By Anna Mussmann
Modern motherhood is weird. It’s a clothesline pulled between various societal voices--"Moms are slaves to drudgery! Moms are self-aggrandizing! Moms need to stop helicoptering! Call CPS if you see a child in the backyard alone! Everything on Instagram is a lie, ooh, look, a celebrity without makeup!”
Beneath all the noise is a generation of women living out the vocation of mommy.
Confession: sometimes I feel impatient with all those perfectly adequate moms who accept the weight of this pressure. Part of me would like to say, “Just stop listening and go wash the dishes. Who cares what anyone thinks if they are wrong?”
Yet that’s the sore spot. We women are programmed to look for models from which to learn. How else will we know what is normal? The pressure women feel is evidence that, rather than needing to find our own internal truth, human beings all know--deep down--that we need truth from without. In fact, when women are told to simply “trust your instincts,” a lot of us look over our shoulders to see what everyone else is doing and whether any of the other babies are allowed to eat goldfish off the floor.
Being a mom is complicated. You know why? Because of people. Human beings are crazy, unpredictable, hilarious, sinful, and inclined to behave illogically. Being in charge of people is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It doesn’t help that we live in a time of tremendous cultural upheaval and therefore lack a settled cultural consensus on what good leadership looks like. We don’t have a fund of cultural wisdom to tell us what to do when the toddler spits on his dinner or the ten-year-old punches a boy at school.
We flounder because we are looking for answers in the wrong place. We see the pressure, and we say that women need to be “more honest” on social media. Moms (especially celebrity moms) need to share photos of the messy reality so that no one will feel alone when their hair goes unwashed for several days. The argument is all backwards. It’s tricky, because of course young moms need reassurance that the messiness of dealing with tiny human beings is normal. Of course moms of all ages need to share a good laugh. It's not that there's anything wrong with posting the funny outtakes from the family photo shoot or that anyone should try to appear "perfect" online.
Yet not only does a focus on this argument encourage the presupposition that the beautiful parts of parenting are “fake” and the negative parts “real,” it also continues to undermines the old-fashioned appreciation for privacy that is actually more helpful than all the Instagram pics in the world. Privacy is not shame. It is not isolation. Instead, it is about order. Bear with me.
Respect for privacy reminds us that things are not necessarily shameful just because they are kept private. Sitting in a messy living room in our pajamas at midday while the children watch Netflix because life is really hard right now is not shameful, either, just because no one else is posting on social media about it. Privacy says that sharing a limited picture of our lives with people outside of our intimate circles is fine--in fact, it’s dignified. In contrast, modern culture says that anything we don’t flaunt must be “bad,” that our souls will fester unless we bare them in public in order to be cheered on by everyone else. (This, of course, leads to the idea that everyone must cheer for everything anyone else flaunts.)
Unfortunately, this modern rejection of privacy, combined with a rejection of objective truth, has led to a culture in which the only way to know what is good and normal is through the voices of everyone else. The only way to find permission to suffer from depression or a good old fashioned frustration with potty training is to see the topic go viral. It's a lie that traps us into a vicious cycle of always needing one more piece of public affirmation.
When we try to end “mom shame” by attempting to create a world in which no mom feels judged, we teach moms that the judgement of the wider world matters. You know what? The wider world doesn’t know a hill of beans about you.
People who want to help moms would do better to host a craft night. Old-fashioned privacy is actually a door to genuine intimacy. It leads us to the people who are appropriate confidants: those flesh-and-blood folks with whom we have a relationship. Including, of course, our doctor and our pastor. It gives us a way to bare various parts of our souls in the right place.
Furthermore, privacy reminds us that objective truth is what really matters. Our skill level as a mom may be subjective; but the value of motherhood is real. Our patience level, playfulness, and consistency may be hard to gauge; but Christ’s atonement for all our sins is true. Privacy reminds us that our identity is linked to confession and absolution. Privacy does all this because it frees us from the need to find out what everyone else thinks instead of asking what is true.
Modern motherhood is weird. Let’s not fall into the pit of thinking that all the silly pressure, all the modern noise, is a load we have to carry. It’s time to step back from the attention economy and the online adjudication of truth. It’s time to host more craft nights (or maybe board game tournaments).
And my babies totally eat goldfish off the floor.
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.