Men and women today are not conditioned for the degree of sacrifice that parenthood, and above all motherhood, requires. This is, I believe, the reason the transition to parenthood is so volatile for us, and why so many of us have a personality conflict with the baby stage.
Most of us develop more respect and empathy for our mothers and the sacrifices they made for us after we join the ranks of motherhood ourselves. Nevertheless, approximately 82 percent of us believe we are doing as good a job, or a better job with our children than our mothers did with us, according to Parenting magazine.
Any way you look at it, parenthood is much harder today than when we were small. Despite having options to work at home or outside the home, to have babies or not we feel we have few real choices. The new world that was supposed to accommodate smart, career-oriented moms and equal partnerships in marriage never materialized en masse.
Postpartum Support Meant Neighbors and Casseroles
Neighbors, coffee klatches, and church call-chains rallied around new parents of my mother's generation, making possible time off from Baby and iceboxes stocked with casseroles. Although we have mandated maternity and paternity leaves, support today is not comparable to that which many of our moms received, when a great number of women were still at home and readily chipped in to help one another's families.
Stay-at-Home Was the Norm
While many women in our mothers' middle- and upper-middle-class circles received college degrees and spent some time in professional life, most also relinquished work when they had children. Though their material expectations were modest, our moms could, in many instances, afford to stay home with us full-time when we were small.
Today 65 percent of moms with small children are in the workplace. According to Time magazine, economic conditions demand that 60 percent of us are in the workplace to pay for bills, not to garner extravagances. Some of us work outside the home because we would otherwise be unfulfilled and thus intolerable mommies. But the mommy majority prefers part-time or flexible hours, which are hard to come by in our seemingly evolved marketplace.
Dads Stuck Around
Decades ago, having children solidified marriage, according to the statistics. These days couples who take the parenthood plunge increase their chances of divorce.
Our fathers and their fathers were the primary, if not only, breadwinners in our families, and were not expected to devote much time to child care. Today, husbands and fathers fully expect to be engaged in child care and have taken up a bigger role. In fact, as leisure time in America shrinks, many dads today feel gypped, unable to devote the hours to their children that they intended to.
There used to be an enormous stigma attached to being a single mother. Today single motherhood is accepted, even admired, and a much larger percentage of families are run by single-mom heads of households.
Our Parents Were Younger, Both in Years and Experiences
As youngsters, we ran circles around our moms the same way our children dizzy us. But most of our moms were in their twenties and enjoyed the staple of energy that younger adults possess.
Today, men and women are waiting longer to marry and have children, making us five to fifteen years older and considerably more fatigued than previous generations of parents. Virtually unheard of in our moms' day, some modern women are experiencing first-time motherhood in their forties and fifties.
Experts tell us that older parents do make better parents, lending greater stability, confidence and patience to this most exacting of jobs. Yet, greater complications beset over-thirty parents.
Moms of our era face a previously unimaginable double whammy: the tribulations of early motherhood simultaneous to the onset of menopause. The single mother of a four-year-old she adopted from China, Cathy in Phoenix is coping the best she can. "Menopause, including the surgery I had last fall to ease some symptoms, has been difficult. I make every effort not to inflict my grumpiness on my daughter but I am sure sometimes she senses it."
As older moms, we are more apt to feel the pinch of being in the sandwich generation and the need to care for aging parents as well. "My parents are in terrible health," Keesha from Detroit says. "I can't tell you how much pressure I'm under, working full-time, trying to take care of two kids under the age of five, getting them to the doctor at the same time I'm taking my father to the doctor, or going with my mom to buy a new walker."
We're older in years and in experiences. Those of us who enjoyed independent, career-focused, and self-indulgent but also self-defining years, feel every ounce of sacrifice involved in mothering. Brought up to seek self-fulfillment and individual happiness, we are not wired the same way as was the so-called "greatest generation" who lived during World War II. We were not immersed from birth in societal values that prized God and country, much less duty.
Indeed, researchers at San Diego State University report that older, wealthier couples grapple most with the transition to parenthood. In their formula for happiness, the salaried thirty- and forty-something set includes dinners out, frequent travel, and having time for themselves and their romantic lives. So their sense of deprivation and of having lost their modus operandi is often intense.
Dr. Benjamin Spock encouraged our moms to trust their instincts. But we are subjected to the criteria of "intensive mothering," so named by University of Virginia professor Sharon Hays in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Intensive mothering is demanding, child-centered, expert-guided, labor-intensive, and expensive, Hays says. Ironically, these demands come at a time when 75 percent of all American mothers are in the labor force, nearly 40 percent of them in full-time jobs.
Women accustomed to being overachievers embraced these outrageously heightened ideals for mothering. So that today, many of us manically second-guess ourselves, trying to do everything by the book, or by twenty child-care books that contradict each other. We throw galalike birthday parties for our kids and teach them to overdo and overspend, rather than appreciate simpler and less fabricated delights.
From What No One Tells the Mom by Marg Stark. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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