December 10, 2019

An Ode to Motherhood

When I was in my early 20s, I gently placed motherhood into the realm of: There is no question I want to do this, but later, much later. First, I need to explore and change the world. Oh, and I also need to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am equal to men.

This was part of the message I was ingesting from feminist leaders at the time, and it felt OK because I was nowhere near ready to “settle down.” There was another part to the message, though, that didn’t feel right: Women shouldn’t value motherhood as our mothers and grandmothers had. Bearing children “reduces women to their wombs.” Motherhood, we were told, was “unfeminist.”

Compared with the intersectional mess that feminism has now become, this theoretical gobbledygook — which was not even remotely part of original feminism — almost seems quaint. The problem is, it affected a generation of women. Women who put off child-rearing until it was too late; women who had children, but then spent too much time away from them; women who would preach to other women that motherhood “destroys one’s identity.”

Perhaps because I, too, waited until it was almost too late, perhaps because I had a wonderful career before I had my son, I think I am able to look at all of this with some objectivity. And I would like to send to women in their 20s today a very different message: Motherhood — in all of its beauty, glory, wonder and exhaustion — will compare with nothing else you will ever do in your life. But it is not for every woman. It doesn’t make a woman a woman, but precisely because it is a role, a responsibility that is so profound, only each woman can know if it is right for her.

What is unfeminist? The devaluation of motherhood and, as a result, children. One of the saddest sights I see every year in New York City: A beautiful day at the park, strollers are lined up one after the other — with kids old enough to walk unhappily strapped in. A bevy of nannies sit and chat, seemingly unbothered by the miserable state of their charges.

Motherhood — in all of its beauty, glory, wonder and exhaustion — will compare with nothing else you will ever do in your life.

There are, of course, wonderful nannies who love the children they care for as their own. But let’s be honest here: They typically work for women who don’t “privilege” their careers over their kids.

It’s true: motherhood, especially in the early years, wears you out in ways you never thought possible. (I remember evenings of binge watching “The Good Wife,” not because I loved it but because I literally didn’t have the energy to find a better show.) But if you make it central to your identity, you will experience levels of joy and fulfillment that no job or no career can possibly touch.

And the effects of good mothering on children are profound. Can a father make up for a deficit of good mothering? Sometimes. I have met extraordinary fathers. But, in general, mothers and fathers bring different, often overlapping skills to the parenting table.

When I see a great mother, I don’t care what career she had before or will have after her kids are grown. (Motherhood is a lifetime role, but the in-house years are roughly 10 to 15.) When I see a great mother, I am in awe of her ability to tap into layers of patience, compassion and empathy that other women just shout about. I am in awe of the magnitude of her emotional capacity, an emotional intelligence that can understand the 1,500 different types of crying.

Yes, we can all laugh at overprotective Jewish mothers. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that there’s a surfeit of Yiddish proverbs on the subject: “Mothers understand what their children cannot say.” “One mother achieves more than a hundred teachers.” “God could not be everywhere so he created mothers.”

I remain in awe of my own mother, who provided me with an ability to see every moment of motherhood — the good, the boring, the sleep deprived — as precious, as a gift from God. And although she was able to experience only the first two years of my son’s life, I believe I am honoring her memory by trying, each day, to reach for the highest ground that she herself provided.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author, cultural critic and mother living in New York City.