As my son prepares to start college, I find myself in various virtual and in-person networks for parents of college students. These spaces allow parents to share their feelings and opinions, as well as seek advice. There are some men, but the majority of these groups are made up of women. Throughout these spaces, and indeed in the “parent-going-to-college” genre of literature, a gentle patronizing tone arises. It seems to say “oh those moms.” It mocks moms as people who just can’t let go, as too sentimental, too clingy, and too worried about their kids. It’s a relief for those who acknowledge that the empty nest is accompanied by an identity crisis. Oh. Those. Moms. What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just let got and get a life?
It’s just not fair. This attitude disregards American motherhood expectations. It doesn’t reflect the behaviors, skills, and ways that women are expected to be. American society expects a woman to be able to adjust to her child’s needs from the moment she considers becoming a mom, whether through adoption or childbirth. The expectant mother must change her eating habits, drinking habits, medication use, lifestyle, hobbies, and work path to accommodate the child’s needs. Some states have made changes to abortion rights that require her to give up her life even for a cluster of cells with barely differentiated cells.
Some changes cannot be forced. Research by Erika Hoeksema, her colleagues and others has shown that biological mothers can experience brain changes as a result. These adaptation requirements continue once the child is born, especially for heterosexual couples. The AAUW discovered that American mothers have reduced their work hours and stepped out of the workforce in response to a lack of affordable childcare. This has led to them making career decisions, including turning down promotions. These are based on childcare considerations.
The work of mothers doesn’t stop when children are out the diapers and in the school system. Intensive mothering has become a common practice over the past decade. Sharon Hays, sociologist, has described this in her book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood individual mothers (and not networks or collectives) are primarily responsible for a “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive” child-raising process that meets each child’s unique needs and ensures intellectual, athletic, and social success. Dr. Catherine Verniers explains that this is possible because mothers have to do more in the home. This workload does not include physical labor. It also includes mental labor.
Dr. Lindsey Robertson, along with her colleagues, identified six types mental labor mothers must do in order to achieve their family goals. These include planning meals to suit different preferences, organizing transportation to events, planning family vacations, and remembering birthdays, appointments, and special requirements. Through volunteer work, mothers have helped to strengthen American civic society. They have also become experts in everything, from online education to the best cleaning products.
Over 19 years, mothers become very good at doing all of this — they become experts in maximizing outcomes and begin to automatically anticipate needs. What if we valued mothers’ skills and learned habits over time? What if mothers were treated the same way as elite athletes? As people who have endured extreme personal sacrifices in pursuit of excellence and immersed their identity with those pursuits — and face challenges when they retire. Similar to the HBO documentary about elite athletes. The Weight of Gold Mothers might feel regret about the choices they made, their identity or lack of purpose. Mothers don’t feel weak or sentimental simply because they are sad about this life transition. They are people who have retired from one position and are now taking on another. Instead of being patronizing, let us show respect for their accomplishments as well as give them the space to explore new avenues.