This was the basic premise of a news segment I filmed with Al Jazeera America’s The Stream, and it’s a conversation I’ve been looped into on more than one occasion.
You see, I got pregnant in my early 20s, straight out of college — which, although this was once considered normal and expected, is now somewhat of an anomaly here in New York. A young, educated woman with professional ambitions mustn’t get knocked up before her career is established, for fear of ruining her entire future.
Call it what you will — feminism, societal evolution, a changing narrative — but women fought to break out of that suffocating domestic sphere that young 20-something women were expected to be contained inside. (Which, yes! Up top!) Except now we have a new normal: The smart, educated woman who delays motherhood and marriage until she’s mature enough, financially secure enough, and accomplished enough to settle down.
Surely there can’t be anything wrong with this more sensible, modern path to motherhood, right? Then again — is creating a new narrative really progress?
We’re now seeing that this new storyline has its own limitations, with a three- or four-year block of time where it’s “acceptable” (and sometimes even possible) to get pregnant. A narrow window between “Wait! You’ll ruin your life!” and, “Hurry! Your eggs are dying!” And as the Al Jazeera community pointed out, so many women are carrying around this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” burden, feeling judgmental glares from every direction.
Women who put off having kids, or decide to ditch the motherhood narrative altogether, are labeled as “selfish” or “unfulfilled.” Women who get pregnant at a young age (such as myself) are blanketed with assumptions about our education, socio-economic class, and future success. And women who are on the fence — biologically wanting children, but scared or unable to take that leap for financial, professional, or circumstantial reasons — are feeling unbelievable pressure.
We’re all struggling under the weight of cultural expectations — obsessing over how to “have it all,” debating when the “right time” is to have a baby — which only fuels this intense judgment and bickering. How do we “reset the conversation,” as Al Jazeera asked, for the modern motherhood narrative?
I think the only thing we can do is expose the truth:
The “American motherhood narrative” doesn’t exist, nor did it ever exist. It wasn’t June Cleaver back in the 50s, and it’s not the 30-something working professional of today. Our stories are too individual and nuanced to fit inside a neat-and-tidy narrative — and perpetuating these ideal depictions isn’t only disingenuous and delusional, but it’s toxic. It creates these unrealistic standards and expectations for women to compare themselves (and others) against.
Having this ideal image in our minds of what a mom is supposed to look like, sound like, and act like, causes us to carry around guilt, insecurity and internal comparisons. It’s what fuels judgment and defensiveness, and makes us feel “less than.”
But modern moms have something that no other generation of mothers has had: The ability to tell the real story.
Not the polished-up mainstream narrative, but our individual stories — younger moms, older moms, childless moms by choice and by circumstance. When we share our stories (and, perhaps most important, really listen to each other’s stories), we can see life through a variety of perspectives. Validating a variety of narratives. Blowing out the sides of these man-made boxes, and dissipating the stereotypes that we wind so tightly around one another.
We all know that stories are the foundation of our civilization — of understanding and experiencing the human condition in ways we never could otherwise. Stories have a way of sticking with us, in influencing us, in igniting change. And the more varied our stories, the easier it is to find a storyline that closely matches with our own — and the less insecurity we have to carry around with us.
That’s where the Internet comes in. You might argue that social media is the problem and not the solution — that it’s too easy to anonymously spew hate and indulge in unhealthy comparisons. But it’s also easier than ever to instantly connect with another person — to Skype with someone halfway across the world and see the pain in his eyes, or read a blog post that opens you up to a perspective that you never could’ve understood otherwise.
The Internet allows us to peek around the curtain and reveal our vulnerabilities, secrets, perspectives, and raw humanity. To finally recognize that our fringe narratives aren’t less-than or separate from the mainstream story to which we compare our lives.
So, no, the central narrative isn’t shifting; it’s being challenged.
And replacing it with a collection of stories — all of our stories — might be the most important contribution we can make to modern motherhood — and womanhood, and personhood.
That’s why I blog.
You can find more from Michelle at EarlyMama.com, a community for young moms to connect and feel normal.