Alyssa’s kitchen island has four seats, three in a perfect line and one to the side. She often stands opposite the three chairs while Joan, Valerie, and my mother sit across from her. I have sat in that fourth seat many times over the past ten years. These women have listened to me agonize, cry, and laugh over nearly everything I have ever experienced. I am fortunate to know they love me like one of their own.
Alyssa, Valerie, and Joan are three women whose children have shown me some of the most secure friendships in my life. Their presence was a constant throughout my adolescence. They never limited maternal roles to their own children. The four of them walk through their journeys of motherhood, encouraging, celebrating, and challenging each other in a very pure way.
I find myself increasingly missing conversations around the kitchen island in my time away. Thankfully, modern technology has granted me the ability to bring the kitchen island to wherever I am. Last week, I phoned into their bi-weekly 6 p.m. drinks and felt like I was sitting in that fourth seat once again.
Valerie, Alyssa, and my mother all shared the feeling with me that for most of their lives, they did not dream of being mothers. There were other things in life they would have to sacrifice to bring another person into this world. For Alyssa, it was a doctoral program, and for my mom, it was her profession. “I never thought that I was going to have time to be a mother and have a full-time career,” she told me.
There is an expectation that if women don’t have children, they must make something grandiose of their lives in another way. As Sheila Heti put it in her novel Motherhood, “being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly—before it even happens—what the arc of your life will be.”
Of course, now they all say they would not change a thing.
The role of the mother has no set of instructions. All four of the mothers I interviewed were in their thirties when they were pregnant and therefore had a developed frontal cortex and defined sense of self by the time they brought another human into the world. However, there were mixed feelings about the lifestyle change of becoming a mother. Alyssa and Joan both gleamed with excitement and gratitude. Joan explained, “I had no fear. I was full on. I loved being pregnant. I just really could not wait to be a mother.” However, Valerie put it: “I was very much like, ‘Okay, this is what I need to do, I need to read this book, I need to buy a crib. You know, here’s my checklist of things I gotta do.’” The way the impending responsibility of having a child manifests in different kinds of people adds layers to motherhood’s complexity. No two people will ever mother the same way.
I asked the women how they felt their relationships with their own mothers influenced the way they parent their children now. My mom said that her personal parenting style had a lot to do with the way that her mother raised her. “However,” she told me, “I have changed some things. I did not have an open communication channel with my mother. I tried to correct that for you. With me, there’s no secrets.” Meanwhile, Valerie noted, “I tried to be very different from my mother. When I was a kid, I would leave and not come home for a week, and no one would notice. So there’s no way I would ever want my kids to have that experience. But, I think I married similarly to my mom. I, unfortunately, didn’t realize I was doing that. That’s probably the biggest thing I did like her.” Joan added, “I also try to be very different from my mom. She has the patience of a flea and was very reactive to kids at a very young age. Because of that, I think I really try to keep myself from overreacting to some things my mother would have completely overreacted to.”
Individuality and sense of self in motherhood tend to get completely overshadowed by the needs of a child. A Pew Research Center study done in 2017 found that over three-quarters of Americans think women face pressure to be involved parents. Less than half think men face the same. I asked the women if they feel as though their identities exist separately from their title of “mother” and how they balance individuality and motherhood. Alyssa immediately said, “Well, I do call what happened before my kids ‘my old life.’ It is what it is. I used to be able to be really carefree. But the second that little stick showed a blue circle, everything shifted, and it was effortless. It felt like a perfect fit. When she came, forget it. It was pure joy.” Joan, on the other hand, didn’t change her life to comply with what she understood to be the expectations of motherhood. “Once I had a child, you know, I didn’t use the ‘oh, we can’t go because I have a child.’ He came with me on business trips. He was always kind of just toted around, or I had help.” What I found most interesting is when Valerie commented on the stress she feels trying to amount to other mothers: “I’m not that mothering type, I’ve always just been, like I do things because I love them. Then you have social media, right? So you look at Facebook, and moms are doing crafts with their kids, and it makes you feel like shit because that is so not me.”
I wanted to know how these mothers saw their children. Joan noted, “my kid has his own thoughts, his own feelings, his own actions. I never was that parent that if my kid did something wrong, it was a reflection on me.” My mother put it, “children are individuals. I do not see you as a reflection of me. A lot of people have talked to me and asked me about this. They’re like, ‘Oh, you must be so proud.’ Absolutely. I’m very proud of you. But that’s it. You are you, and I am me. You sleep in your bed, and I sleep in mine.”
We talked about the way that motherhood changes a woman’s career. A Harper’s Bazaar article published in late 2021 begins with the byline, “Joan Didion was a genius. She was also a mother. The larger culture may see that as a contradiction” and goes on to comment that “Didion must have known that becoming a mother had required her to compromise her career.” My mother mentioned several times in the conversation that jeopardizing her professional trajectory was at the core of her motherhood-related anxiety. When I asked if she viewed herself as inherently maternal, she told me, “I personally think I was meant to do this. Seriously. I mean, I mother everything in my life. You know, that’s my problem. I mothered my husband, my dogs, my family, and my father. Anything that moves and needs some mommy.” Perhaps, some of the most successful women are actually born to be mothers themselves. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive; they may go hand-in-hand. Maternal traits can translate directly into being an effective team leader and collaborator. The notion that women are ill-equipped to enter the workforce because of their role as mothers is thereby wholly false.
The more we rationalize motherhood, the less we understand and appreciate its layers and intricacies. Alas, attempting to understand motherhood is another step in attempting to understand ourselves. Motherhood is a state that is relevant to the creation of every person on this Earth, and for that, it is a treasure.