Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Cranberry Sauce and Motherhood

How mothering comes in many shapes and sizes

I stood in the grocery store the other day picking up the ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast and all was fine until I came across a bag of fresh cranberries. I stood there contemplating them—thinking of the gross form of the canned stuff and wondering if I could somehow find extra time to make fresh cranberry sauce. Visions of our Martha Stewart Thanksgiving danced in my head—the house perfectly decorated with items that I had fashioned out of ribbon and dried flowers during my free time, the table strewn with all of the homemade dishes that I had created.  

But I tore myself away from these visions and bought the canned stuff so I could spend that time working on something for my job and knowing that the sucking sound that canned cranberry sauce will make as it slides out of the can and maintains its cylindrical form on our table symbolizes something far more important than cranberry sauce—it symbolizes who I am as a mom.

I grew up in a household with a stay-at-home mom. My mom picked us up from elementary school each day and worked on our school projects with us. She hung laundry out to dry on the clothesline every day and each week you would jump into bed with fresh, crisp sheets smelling of the outdoors.  Those are my memories of childhood—a mom who was forever present, who attended all of my musical performances, and helped me to make posters when I ran for elementary school president. 

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These days my life looks nothing like this. I work constantly and my kid is at daycare for 10 hours each day. Our home has toys strewn everywhere and after working for 10 to 12 hours, cooking a meal, doing laundry, watching Finding Nemo for the thousandth time and coloring princesses in a Disney coloring book, I am lucky if I can haul myself off the couch to clean them up. But still I try to maintain some semblance of what I grew up with. I make muffins or waffles from scratch on the weekends. I try to cook homemade meals for most dinners and try to squeeze vegetables and lean proteins into every meal. I fold laundry every day with care so my husband will never look in his closet and not find his favorite Patriots shirt and so my daughter has an endless supply of clean Elmo shirts or the leopard print items that she prefers to wear. Day after day my husband tells me to let some things go—to make some type of prepared food for dinner or ignore the never-ending pile of laundry. But that’s not what mothers do. Mothers are there simmering their own spaghetti sauce and helping their kid with their Abraham Lincoln report for school. A mother is selfless and focused on the family’s happiness and well-being. So each failure to put a homemade meal on the table or to attend my daughter’s “Muffins-with-Moms” days at daycare screams of failure as a mom. As a working mom, the inevitable conclusion is that either I am a bad mom or I chose work over my kid.

When I talk with other working moms, they describe the same experience—the guilt over working and missing their child’s Halloween parade or serving frozen prepared mac and cheese, the struggle to balance their workload and home demands and staying up late folding socks and underwear or trying to finish up a project for work. Eventually you begin to give some things up. You serve frozen pizza three days a week when you just can’t work up the energy to whip something up from scratch or you let the laundry pile up for a week and sigh as you enter the basement to find mountains of dirty clothes. You find ways to cut corners in your own life—shaving your legs once a month or allowing your eyebrows to grow to the size of small caterpillars on your face. You give up blow-drying for a pony tail and heels for sensible shoes. There is only so much time in a day and so you prioritize and find a way to survive. But after months of this, you wonder how this became your life—survival and cutting corners as a mom become the norm instead of the hospital corners and fresh sheets of your childhood. The comparison of your life to that of other moms becomes a sense of tremendous guilt and anxiety as you compare your mothering to theirs and find yourself falling short.

This is something that dads don’t seem to struggle from—the guilt over being a working dad. Historically dads worked and came home to find a home-cooked meal on the table. After dinner they went off to putter around the house and left the women’s work of raising the children and cleaning up to the wife. So for dads there is no guilt related to working. They are filling their roles as fathers—bringing home the bacon—and if they pick up their kid’s dirty laundry from the floor or play tea party with their kid, they are touted as the world’s best father. A father’s presence in his child’s life is viewed as some extraordinary feat while a mother’s presence is a given, and it is the lack of presence in any aspect of a child’s daily life (such as the Moms celebrations at daycare) that is more noted. 

The problem is that women these days hold themselves to an impossible standard—to be the ideal stay-at-home mom while also being the perfect employee at a full-time job—to put homemade bread on the table and be a breadwinner at the same time. We cannot win in this endeavor because both are full-time jobs, so we working moms find ourselves staring at the canned cranberry sauce in the store and thinking that it reeks of our failure. Or we buy those fresh cranberries and sacrifice sleep and our own happiness in our desire to be the perfect mother and to prove that we really can do it all. 

What we need to do is change our internal models of what a mother should be to incorporate the lives that we live now and to recognize that no size fits all when it comes to mothering. Mothers come in stay-at-home mom sizes and working mom sizes. They may simmer their own spaghetti sauce for hours or open a jar and be done with it. Their idea of cleaning the house may involve throwing the clutter in the closet or it might require a closet filled with household products, but either way their kids have good mommies who serve as good role models. 

My mother, a stay-at-home mom, taught me that girls can do anything—be astronauts or firefighters or stay-at-home moms. She emphasized independence and perseverance—lessons that I hope that my daughter is also learning. My mom's mothering—although on the surface looked far different than mine, still emphasized the same values that I do—that family matters and home is a place of comfort and love. So am I really that different of a mother than she was despite how different our mothering looked on the outside? I still have a large presence in my daughter’s life and I will still help her with her Abraham Lincoln report one day. Our house, although not immaculate, is still a warm and comforting place and my daughter still calls out for me when she has a bad dream or wants a hug.  My daughter won’t miss the homemade rolls or simmered sauces and will happily eat a frozen pizza with peas lovingly prepared in our microwave. Years from now, she will look back at her childhood with fondness and just like I do, she will remember the good things that taught her positive values.  So this Thanksgiving I will serve that canned cranberry sauce with love and I will be thankful for motherhood no matter what shape or size it comes in.

Copyright Amy Przeworski

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Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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