Before I became a mother 19 months ago, I knew that having a child would transform my life.
My mother raised five children over three decades, often on her own, and by watching her I understood the sacrifices required to sustain a family.
Yet I considered my mom’s struggles extraordinary; she had her first child at 19 and never got the chance to complete college. She sold crafts and worked part-time in customer service jobs to help provide for her children.We experienced joy and pain sometimes in equal measure, but few hard nights ended without one of us cracking a joke that unleashed hysterical laughter.
My mother put our needs second to hers without fail. I’m grateful for her generosity, but know at what cost it came.
As I approached my due date, though, I was unsure how my story of motherhood would unfold. I knew it wouldn’t mirror my mom’s experience or that of my paternal grandmother, a Mexican-American housewife who raised seven children.
Yet I found little inspiration in the mainstream account of motherhood as a manifestation of devotion and hyper-perfection, or a never-ending inner conflict over whether to lean in or out, or an unforgiving combination of both. I saw flashes of my own journey in those realities, but they ultimately felt foreign,defined by a kind ofprivilegemy daughter will know from birth but I did not.
As I stumbled sleeplessly through the early weeks of parenthood, I yearned to connect with other mothers but feared judgment. To my surprise I found, through my prenatal yoga class, a community of accepting women who cheered mothers on when they breastfed or bottle fed, co-slept or used a crib, stayed at home or worked full-time.
Their gracious support made it possible for me to imagine a more generous version of American motherhood. So did the electric current of love I felt for my own child, which sparked a visceral empathy for other mothers and families.
I craved a narrative about our experiences that championed unity between friends and strangers alike, that could name and reject the racial, social and economic forces that have historically divided mothers.
“This story has room for each of us.”
I wanted a narrative thatwouldn’t make enemies of mothers butcould capture our diverse identities and complexneeds; that acknowledged how prioritizing thebottom line above all else putsunbearable strain on families; that dismissedthe craven notion that struggle in motherhood is a personal failing.
Some are telling that complicated story with passion and courage, and it’s the one we need to hear every day not just on an occasion like Mother’s Day.
This story doesn’t have a controversial catchphrase like “Mommy Wars” and isn’t the subject of bestselling books, but it’s one that has room for each of us, everyone who counts themselves a mother to a child, no matter how that bond was forged. It’s a story that requires destroying the cultural myths and political machinery that will never let a woman or mother win. And if we tell that story of solidarity enough times, it might just set us free.
A path to solidarity
My daughter was 11 months old when the 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish shore. She could walk and say agua,and I marveled at the slow revelation of her personality: daring, observant, goofy.
I’d seen the emotional tweets about Kurdi’s death and avoided looking at the image. I’d never shied from bearing witness to tragedy before, but I discovered that newfound visceral empathy for mothers and families could be crippling.
When I clicked on a related story not expecting to see his tiny body, I began heaving and sobbing. As many parents have remarked, his lifeless pose mimicked our children peacefully asleep in their cribs.
“We should declare that if you are human, you are kin, and deserving of protection.”
I wept because it forced me to consider losing my own daughter on those unfathomable terms. And I wept because our fates as parents are too often decided by luck, geography and wealth. Perhaps if one of my father’s grandparents had not left Mexico in the early 1900s, I’d also be desperately scrambling across the border to seek a better life for my children.
I felt called as a mother to stand in solidarity with Kurdi’s living father and deceased mother, and every other refugee parent and caregiver who wanted to spirit their children away from a war zone.
That abstract feeling, however, was difficult to turn into action. I donated a baby carrier to a local drive so that a refugee walking to the European Union could more easily transport an exhausted child. The gesture felt important yet fleeting.
Then I read a movingpiece by Nathanael Johnson at Grist, a friend and fellow parent, who called for a united movement against grave worldwide threats to home and family. He wrote:
If we are going to solve the looming environmental crises of our time, we are going to have to give up our tribal loyalties for solidarity. Im not saying that hearts and minds will change on a grand scale: They wont. Im just saying that those of us who do feel the bond of shared humanity from across the globe are experiencing something powerful theres a propulsive moral force in this desire to protect the vulnerable and we should grasp that with both hands. We should declare that if you are human, you are kin, and deserving of protection.
That sentiment lingered with me. It wasn’t a child-rearing philosophy like attachment parenting and it couldn’t advise me on how to handle work-life balance, but somehow the principle of solidarity showed me how to be a mother and a human in the world, amidst very real daily concerns.
In my search for quality childcare, I could pay a tuition that included substantial vacation time for the women who spend their days with my daughter, and who have their own children. It wasn’t easy to accept at first, because it meant taking time off or finding backup childcare, but I had to confront my own complicity in a system that regularly devalues essential caregiving work performed by women.
When Iadvocated for my own needs at work, with an immensely supportive supervisor, it meant thinking about the 17% of the workforce whose employment schedules are unpredictable or unstable. When I took sick days to tend to my daughter, I still worried about the negative implications for my career but considered paid leave a luxury some families are just one illness away from financial ruin.
Our lived experiences
This awareness has a purpose beyond feeling guilty about one’s privilege. Solidarity isn’t pitying or patronizing, nor is it a reason to feel smug about one’s politics. Rather, it’s an expression of empathy amidst the realization that while motherhood can be a universal experience, the details of one’s struggles and victories are not.
The story of American motherhood isn’t just a tale about the overworked professional woman who pumps breastmilk on business trips and still finds time to bake cookies or the mom who endures ridicule when she breastfeeds and co-sleeps with her toddler.
It’s also the lived experiences of black women who worry society will condemn their sons and daughters to prison or death, and immigrant women separated from their families while they live in detention centers, and parents who fear their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming children will be bullied, and conservative women who worry about how radical social change will affect their kids.
Supporting another mother, even a stranger, doesn’t require people to become activists, tirelessly fighting for or against causes they don’t truly understand. Instead, the most profound gift you can give to another mother is to hear and see her, suspending judgment and skepticism even if for a moment.
“Listening is an act of solidarity; its also an act of love,” says Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign.
“Listening is an act of solidarity; its also an act of love.”
In Poo’s efforts to organize caregivers, she sees how many people do the work of mothering without the official title. Though we often believe that biology is destiny where family is concerned, being a mother isn’t determined just by pregnancy, childbirth or genetics. It is a relationship bound foremost by unyielding love and nurturance, and that is a role anyone, including an adoptive parent, stepparent, grandparent or queer parent, can fulfill.
Solidarity, saysCamilla Taylor, counsel for the civil rights organization Lambda Legal, means making no assumptions about how people form their families and understandingthat not all of them look the same. Some lost a mother or never had one; others comprise a single dad or two dads.
Expanding our definition of motherhood and family to be more inclusive can guide and inspire children, particularly at a time when they hear that it’s acceptable to demean and denigrate some of their peers, including transgender kids. “Our job is to help our children stand up for the security, respect and dignity for all children,” says Taylor.
Destroy this message
This dream of solidarity holds infinite promise and meaning, yet so many mothers remain drawn to the divisive status quo.
While it could be easy to blame them, that’s a counter-productive response, saysKalpana Krishnamurthy, senior policy director at Forward Together, a nonprofit organization that advocates for families. Instead, we should focus on themessage mothers hear and internalize about what it means to be American: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you andyour family will be deserving of sympathy and aid.
If you need public support when transitioning between jobs, you must not be working that hard. If your child enters the criminal justice system, you must not have raised your kids right. If you’re a struggling young mom, you shouldn’t have had kids at an early age.
“I think it’s really important that we don’t internalize that narrative,” saysKrishnamurthy of the idea that bootstraps alone are strong enough to brace our families in times of need.
Similarly, saysKathleen Gerson, author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Familyand professor of sociology at New York University, mothers often find their choices subject to “social disregard and sanctioning.” A highly educated, middle-class woman may be shamed for valuing work and parenthood equally, whereas a woman who has few job prospects and can’t find childcare might be admonished for staying home with her children.
“Why do we do this to each other and to ourselves?”
“It’s a glaring example of how we continue to place mothers, in particular, in these binds, where whatever choice they make is seen as inappropriate,” she says. “Why do we do this to each other and to ourselves?”
There are many answers to this question, but perhaps chief among them is that our culture and politics are misaligned on the most important issues.We are told to cherish family but our policies prove that the needs of business routinely come first.
Given the worship of family in American life, it’s surprising to see profitability and limited government used as justification for denying people equal pay, paid parental and sick leave, and predictable schedules, among other policies that families need to thrive.
Mothers, says Gerson, become hostile or ambivalent toward the choices that other mothers make as they grapple with how their choices are viewed.
“We live in a society in which there are so manycontradictionsin what we expect from mothers thattheres this strong feeling you need to defend yourself against other peoples lack of respect for you,” Gerson says. “The only way to defend your choice from attack is to say my choice is better than your choice.”
Share your story
Solidarity thrives best when we’re brave enough to share our own struggles or when we’re capable of listening without judgment to another mother who takes the risk of doing the same.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the advocacy organization MomsRising, says she’s witnessed what happens when mothers conjure the power of story.
“It lifts the stigma of thinking that you have failed individually,” she says. “When one person shares a story, theres a domino effect…and it [lets] other moms know youre not in it alone.”
That kind of affirmation is essential, but let’s not pretend getting it is easy. There will be some who respond to gestures of solidarity with indifference or a scoff, and we may never understand what drives some mothers to make questionable or tragic decisions.
Practicing solidarity, Krishnamurthy says, is like developing a muscle it won’t get stronger unless it’s regularly tested. And if solidarity is like a muscle, then judgment is akin to a reflex. No matter how many times I remind myself that I don’t know a woman’s life or her child like I do my own, judgment remains a convenient response.
“Do some stuff. With a whole bunch of love.”
I’ve learned that perfection is an enemy of solidarity. I will make mistakes and fail at supporting other mothers, but I want to hear and learn their experiences. I want to take opportunities small and large to ensure that mothers and their families flourish, whether that’s through helping a colleague navigate parental leave, donating diapers, vaccinating my child or voting.
Solidarity shouldn’t be overwhelming.“It seems relatively simple,”Krishnamurthy says.“Do some stuff. With a whole bunch of love.”
Those who seek solidarity, including male partners and caregivers and the childless, can help transform our collective experience of parenthood so that it encompasses every family, not just those with the loudest voices. That solidarity can hasten a national reckoning over the deep conflict between family, politics and business. And it can lift up mothers as worthy of dignity and equality.
This is the legacy of motherhood I want my daughter to inherit, should she ever choose this journey. It’s also the only appropriate gift I can think to give my own mother.
Now 66 years old, she spends her free time reading and competing in pickle ball tournaments. When my daughter is ill and neither my husband or I can take a sick day, my mom travels an hour-and-a-half to watch her. She takes my brother’s two daughters to softball practice and the movies. She drives up and down the west coast to help my sister run her business and be a grandparent to my other sister’s 4-year-old son.
The truth is that when my story of motherhood unfolded, it did reflect my mom’s experience but not in ways that I expected. She lived solidarity, however imperfectly, and without her example, my heart would be less full, less capable of that electric current that connects me to humanity.
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