Why Should Moms Have to Justify Their Choices?

This piece you’re reading isn’t the one I intended to write. 

Initially, I sat down to defend working motherhood. To lay out the financial, familial, and personal benefits of having a career and kids at the same time. 

It’s the kind of post I would have loved to come across as a new mom who didn’t know how to balance my kids and my career. In the months after becoming a mom, I had bent every which way and twisted myself into knots trying to justify my desire to continue working.

But as I started to delve into the topic, I kept getting stuck. Because while I intended to write the answers I’d have wanted as a young mom, to do so I had to write around the actual question at hand:

Why do I, or any mom, have to justify our choices?

No, I don’t “just love” being a mom

When our daughter was three months old, we held a baby blessing for her — a sort of Mormon answer to a christening (I was still practicing at the time). My aunt came over to congratulate me and admire my three-month-old infant.

“Don’t you just love being a mom?” she asked, cooing at my daughter — she herself had 10 kids.

I stared blankly at her. I knew the right answer, what I was supposed to say but couldn’t choke out.

“No,” was the flat word that fell out of my mouth instead, along with a nervous laugh. “Who would love this? This is awful.”

“I love my daughter, but I don’t like being a mom. Everyone keeps telling me this is supposed to be so wonderful, amazing, and great, but this has been the hardest three months of my life.”

As a new mom, the guarantees that motherhood would bring me all the joy and fulfillment I would need were already ringing hollow. 

My feminine destiny: stay-at-home motherhood

Women are taught that the best thing we can possibly be is a good, virtuous wife and mother. The idealization of motherhood as the pinnacle of a woman’s life and achievements is extremely common in American society. 

But growing up Mormon, I’d received an even more concentrated, constant stream of this message. To use an analogy no good Mormon will understand, these societal ideals of moms are coffee compared to the espresso shot of the Mormon mythos of motherhood. 

From the time I was old enough to realize I was a girl, I was taught that motherhood was my purpose: “the greatest job that any mother will ever do will be in nurturing, teaching, lifting, encouraging and rearing her children in righteousness and truth.” 

According to God’s will, my job was to nurture my kids — while their father’s was to protect and provide. In other words, his career and vocation not only mattered, it was among his most important roles and responsibilities in our family. 

Putting mothers on pedestals, however, also means boxing them in with rules. I heard women urged, again and again, to stay at home to raise their kids rather than work. 

Putting kids in daycare was a poor choice, too, since “None other can adequately take her [a mother’s] place.” If mothers did have careers, they must always put their children and husbands first and, ideally, choose a job that was “family-friendly.” 

The message: Moms’ careers don’t matter

In short, I believed I was literally destined to be a mom, and specifically, a stay-at-home mom. These messages seeped into my bones and identity to the point that I barely noticed, let alone questioned them — yet.

When I weighed decisions like where I would go to college or what I would study, it all seemed inconsequential. Or at least secondary to the bigger choices that would come with my “real job” in life of being a mom, like who I would marry and when. 

Why pour years of study and tens of thousands of dollars into college or study for a career path I’d quit as soon as I popped out a baby? It only mattered in terms of whether it would help me be a good mother, or provide my family with a backup plan should my husband’s career somehow fail or fall short.

And what career would be compatible with motherhood? Only “family-friendly” jobs were suggested to me: teacher, nurse, or write. My male peers, meanwhile, were encouraged to pursue high-paying careers that would enable them to be the sole income earners in their families.

If mom’s career doesn’t matter, maybe mom doesn’t matter

I got the message loud and clear: My educational and professional choices didn’t matter. Not really. Not in the same way that my husband’s did.

His desire for a career was more important than mine — financially, parentally, socially. When I met anyone new at our church, they always asked me about my husband’s career before asking if I even worked at all.

But once I became a mother, I felt the weight of this belief. The implications were laid bare:

If I wanted a career, and yet my career didn’t matter — that meant I didn’t matter.

What I wanted for my own life and financial future was of little import compared to what was best, helpful, convenient to my kids and husband. Any beautiful, amazing things I felt were good for me could only be judged by how much they benefited my family.

Traveling was okay, sure — but only if it didn’t take me away from my babies too much. Working is not ideal but it’s fine, as long as I only work during hours in which my kids won’t want or need me. I could do things for myself, but only if I first do everything for everyone else. 

I and many moms have gotten the message loud and clear: that we must sacrifice and burn ourselves out to warm everyone around us. 

No one wants me to be a martyr

I’ve long since settled on working motherhood and left the Mormon church behind, but I haven’t outgrown the socialization to self-sacrifice.

And I don’t think it’s just me, and it’s not always about working vs. staying at home. Many moms feel the opposite pressure of what I felt, to stick with a career even if they wanted to stay at home.

But it’s just another side of the same message, that what moms and parents want comes after what’s best for our families. That our identities, failures, successes, and happiness has to be inextricably tied to our roles as parents.

But I’ll challenge you the same way I challenged myself by asking: who exactly wants that for you? Who wants you to be a martyr?

I think of what I’d hope for other parents I know, and for my own parents. I never wanted or needed them to make these kinds of sacrifices, to martyr themselves, to set aside their dreams to build my future. What a burden to put on me, the knowledge that I would have been the obstacle that kept my parents from living the lives they wanted.

And I look to my daughter, to what she is learning about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a woman. If she chooses to have children one day, what kind of parenthood I’m modeling for her? How would I want motherhood to feel for her?

I don’t want her to feel compelled to list all the ways a course of action will benefit her kids before she can comfortably trust it. Or rework her budget to zero out any impact her choices might have on her family’s finances. Or to allow herself space to breathe, to live, to take up space only after satisfying everyone else first.

My daughter deserves the freedom to build for herself a life she feels good waking up into every day. And if she deserves that, I have to believe that I do, too. 

What you and I want matters

I want her, me, and you to live in this truth: that the responsibilities we have to our selves cannot be superseded by our responsibilities to others. 

The pursuit of our own health and happiness needs no justification; it is inherently just.

There is no case to be made for what matters to me, what I want, and what’s important to me if I refuse to put it on trial or up for debate. When I fully own my life as for me, first and foremost.

The choices we make matter less than having full ownership over those decisions. Than being as committed to our own well-being and life as we are to others’. And choosing what we want, and trusting that we can make it right.

I’m not there — I’m still growing into it. Yet I choose to keep stepping into it, as I have the strength and courage.

Photos by Aswin and Derek Thomson on Unsplash

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11 Comments

  • Reply
    Ms. Mod
    November 15, 2019 at 2:05 am

    What an amazing post… Turning to that line of thought from the perspective of the burden on a child and then of what I would want for my own daughter got me right in the feels.

    Especialle the -I don’t want her- “to allow herself space to breathe, to live, to take up space only after satisfying everyone else first.” 💖 This seems to have been a huge part of my existence since becoming a mother: having the feeling that I needed to apologize if I took up extra space/time if everyone is not fully happy and satisfied.

    Thank you for this💖!

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      November 15, 2019 at 8:53 pm

      I’m so glad this resonated. I’ve been working toward loving myself the way I love my kids and it’s been a powerful tool to finally give myself permission to prioritize myself in healthier ways. Thank you for your comment!

  • Reply
    Sarah Li Cain
    November 15, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    Holy crap this is beautiful. Thank you for writing this.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      November 15, 2019 at 8:51 pm

      I’m so happy this resonated with you. Thanks for commenting.

  • Reply
    Sandra Parsons
    November 15, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    THANK YOU for writing this. I struggle with some of the same things as a new-ish mother. Unlike you, I wasn’t really taught that motherhood was an important goal. I didn’t really give it much thought until my late 20s, early 30s. But now that I have a child, I’m definitely struggling to navigate and reconcile my identities as a professional with my own individual goals, and a mama who wants the best for her baby.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      November 15, 2019 at 8:59 pm

      It’s interesting to hear that this resonated despite our different backgrounds. These kinds of messages are prevalent enough that I think most parents need reminders that they are important and that they matter. And ultimately that’s the struggle, right? To balance all these identities and responsibilities without feeling like we are losing ourselves. I hope we can give ourselves more permission to build lives we want alongside handling parenting responsbilities.

  • Reply
    Maria
    November 22, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    I loved reading your story – it seems like ‘working mother guilt’ afflicts so many of us, despite age, background and geography. I’m glad you’re resolving it and doing what you need for you! Your kids will thank you for being a positive role model. My (now 30) son said the best thing to me the other week. He said “whenever my friends say ‘I can’t’, I say, my mum was a single parent for several years when I was young, who had 3 distinct careers after having me, and started the last one at 50, so you can!”. I was so happy when he said that, I really felt my choices, which sometimes took me away from him and his brother, we’re validated. I’ve always thought, be the role model of a mother you’d have liked to see growing up. Good luck!

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    A Dime Saved
    November 27, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Wow! Thanks so much for writing this. I think in most religious communities (I am a religious Jew) mothers have to defend and justify ourselves so much for seeking something outside of motherhood and marriage. We shouldn’t have to defend or justify our choices just because people want us too.

  • Reply
    Ramona
    December 1, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    Well, when I was 20, I would tell anyone that I don’t plan on being a slave at home and care for the family. Guess what happened 20 years after? I do stay at home and care for the family. And I LOVE IT!. We have a 5 year old who’s an exceptional kid (just like every child is), I work from home as a web designer and also cook, clean etc. I’ve never been happier with my life 😀

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      December 4, 2019 at 8:24 pm

      I’m so happy you have a life that works for YOU. That, to me, is what it’s all about. Lifting the pressures enough that moms and women can figure out for themselves what a happy life looks like.

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