At the top of a mountain stands a stone altar. To reach the altar you must climb a steep, narrow, and winding path. The path is covered in pebbles and riddled with holes. On one side is a rock wall, slick and high. On the other side is a sheer drop. The climb is terrifying.
The path is full of mothers. Mothers slipping on the stones and tripping in the holes, mothers helping each other up and other mothers pushing through the crowd. Each one carries a sacrifice - a piece of self to lay upon the altar.
“Here are my hopes and dreams”, one mother whispers as she unwinds her hair from her scalp. She lays it upon the altar and begs, “Now that I have given up my hopes and dreams, am I a good mother?”
There is no answer.
Mothers step up offering their limbs, their breasts, their stomachs, their hopes, their joys, their sexuality, their needs. They offer sacrifice after sacrifice and hear only silence.
Another mother steps up, opens her chest and lays her beating heart on the altar. “Here is my truest, deepest self. I relinquish it. Now am I a good mother?” There is only silence as there has always been. The mother sags at the base of the altar, unable to move on without her heart, stuck in this sacrificial pose as other mothers step around her and lay their own offerings down and send their own prayers up.
They believe the silence is proof that they have not given enough, or that they have not given correctly.
They never notice that there is no one behind the altar.
We don’t want to admit that we are living out an abusive cycle of motherhood. Some of us will say that mothering is hard, more of us will agree that our own mothers had it hard, but almost no one will look behind the altar and name the emptiness.
We are desperate to be seen as good mothers - to know that we’ve gotten it right. Modern motherhood is made up of judgment, competition, and vast quantities of information. We are more plugged in, but less connected. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips but we find less and less grace for each other. More than ever we are convinced that there is a right way to mother and we are more insecure than ever about our own journey.
Too many of us walk this road alone and the isolation is killing us.
Parenting was meant to be a communal act. Humans are primates and primates parent together. When we say that, “It takes a village to raise a child”, what we really mean is that no one person can do this alone and stay healthy and raise a healthy child. Yet so few of us live in true community with each other. Over 100 mothers across the country have participated in my Motherhood Survey and I’ve found that their loneliness and isolation echoes that of my own clients. Our families are scattered or are not supportive, we have neighbors, but not communities, and many of our online interactions are filled with judgment and shame.
There’s an idea that there is a perfect mother, that there is a right way to do this. There is more information at our fingertips than ever before about child development and psychology. There is more information about parenting styles and choices. There is more information about physical and mental health options for our families. We are overwhelmed with information and many mothers are lacking a true village with which to have conversations and in which they can seek advice and support. This leaves mothers to carry an ever expanding emotional, mental, and logistical load alone.
And the stakes are high, maybe the highest that you will ever encounter. Add to this the fact that you cannot know if you’ve made the best choice for yourself or your family in the moment. You have to keep making deeply impactful choices, daily, striving for an unreachable perfection with no sure roadmap.
Patriarchy has taught us to devalue the caring, nurturing, emotional work of motherhood. Capitalism has taught us to define work as production. White Supremacy has taught us that white women are at once fragile and superior and that women of color are at once unbreakable and inhuman.
And so we learn that these things that exhaust us are not ‘real work’. We learn that we should be grateful for the smallest amounts of help from our partners. We learn to devalue the domestic work that mothers do and to scoff at the idea of mothers needing help with this work, especially mothers of color. This is the base, the DNA from which The Sacrificial Mother springs.
She is the ideal. She is the mother who will finally and absolutely be blessed as THE GOOD MOM. She will be secure in the knowledge that she did everything right and she will live a life free of blame, shame, and disregard.
She is a chimera, an impossibility, constantly changing but always perfectly correct. She easily adapts to every bit of new information on child rearing, health, and nutrition. She gives the perfect amount to her children, her partner, her friends, her family. She is the quintessential giving machine.
And because our world is what it is, she is also young, straight, white, cisgendered, able bodied, married, educated (but not too), and fully employed (but not career-driven). She volunteers, she crafts, she makes money, she loves sex with her husband only and her desire level is a perfect fit for his.
The farther away you are from this ideal, the more your mothering is judged by society at large and the harder your mothering journey is in general. The particulars will be decided by your own intersections and by those of your mother and your matrilineal line.
It isn’t just us and it isn’t just today. The Sacrificial Mother as we know her now has been shaped by every generation before us, whether they knew that’s what was happening or not. Every stereotype about womanhood plays into this one. Every idea about gender, about sexuality, about worth, about race, about class - they all come together here. She may also wear a face specific to your race and culture. Mothers of color are frequently judged against a cultural Sacrificial Mother and a white/western Sacrificial Mother.
All around me I see moms praising their own mothers for their sacrifice. I see folks talking about how their mothers gave up everything for them and how their mothers lived for them or through them. The child’s accomplishments became the mother’s because the mother had no dreams left.
We must begin to think more deeply about these norms and whether or not they are healthy. Is it healthy to ask a human being to relinquish all sense of self in service to another? And if that is not truly what we mean, then shouldn’t we stop saying things like:
“My child is my whole life”
“It isn’t about me anymore, I live for them”
“Motherhood is sacrifice”
We see this rhetoric all the time. We tell mothers when they are pregnant or adopting that their lives no longer matter and that the point of their life is now that child. We don’t stop to interrogate if that is true or if it is healthy for mother, child, or family.
If your life stops when you have a child and becomes their life, then what is your child living? And does this mean that when your child becomes a parent they must also ransom their lives against the lives of their children? That they must wait and hope and pray that they can pick up a thread of their own existence after their child has moved on from the home?
In this scenario, who ever gets to live fully? Childless people? Fathers?
And what of the child who has all of the hopes and dreams of one or more parent placed on their tiny shoulders? How do they flourish under that weight? How do they learn to be their own, whole person?
The idea is that when motherhood begins, personhood stops. Motherhood is seen as binary.
But life is not binary. Life is not either/or. Life is both/and/also. Life is continuous, shifting, changing, and never truly ending.
So, what are the both/and/also versions of motherhood? We see the mother and daughter who graduate college together and their story goes viral on social media. What if instead there was the mother who has her child AND has a college experience because she has a community of care around her to support both her and the child. That’s one way the story can be different. But we don’t talk about that because it would require such a deep shift in our current system. The types of communities that lead to the healthiest mothers and children do not flourish in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system because each of those determinants is binary and humans simply aren’t.
Communities of support are possible, they exist, and they are necessary for both mother and child to claim their full humanity at the same time. This does not mean that both get to do everything they wish anytime they wish. This means that neither is sacrificing SELF for the other. It means that both mother and child are seen as human beings worthy of care, time, and respect.
So, what would it look like if our society actually valued mothers and mothering as much as we like to pretend that we do on the second Sunday in May? There would be systemic changes at all levels of government. There would be shake-ups in corporate America, as well. Universal paid parental leave, universal healthcare, possibly a state income for parents - who knows? What I do know for sure is that the changes would be deep and they would reflect the full humanity of mothers and respect for the work of mothering.
My work is not on a national, state, or even a local level. My work is person to person.
So what would it be like if you were respected as a human being AND as a mother; respected by your family, your friends, and by yourself? How would your life change if you were at the center of it?
The truth is that you are the center of your family. You are the sun in their sky. They will revolve around you whether you are healthy or not, whether you are fulfilled in your role as a mother and flourishing, or not. And so your choice comes back to you. How do you want to live? What is it that you believe you deserve?
There is no one behind the altar.
White supremacist capitalist patriarchy has lied to you. If has fed you a steady diet of insecurity and binary thinking, but you know better. You know there is more to this, more to motherhood, more to life. You know that you were born worthy and that your worth is both intrinsic and immutable. Nothing that has happened to you, nothing that you have done changes is. You. Are. Worthy.
And you know that you are the one your children will model their own parenting after. So what is the motherhood journey that you want for your own child(ren). And if that is what you want from them then why will you not claim it for yourself?
You can stand in the center of your life. You can stand whole and healed (or healing) in the center of your family. You can know what it is that you want and need. You can communicate those needs clearly to your family and you can have those needs met. You can set boundaries with your family clearly and firmly.
Your job is not to make your children as happy as possible every day. Your job is to raise healthy human beings. Your job is to live your life as wholly as possible.
You get to be honest.
You get to be seen.
You get to be real.
You get to need.
You get to want.
You get to feel.
You get to say no.
You get to choose you.
You get to heal.
These things take work. Change rarely happens all on its own. There must be a choice and a reclamation. This is why I wrote The Mother’s Bill of Rights series, to inspire mothers to reclaim their personhood from parenthood.
Every mother knows that what we say matters very little, but what we do makes an immediate and lasting impact. We can tell our children about consent all day every day, but when we violate their boundaries or allow them to violate ours they learn that we don’t mean what we say.
I don’t know if my children will become parents. I do know that if they become parents I want their experience of parenthood to be different from mine. I dream a world for them free of gender restrictions. I dream a world for them with true community and networks of support. I dream a world for them where the generational trauma that I have lived with is but a mere story. I dream a parenting journey for them with much less judgment and much more grace.
But there is so little that I can control about how their lives will turn out and even less that I can control about the world they will inherit. What I can control is what I do.
I can do my best to heal myself and to stand in the center of my family as a whole human being. I can help as many mothers as possible to do the same.
I can teach them to see me, to consider me, to respect me. I can teach them that I will make mistakes, that I will fail, and that even as I stumble I am still worthy. I can show them that anger doesn’t need to be feared and that boundaries are beautiful. I can teach them that consent is essential and that they must ask for what they want.
I can tell them all of these things. I can lecture and teach and preach. And I do. I’m a talker and I can’t help it. But I also show them. I show them my humanity every day. I show them my truth and it’s amazing how much and how quickly they are learning.
I don’t give them everything. I don’t lay all of me at their feet. I don’t make them the center of my universe. None of that would be fair to them. Or to me.
From the time our children are conceived or brought into our families, we begin a long slow journey of separation. It is a push and pull, a dance of hearts and minds and bodies drawing closer and away, closer and away. At times we can feel as if we are one person, as if our whole life is tied up in thiers. It’s never true. The great and terrible truth is that your life is only ever yours. How will you live it?
It isn’t about perfection. Or sacrifice. It isn’t about judgment. Or competition.
Patriarchy tells us that women can’t form supportive networks and hold them. Capitalism tells us that we must live in scarcity and competition and that abundance comes only with wealth.
We know that isn’t true.
When you stand in the center of your life, when self-care becomes a way of life and not a buzzword, you learn to lean. Not only to let others lean on you, always, and to give and give and give, always, but to lean.
Mothers can save each other. Mothers can help each other heal. Mothers can recognize each other’s humanity and celebrate each other.
Mother centered motherhood recognizes that the whole mother is needed to anchor the family - fabulous and flawed, all of her is necessary. It is choosing to do the work to heal - even when it takes time and money, even when it means saying no to people who want you to say yes, even when it means making changes that your family finds uncomfortable at first. It means placing ALL OF YOU in the center of your life and of your family.
It isn’t one choice, but a series of choices every single day. It isn’t a system that tells you what is right and wrong every step of the way, but a respect and that begins in the self and a knowledge of your own worth.