people)? Or one in a traumatic or abusive relationship? Or one who runs her own company and has to work around the clock just to make her dream of business ownership come true? Or one who longs with every part of herself to be a mother but has been struggling with infertility? Or one who works day and night in a dangerous or high-stress job? Or one who faces racial discrimination or sexual harassment or homophobia in the workplace and on the street every day of her life?
Or, or, or.
The truth is, every human being on the planet has reason to be stressed, tired and overwhelmed sometimes. Just like every human being on the planet has reason to be happy, grateful and optimistic at other times.
For me to arbitrarily decree that, because I am a mother, I am entitled to more understanding and more sympathy than my non-mother counterparts is to overlook the uniqueness of every single human experience.
The only life I can speak for is my own.
Yes, I can say: I was never sleep-deprived until I became a mother. Now I am sleep-deprived on a regular basis. But I cannot then say: “If you are not a mother, you have not experienced sleep deprivation.”
Yes, I can say: Balancing my work and home life is far more challenging to me now that I have to deal with the life of a small human. But I cannot then argue that people without small humans don’t have any challenges balancing their work and personal lives.
Yes, I can say: I have become far more patient and empathetic since becoming a mother. But I cannot say: Non-mothers are never as patient and empathetic as mothers.
Yes, I can say: Becoming a mother has been the most life-changing – no, more than that, self-changing – journey I have ever set out on. But I cannot then say: Non-mothers are incapable of transformative and self-changing experiences.
Please, fellow mothers, don’t you see? When we belittle the experiences of those who are not mothers, we feed into this “us versus them” mentality that mothers have fought for years to overcome – in the workplace and in society at large. We are creating a mommy-versus-non-mommy war that no one will ever win.
We do not build communities by dismissing the experiences of those who have chosen different paths than ourselves. We build them by looking to those people with the same empathy and understanding that we hope they’ll apply to us the first time we arrive at work in clothes that have been spit up on, gazing blearily at them through the dark circles that live where our eyes used to be.
So next time your childless friend says she’s exhausted, don’t scoff. You aren’t in her life; you have no idea what demons she may be coping with – demons that are just as real as the infant who calls you for milk every two hours or the toddler who’s cutting those #$%& molars. (And her demons probably don't give her snuggles and sticky kisses to make up for it.)
Next time your co-worker suggests it’s time she took a “meternity” leave to go off and travel (or write a novel, or live in an ashram, or hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or, or, or), don’t assume she’s a jerk who doesn’t understand the challenges of parenting. Instead, support her in her quest to become a truer and better version of herself.
Let’s celebrate the fact that, as mothers, we have chosen a path that is rewarding and fulfilling beyond our wildest imaginings – while at the same time realizing that path may not be everyone’s to follow.
For the record, I love being a mother. It isn’t just what I do. In ways I could never have understood five years ago, it is who I am, and who I will now always be.
I’ll keep on being me. You – parent or non-parent – keep on being you.
And I won’t judge how hard or easy you have it.
As long as you promise not to roll your eyes at me for finding it so freakin’ hard to get a three-year-old to bed.