Reading yesterday’s Globe and Mail has me wondering, for the umpteenth time, just how many mothers’ lives we need to dissect and critique before we feel confident about simply moving forward with our own version of what works for our own families.
Leah McLaren’s exhortation that employed mothers be “honest” about what their lives look like may conclude with a call to “be a little less hard on ourselves,” but along the way she manages to rip apart another woman’s description of what works best for her, and dismiss it with a sarcastic, “Hooray for you.”
The piece reads like an exercise in myopia and apparently-unintentional irony. McLaren says she picked up Reva Seth’s The Mom Shift with high hopes, seeking a more complex commentary on combining motherhood and career – but becomes derailed by the story of a mother of five who claims she “never saw any of [her] children as obstacles or burdens.” This prompts McLaren to rebut that she rarely thinks of her children as anything but burdens and obstacles, and a comparison of McLaren’s “real” life to Michelle’s (the woman profiled in the book) apparently unbelievable one.
Now, before I jump into what drives me completely bonkers about this, I should pause here and share two things:
One, I know Reva Seth, consider her a friend, and in fact blurbed The Mom Shift because I think it’s awesome. That said, I don’t have a problem with my friends facing thoughtful critique. In fact, I’m a big fan of thoughtful critique. It’s just that this Globe piece is not a thoughtful critique. (More on that in a sec.)
Two, I get – I totally get – McLaren’s irritation at reading these kinds of statements from other mothers. An acquaintance of mine once told me she’d “loved every second” of parenting her now-grown son, and I mentally called bullshit, because when you’re living in the throes of sleep deprivation and toddler tantrums, you tend to hear those kinds of comments as reinforcements of the inner critic in your own head who’s constantly telling you that you’re a terrible person for resenting your kids some of the time. I don’t think McLaren is a terrible person for resenting her kids; I totally relate.
OK, back to my main issue with her piece, which is this: I am so freaking tired of mothers tearing each other down in the name of “being honest” or “getting real.” (In fact, I’m tired of everybody tearing everybody else down in the name of that – but if I wrote that blog post, we’d be here all week. So let’s stick to this specific topic for today.)
Let’s talk for a minute about Michelle, this actual human being (lest we forget) who is raising five children (including a set of twins), is a currently-single mother and entrepreneur, and who says her kids inspired her to reinvent her life several times over, including following a divorce from a husband who, from my reading of the book, basically ruined the family financially.
Michelle describes her daily schedule as waking up at 5am to spend a couple of hours doing creative writing and responding to email before getting the kids up for school, hitting the gym 3-4 times a week, spending plenty of time with her kids and a focused six hours of work a day.
McLaren’s response? She dismisses Michelle’s routine as dishonest and unreal.
And OK, we could debate about whether Michelle ever deviates from her routine (I’m sure she does) or whether she’s shining it up a bit for publication (perhaps), but I’d like to focus instead on the bigger picture.
The Mom Shift is, in fact, a compendium of stories of literally hundreds of individual and unique mothers. Reva interviewed over 500 women in researching the book. And it’s intended as an antidote to the dominant media discourse, which focuses on where we’re falling short – on either the home front or the career one – and suggests that having kids is an obstacle to career success.
Reva’s goal with the book is quite the opposite of telling women there’s one right way to do things; rather, she’s gone to great lengths to demonstrate that the only right way to do things is the way that works for you. She shares hundreds of examples to hint at the infinite variety of ways that families meet the challenges of juggling their many priorities.
Nonetheless, some readers – including some with columns in national media outlets – will see in each story a model they believe someone out there wants them to replicate. We compare ourselves to other people, and we come up short – which is inevitable, since they have different strengths, skills, priorities, and lives than we do. There’s sure to be some axis on which we don’t measure up.
Here’s a radical suggestion: What if we stopped comparing?
What if we stopped making it all about us, and instead simply bore witness and accepted others’ truths?
What if we could quiet the voices in our heads that tell us we are not enough, and allowed ourselves to feel compassion for our desires and choices – and the desires and choices of others?
What would it feel like if we could stop worrying that someone might attack us for living too perfect a life, and simply lived it?
What if we could hold space for more options, more definitions of success, more definitions of family and work and hell, maybe even “real”?
What if “real” could include the bits that feel almost too easy, as well as the stuff that’s hard?
What if “honest” could include the stuff that feels vulnerable, even if it might not seem that way to someone else? (I find myself wondering here whether Michelle considers her 5:30am morning pages something to brag about, or a private devotional act, or something I can’t guess at. Who are we to call it perfection, or unattainable, or unreal, or anything else?)
I read Leah McLaren’s piece as one woman’s triggered reaction to another woman’s story – without a single column inch dedicated to asking herself why the hell she found it so triggering.
And I have absolute compassion for her triggered reaction, while also feeling profound disappointment that she chose to publish it, thereby adding to the heaps of criticism women face simply by making their own damned choices in life. The world does not need another voice judging and shaming women for their choices. It does not need more reinforcement that it’s normal and acceptable for women to compare ourselves to other women and find ourselves lacking. It does not need knee-jerk dismissals of hundreds of women’s real, honest stories – stories that ache to be told and heard – on account of our own shame.
What we really need – more than we need McLaren’s version of “honesty” – is women (and men, trans* people and kids) who know our own truth, who stand for our own values, and who greet each other with compassion and respect. What we really need is to unlearn our compare-and-despair compulsion, and savour what freedom from the dualism of canonization/demonization tastes like. That’s the prerequisite for being less hard on ourselves – not succumbing to peer pressure to make our lives more acceptable and “real.”
And… if you’re feeling a big “yes!” after reading this post, and asking yourself how exactly you might move out of your own compare-and-despair loops, I invite you to check out Worship Wisely, the 6-week group coaching program I’ve co-designed with Tanya Geisler. We’re exploring this very topic in depth, and in an intimate, supportive and compassionate group. More details here.