If I may, I’d like to dispel a myth. It’s a myth that crops up in the media or public discourse. Its a myth that sounds noble. It’s a myth so many want to be true because it makes us sound generous and enlightened. It’s a myth that, far from begging for a good comeback, actually discourages any kind of strenuous examination or dialogue because to engage in such would suggest we don’t respect or appreciate our own mothers, and who wants to do that? This myth started out as a shield, a defensive tactic, to help embolden a traditionally under-valued role in our society. It was held up in the face of attack as a way to ward off senseless and baseless remarks. But over time it has also come to be used as a weapon, a way to bludgeon the foolish saps who dare to suggest that success and worth are primarily measured in dollar signs. This myth has been used to silence dissidents, shame elitists, and hobble politicians.
The myth is this: Being a mother is the hardest job in the world.
Let me just be candid here: No, it’s not. Being a mother is not the hardest job in the world.
If the biggest prerequisite for the job is based on anatomy, it’s not the hardest job in the world.
If it’s a job you can get by accident, it’s not the hardest job in the world.
If the job requires no qualifications, no interview, no background check, no special training or education or particular know-how whatsoever, then it’s not the hardest job in the world. If you can get the job without all that and succeed at it then it is definitely not the hardest.
And here’s why all this matters. I may be writing a little tongue-in-cheek here, but problems arise when we tell mothers that their job is harder than anyone else’s. Three primary problems include:
1) We encourage victimhood and learned helplessness
We live in a parenting culture where experts tell us how to parent at every turn. They tell us how to feed our babies, how to make them sleep, how much to read and what kinds of music to play. While informed advice is all well and good, this surplus of information presented with increasing passion and urgency has created an environment in which it is reasonable for any parent to wonder if they are qualified to set foot near a newborn baby. I remember my anxiety over the method and order and rate at which to introduce my six month old babies to solid foods. It took a well-timed admonition from my husband—“Remember Carrington, they’re just little people”—to snap me out of my fog of incompetence and remind me that I was capable of the task at hand. When we add to the fray by claiming that motherhood is harder than any other job on the planet, we set mothers up to feel like incompetent, unqualified failures before they ever get back on their feet after delivery. Ours is a generation of new mothers who, before baby ever arrives, are already being told in a thousand different ways that they can’t do this without expert instruction. What a sad way for mothers to enter the “workforce.” Mothers are indeed capable of caring for their babies and raising their children. It’s time we started turning the tide back to help them believe it’s true.
2) We encourage hubris and division
On the flip side of the helplessness some mothers feel at the magnitude of their new role, other mothers embrace the status implied by occupying the world’s toughest gig and use is as an excuse to brag as though they are the only ones to contribute to multiplying the human race. In this environment the “mommy wars” erupted, pitting stay-at-home mothers against working mothers, as though we have anything to gain by finding fault and pointing fingers. When we elevate our own way of mothering above all others, we cut ourselves off from the vast wealth of wisdom available to us as we make our way through the parenting journey. Mothering is not the hardest job, but it certainly is not the easiest. We could all use a little help from our friends, but when we wear our motherhood as a status symbol we turn parenting into power trip instead of a relationship. And that’s when everyone loses—mothers and children alike.
3) We diminish the value of shared experience
Mothering was never meant to turn us into rock star celebrities. Becoming a mother is not about doing great and glorious things to garner recognition. As much as we each may celebrate the transforming events that led to us becoming moms, the reality is our experience is commonplace. The majority of women become mothers at some point. We are not unique. Of course we each have individual stories, but the title of Mom is one of the most widely shared on earth. When we fall over ourselves to correct the indifference of the past with exaggerated accolades in the present we overlook the stunning beauty of a shared experience that is breathtaking in its very simplicity. If mothering were the hardest job on earth, it just doesn’t follow that so many people with such a wide variety of skill levels, educations levels, backgrounds, personalities, and interests could all do it so well. But they can. They do. That, in fact, is part of what makes mothering so amazing. That we can all, despite our differences, nod knowingly as a mom describes the worry over her child’s first illness or the panic over losing track of her child in a crowd. Motherhood is a universal community of women who have all felt exquisite joy and excruciating pain on behalf of another. This is not the most hard; this is the most human.
To recognize and appreciate mothers is a good thing. I applaud those who acknowledge mothers and their particular contributions to the world. Mothering is indeed an important job, a significant job. And at times, no doubt, it is a difficult job. But it is also common, accessible, and can be done well by anyone with the heart and commitment to pour themselves out. To say mothering is not the hardest is not to reduce its importance but to acknowledge its universality, and the universal resilience and capability of women who do it.