Is there anything more tortured than our era’s relationship with motherhood? Exhibit A is an op-ed by novelist and publisher Karen Rinaldi in The New York Times’ most recent Sunday Review. While the piece meanders a bit, its central message is encapsulated by this one sentence: “Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege — one that many of us choose selfishly.”
I found that view striking. As a woman who considers motherhood my vocation, I’d like to amend the first portion, agree with the second, and refute the third.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s start with where I agree with Rinaldi. She takes issue with her mother’s comment, “‘Motherhood, it’s the hardest job in the world. All sacrifice!’” Now, I wasn’t so comfortable with Rinaldi publicly criticizing her own mother’s word choice in the aforementioned casual comment that launched this article. But I agree that motherhood should not be described as a job, and that it’s not all sacrifice.
I nodded along to Rinaldi observing, “Some days were sure to end in tears of exhaustion, but the tears didn’t outweigh the joy. Even on the bad days.” Right, some days are hard, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
As anyone who’s been on a fertility journey knows, motherhood is not necessarily a given, even for those who yearn for it. It’s also heartening to see motherhood described as a privilege in such a mainstream media outlet, rather than one targeted at explicitly at religious or social conservatives.
We Give Things Up, Yes, But It’s Worth It
When I hear “To the world you are one person, but to one person you may be the world,” I envision my family. And I believe that raising my three daughters is the most important and impactful thing I will do in my lifetime.
For that reason, I’d like to tease out Rinaldi’s term “sacrifice.” She writes, “A woman is expected to sacrifice her time, ambition and sense of self to a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity.” It’s true that my time and ambition are channeled differently now than when I was a 20-something, childless professional. However, I don’t believe I’ve lost my individual identity. Instead, my identity has expanded, making room for both marriage and motherhood; it’s been a matter of addition, not subtraction.
Parenthood involves sacrifice, because life inherently involves trade-offs. Time is finite, and we all need to choose how we want to spend it.
If you become a parent, life will change. You have new priorities for your time and money. But motherhood has also made me significantly more efficient. My life is more meaningful now than it was when I was younger and freer to do whatever I liked, whenever I wanted. And this gets to what I believe we really sacrifice as parents — namely, the ego.
Parenthood—because fathers make sacrifices too—is about learning to put others’ needs before your own. Especially when you’re raising young children, who are completely dependent on you for everything, parenthood is a daily exercise in personal discipline and service. If you were never a morning person, your baby will teach you to rise with the sun — because if she’s awake and mobile, you’d better be too. If you were someone who never cottoned to schedules, young children and their need for routine will imprint that onto you.
Parenthood is about stretching beyond what’s most convenient or comfortable. It’s about persisting even when you’re bone tired, because someone needs to run out for the breakfast milk. It’s about learning through trial and error because what works for every kid is different, and they’re all important to you.
Parenthood deepens your innate reservoir of patience, because you’ll need to read the same bedtime story a zillion times, always with appropriate gusto. Parenthood also helps you shed self-consciousness. In my 20s, I’m sure I would never have sung aloud while walking downtown or riding the Metro. But now, if my baby is fussy, I don’t hesitate to serenade her.
Parenthood Is Not Selfish
This brings me back around to the issue of selfishness. Unlike Rinaldi, I don’t believe motherhood is selfish. If anything, parenthood may be the world’s longest and most intense self-improvement class. Children reflect back our words and deeds, holding a mirror up to us. Just as the waves’ repetitive motion polishes pearls, our daily interactions with our children can make us better versions of ourselves.
There are also remarkable people like Rabbi Susan Silverman, who works to find permanent homes for children who would otherwise have none. That is an unmitigated good deed.
On a larger scale, our fertility rate is already at a record low. Is this really the national narrative we want to tell — that our continued survival is selfish — so we can drive the birth rate even lower?
Personally, I believe motherhood is my opportunity to fulfill the first biblical commandment (Be fruitful and multiply). I also view it as an opportunity to serve. The theologian Albert Schweitzer famously said, “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” I find a lot of wisdom there. If we’re not serving others or contributing to something larger than ourselves, what are we doing with our lives?
In the words of singer-songwriter Julie Geller, “[I’m] standing on the shoulders/ Of the ones who came before us/ And [I’m] planting/ For the ones who will outlive us.” Because that, in a nutshell, is what matters.