Politics & Policy

The Supposed ‘Horror Show’ of Motherhood

Charlize Theron and Asher Miles Fallica in Tully (Focus Features)
Contrary to what you may have heard, the benefits of being a mom greatly outweigh the costs.

Mother’s Day is approaching quickly, and ladies, you know what that means: It’s time to buy your own darn gifts and book your own darn brunches and maybe even start drinking mid-morning in your kitchen out of one of those comically large wine glasses that can fit an entire bottle of Chardonnay.

Why? Because you’re a mom, and no one appreciates you, am I right? You have to do everything, life is terrible, you haven’t slept in 84 hours, you have barf on your underutilized yoga pants, and your husband doesn’t understand why you’ve broken into wild helpless sobs simply because he accidentally let the baby chew on a Sharpie cap instead of that weirdly omnipresent BPA-free $24 chewy giraffe.

Yes, in case you haven’t heard, motherhood is a terrible, thankless nightmare—or so we’re told. Turn on the TV, open a magazine, surf the web, or browse through a bookstore, and there it is: The wildly popular “parenting is worse than a Stephen King story” genre, ready to engulf you in its gaping maw.

“Charlize Theron explains how ‘horror’ of motherhood prepared her for ‘Tully,’” read the headline of a recent story in USA Today, pegged to Theron’s new movie about a “married, middle-class mom at the end of her rope.” Meaghan O’Connell’s widely-acclaimed new book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, “renders this normal and horrific experience” — that would be having a baby — “real,” according to a review from NPR. What is the experience really and truly like, the piece goes on to ask? “This joyous, useful, grim book tells it straight: F***ing awful.” Wheee!

Motherhood is the “dumbest job ever,” notes a tongue-in-cheek April 27 New York Times op-ed by Kimberly Harrington, the author of a new humor book entitled, Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words. A more ponderous new release, Motherhood, a novel by Sheila Heti, agonizes over the course of more than 300 apparently insufferable pages as to whether motherhood can rob a woman of her freedom and — feel free to adopt your own very serious facial expression here — artistic worth.

Take heed, terrified would-be parents of America: The marvelous far outweighs the so-called horrifying — and at least 90 percent of the latter becomes funny over time.

Then there’s Netflix’s new show on motherhood, The Letdown. It’s supposedly a comedy, but hold on to that giant oversized wine glass: It is actually “unrelentingly bleak,” as Sady Doyle notes in Elle. (In one recent interview, the show’s creators described motherhood as an “obliterating experience for a woman.” Yikes.)

One of my favorite things about this explosion of motherhood-related angst is the rather hilarious trope that accompanies it, found in almost everything ever written about the “parenting is hell” genre. I’ll paraphrase here: “How marvelously refreshing! How stunning and brave! Before this book or article or movie was released, motherhood was only described as a peaceful paradise, full of flowers and rainbows and unicorn rides! We apparently have never heard of The Feminine Mystique, and no, we haven’t heard of Erma Bombeck, either! Finally, the silence — nay, the repression — is broken!”

Seriously? Where have these people been? Trust me: It is no news flash that having a baby is difficult, or that living with a newborn can be worse than living next to a full-time marching band when it comes to sleep. Moms talk about these things — and other problems, too! — all the time.

Parenting can indeed be challenging and work-intensive — especially until kids are about three. This isn’t exactly the world’s most closely-guarded secret, and I also doubt it is helpful to describe the entire gig as one nonstop waking nightmare, but so it goes. Here’s the good news: Soon enough, you can start training kids to weed the garden and take out the garbage and tell you jokes, and before you know it, you have a teenager who is hopefully not too surly and can drive himself to soccer practice! (Harrington’s otherwise-entertaining New York Times essay, which mimics a job description for mothers, makes the mistake of referring to children as “co-workers.” Heavens, no, my friend! Unlike co-workers, you can tell your kids to do the dishes.)

Weirdly enough, the most common elements of torture invoked in the growing “motherhood is awful” canon seem largely self-imposed — the fruits of a particularly American earth-mother perfectionism, paired with a strange belief that good parenting involves making yourself as miserable as possible while sacrificing all sense of self. If you decide to co-sleep with your child in your bed until said child is two years old, for instance, you’re probably not going to get much sleep for two years. If you decide against scientific evidence that baby formula is bottled hemlock and can never be used, ever — even when you’re, say, sick in bed with strep throat — well, good luck to you.

Heti’s book, in particular, strikes upon one of the most mystical American beliefs surrounding motherhood. Please say it with me, if you will, in a voice resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi: “If you are ready, you will know.”

Here’s some real talk: That’s baloney. For many people, no magical biological clock ever kicks in; sometimes, you just have to say “It’s time.” Unfortunately, our culture’s growing hyperventilation about motherhood likely won’t help those who are on the fence. Take heed, terrified would-be parents of America: Parenthood is a gift. Parenthood is a joy. The marvelous far outweighs the so-called horrifying — and at least 90 percent of the latter becomes funny over time.


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