New Moms

Today's Mothers Face Far Greater Challenges

| by Suzanne Venker

Today is one of the rare days I find myself alone. With my work-from-home husband out of the house and two children in school, silence surrounds me.

It's a beautiful sound.

I say beautiful because for the past nine years I have been home with my children full-time – with no nanny or grandma in the background. And unlike most parents today, I didn't send my children to preschool until they were – yikes! – 3 ½. This year, however, my son started kindergarten – which means for a portion of every day I am alone. Utterly, completely and wonderfully alone.

While the idea of sending my son to full-day kindergarten was enticing, I did not choose this option. Not only do kindergartners get tired and cranky (a fact that seems lost on my generation), come September my son will be gone from 8 until 3 every day and I will lose some measure of control over his life. Besides, I happen to like my son and want to be with him as much as possible. Call me crazy.

Still, I'm not despondent about entering this next phase of motherhood. I'm positively giddy about the future, the days that have yet to unfold when my children go their way and I go mine – and we come together at the end of the day to build a life together. There's a distinct feeling of pleasure mothers gets in greeting their children at 3 p.m. – after they've have had a chance to take a shower, run an errand and eat lunch alone or (thank God!) with another adult. You can see it in the faces of mothers at school: those carting babies and toddlers around look downright frazzled, while the more seasoned mothers – whose arms are notably empty – look ebullient.

I think a lot about the mothers carting babies and toddlers around. I see them everywhere: Target, the grocery store, the gym, the parks, everywhere. When I walk past them I feel an immediate stab of guilt. After all, I know what their lives are like – and it looks nothing like my new life. I know they're happy to be home and have momentary pleasures that defy description but at the same time are emotionally drained. I know this because now that I've passed their stage of motherhood, I see clearly how bad things were for a very long time. Today I sleep; then I didn't. Today I have silence; then I didn't. Today I can shop alone; then I couldn't. Today I eat what I want for lunch; then I ate what my kids were eating. Today I can finish a conversation on the telephone; then I couldn't. Today I can hear what newscasters are saying on the television; then I couldn't. Today when we travel or eat out as a family, it's a pleasure; then it wasn't. Today I like sex; then I didn't. Indeed, the difference between the first stage of motherhood and being a mother of school-age children cannot be overestimated.

Which is why it's wrong to expect mothers to be silent about what it's like to stay home full-time. Women should be able to admit that the early years – that period of time between birth and kindergarten when our kids are tethered to us 24/7 – is terribly difficult. But most don't feel comfortable sharing this fact, so the physical and emotional demands of the job become shrouded behind a mask of smiles.

Indeed, Americans have lost their sense of humor when it comes to motherhood. In the good ol' days, women were allowed to complain about children without fear of censure. I have a set of coasters that depict mothers from previous generations in various states of distress. At the bottom of each coaster is a saying. My favorite one reads, "Mother of five. Grandmother of ten. Drunk by seven." And remember "The Cosby Show"? Some of the funniest episodes were when Bill Cosby's character counted the days until his children left for college and he and his wife could be alone again.

Having just survived the early years with my sanity still intact (for the most part), I believe it's disingenuous to pretend early motherhood is something it isn't. Staying home with one's children is the most important and satisfying task a person can take on, and the rewards are well worth our efforts. I can hardly catch my breath when I look at my two children today and realize that every moment of pain and sacrifice has been worth its weight in gold. Still, the early years at home do rock your world – and this includes your marriage, your identity and even your sanity.

This is true in any generation; but it is worse for today's mothers, who are raising their children in a vacuum. Our transient society, in which family members no longer live near one another, causes mothers to feel depleted at the end of the day. In addition, our increasingly desolate neighborhoods make mothers feel isolated; and our culture of intensive parenting negatively affects their stress level and emotional well-being. Today's mothers may have modern conveniences to help ease their burden, but they have far more emotional burdens than mothers in previous generations.

It's no wonder so many mothers go back to work.
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