The New Vogue of Hating Motherhood

Does our complaining count as progress, or does it miss the point?

Posted Feb 11, 2013

For the first time in five years, I rang in the New Year without a child to put to bed before midnight, or to wake me before dawn. In fact, I spent the last several days of 2012 giddily cramming in consecutive nights of bad behavior, drinking shots of whiskey in dirty bars, dancing the night away in platform shoes, eating to excess in downtown restaurants, all rarities in my post-maternal life. My husband felt guilty he was so deeply enjoying our time away from our daughter. I didn’t. My remorselessness was underscored within an hour of our daughter returning home from her grandparents, when her first tantrum began, which she opted to stage naked, on the toilet. Perhaps she too was resisting repatriation into our routine, or just punishing me for sending her away. In retrospect, I have more sympathy, but in the moment maternity was looking almost comically miserable.

Were I seeking sisterhood in my rancor, I wouldn’t need to search far. The new vogue of decrying the realities of childrearing seems to gain weekly momentum. A few days ago, one woman posted “I hate being a mom” on Yahoo Questions to an empathic chorus of comments. The week prior, on Urban Baby the very same words were offered up to couple of dozen virtual amens. Of course that’s nothing compared to the two-thousand odd responses to that exact “secret confession” from a few years ago. In August, a writer at Daily Kos Googled “I hate being a mom” and found about 57,600,000 results.

Such confessions have long existed outside such pixilated provinces, in a growing book industry dedicated to such post-lactic breast-beating. A decade ago Rachel Cusk’s fearsome memoir A Life’s Work spawned the hating motherhood genre. I read it five years ago, while massively pregnant; it had been a gift from a (childfree) friend who suggested I break my personal ban on any books about what to expect when I was myself expecting. “She’s British, cranky,” her card said in understatement. Cusk’s unmitigated anguish suggested I was sure to despise the whole impending enterprise. In spite of myself, it turns out I don’t. In fact, I find all the snuggling and silliness to be obscene amounts of fun, far outweighing the few holiday parties I missed, and the occasional naked toilet tantrum.

Journalists have joined the motherhood-sucks march. Most notably, Jennifer Senior’s divisive New York Magazine cover story “All Joy and No Fun” which added reported data to the angst, and landed a deal for a forthcoming book of her own. (I think Senior is fantastic, and yet I felt ambivalence about this article; I'm very excited for her book) In the meantime, Jessica Valenti’s rushed screed Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, was released this fall, claiming to explore structural issues alongside its detailed episodes about how motherhood sucks, yet delivering only vagaries instead of investigating solutions. (I expressed my displeasure with this book in a review for the Boston Globe.)

More recently, Michelle Cove’s I Love Mondays: And Other Confessions for Devoted Working Moms landed on shelves, and on Katie Couric’s televised couch. Cove offers helpful, if pedestrian, advice structured around the most common confessions and “bad–mommy stories,” she has heard interviewing mothers, like “Confession: ‘I hate missing my kid’s big moments, but not enough or quit my job,’” or “Confession: When I travel for business, I feel guilty for leaving the family but happy to get away,’” none of which could horrify even Carol Brady, much less Ayelet Waldman. But despite the extent of the maternal “crime,” women feel they are criminals, beset by anxiety over their own imperfection. “It’s really liberating,” Cove told me, "To know you’re not alone in the struggle. Truly freeing to know that you’re not crazy, you’re not just alone in your head.” I wonder, though, how many people actually feel isolated from a perceived universe of perfectly satisfied parents. Don’t we all know that childrearing sucks, at least some of the time? Haven’t shows like “Parenthood” and “Up All Night” confirmed this for us culturally, if not the actual parents who emote to us at the playground or at dinner parties?

It strikes me that there’s something self-congratulatory about all this confession, as though we’re partaking in a radical act. But confession is not the same thing as liberation. We go all riot grrl on motherhood, offering up a primal scream, feeling badass about our noncompliance with the mystique, but really we’re just bitching. And just bitching is hardly radical. Nor does it change a thing.

Or does it? I called up Elizabeth Podnieks at Ryerson University in Toronto, who edited a collection of essays called Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture, and she suggested that there’s power in voicing hatred of motherhood. “Maybe the bad mommy voices out there are what’s needed to drown out the supermommy voices which are so unrealistic and untenable,” she said. Like all things related to women, she told me, we get offered versions on the virgin or the whore, on adoring motherhood or hating it. “It’s hard to have a calm rational conversation where everywhere we look we are bombarded by one dimensional images—like when the announcement that Kate Middleton is pregnant is treated like the world has been given a gift—so we have one dimensional responses.”

True. But, as Victoria Budson, who directs the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me, confession “obfuscates the fact that the problem that they’re discussing is not an individual problem but a structural problem. Confession does not move is to the broader policy discussion which is where the answers lie.” Still, Budson believes that all this public avowing means that we’re pacing the narrative arc of social change, and that makes her hopeful.

As one demographer who works on policy issues quipped to me last year at her office in Paris, “What we need is a feminist government to help women because in France we can’t find feminist husbands to help us do it.” Here, we have none of the former, and too few of the later. In Europe, German kindergartens stay open until dinnertime, Norway requires paid paternity leave, France offers fifty shades of post-natal care from lactation consulting to vaginal reconditioning (not to mention pediatrics), and so on. But in the U.S. and E.U. alike, women do most of the work that men did two generations ago at the office, plus most of the work that women did at home. Cri de coeurs about our personal wretchedness aren’t going to change the social structure that maintains that despair.

Sociologist Robin Simon, whose research on parental misery has become a fixture in the new hating motherhood literature, once told me something that often I think about. She said, “we are the only country that gives people no support in raising kids, and the only on that tells them they have to love it.” She’s right. No wonder we want to tell everyone how much we hate it. Now let’s continue the arc, and finally shift our structure so we can have less to confess.