What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was a Young Mom
If there was one message I heard as a new mom, it was that good moms sacrifice everything for their children, and I desperately wanted to be a good mom.
I will admit part of it is my personality, but part of it was pressure from the social ideal of motherhood. New moms are particularly susceptible to the indoctrination of the perfect mother image, or as the author of a 2017 Time magazine cover story on the subject titled it, “The Goddess Myth.” Women should be able to birth babies, breastfeed exclusively, work full-time, tend to other children, and positively glow while we do it. And should we fail, should our children fail — well, we just didn’t try hard enough.
By the time 2017 rolled around and I was the mother of an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, I had fallen deep into the pit of Perfect Mother Syndrome, which started with certain birth expectations and exclusive breastfeeding at great personal sacrifice to me and my son. Then followed the idea of only buying local, organic food even if it was out of our budget and not easily accessible. As a food writer and cookbook author, food is of considerable interest to me and I believe deeply in the power of local food systems, but I rarely gave myself a break and spent a disproportionate amount of my time growing, sourcing, cooking, and cleaning food. I made everything from scratch because I felt like I had to. It’s what good mothers do.
By the time my kids started school I was blasted by modern middle-class expectations for a child’s birthday party. I’m a product of the late 70s and early 80s, and up until social media, I thought birthday cakes were served in 9×13 cake pans and a great party was nothing more than running around the yard with my cousins, a few neighbor kids, and a sprinkler.
But now, according to a Baby Center Poll, 36% of parents spend more than $200 on their child’s birthday party and 11% of those spend over $500. Instagram and Pinterest both launched in 2010, when the perfect 1-year-old birthday party included a professional smash cake photoshoot (average cost $300 to $700) and a balloon archway. A quick Google search for “Smash Cake Photoshoot” shows more than 31 million results and includes not only perfect smash cake photoshoot outfits, but also accessories, themes, and décor. I missed out on that trend, but only because we were too poor at the time to consider it.
The elaborate nature of modern kids’ birthday parties sparked a slew of articles, including a 2016 story published in Reuters referring to it as the “Birthday Industrial Complex.” By the 20-teens American parents were growing weary of the elevated and expensive expectations of intensive parenting, and once the pandemic hit work burnout was coupled with parental burnout, which became a recipe for change.
Now that my kids are healthy and happy at the ages of 13 and 11 (yes, even the child who was supplemented with formula) I look back on their early childhood with a mix of emotions and a lot of compassion for the new-mom version of myself.
I wish I’d exchanged many of those hours in the kitchen for time spent coloring at that counter or zooming hot wheel cars across the floor. I wish I’d lowered my standards and realized the absolute best thing I could do for my children was to be a relaxed, present, and loving mom. I wish I’d known that my time, finite energy, and sense of well-being had to be nourished too, not sacrificed, pushed aside, or forgotten.
If that meant my toddler had extra screen time and ate lunch from a drive-through because I was up half the night with his baby sister, great. If that meant not exclusively breastfeeding, that was OK, too. Fed is best and continuing to breastfeed didn’t help any of us.
The mom I am today would tell New Mom Me that using available tools, resources and shortcuts is being a great mother. I would tell New Mom Me to remember that her health and well-being is just as important as any other member of our family. Sometimes you need to save yourself a sink full of dishes and stop for takeout (that’s okay!) or let Peppa the Pig entertain the kids while you read a book for 30 minutes, talk to a friend, or just sit still. (Again, that’s okay!) Some days are for learning lessons, pushing forward and growing, but some days are just for getting by.
Finally, I would say: Breathe, mama. There are one thousand ways to be a good mother. Find your way. Your babies are going to be fine. They will be better than fine. Ask for help. It’s OK to need it. And don’t let using resources to alleviate the pressure of motherhood induce guilt or shame; celebrate with a round of applause and a few high fives. You’ve realized you’re a person too, and you’re teaching that to your children.
Constant sacrifice didn’t make me a better mom; it just made me a tired one.