Motherhood has a major public relations problem. Whenever we’ve announced a pregnancy (and we’ve done it five times now), married or dating friends my age often respond in a bit of a weird way. They will congratulate me and then explain in detail why they have not had children yet. They will usually have a variation of the following explanation: “I don’t feel ready to step away from my life. There are so many other things I want to do. I want to accomplish so much more before I end it.
It’s pretty insulting, even though I never told them.
The implication is that eight years ago, when I had my first one, I stopped living my life. I stopped doing anything. I am now in a static state of being, living only for my children, not for myself.
I blame this perception of parenthood, but more specifically motherhood, on our culture. The media is to blame, of course, but I think the biggest problem comes with the way motherhood is discussed on social media.
Motherhood memes are often about struggle and difficulty because it’s easier to market than joy and fulfillment. Even pro-family conservatives get the wrong message, describing motherhood as a noble sacrifice borne by martyrs.
Both representations of parenthood define pretty much the same picture – that it is oppressive and that it changes life in a destructive way. Those who choose not to raise children use this image of parenthood to explain their choices, and those in the more “pro-family” camp do so to honor those who have made the leap anyway. Both perceptions are wrong, and perpetuating them has deleterious effects not only on our societal fertility rates but also, I would say, on the well-being of our souls.
I didn’t sign up for parenthood because I’m a punishment hungry or because I’m sort of a noble martyr; I did it because our kids are fun and enrich our lives, our homes and our community. Messages of negativity around motherhood have taken hold in our society, and it’s up to pro-family groups and individuals to say the other side – to counter that perception both for those who are deciding on the life of the mother. family as well as for those who have allowed negativity to color the way they perceive their own family life.
This campaign against motherhood has taken root and flourished among what would be the next generation of parents worryingly. Take two recent viral videos, one from TikTok and one from the graduation stage at a local Texas high school.
In both videos, young women celebrate their access to abortion. In the first one, which went viral on TikTok, a young woman lamented a positive pregnancy test and then celebrated her abortion date with a glass of wine. It’s a whole genre on the social networks application: young women celebrating their “freedom” thanks to their access to abortion.
It was this fit that another viral young woman celebrated recently in her high school farewell speech in Texas. Paxton Smith told her classmates at Lake Highlands High School, “I have dreams and hopes and ambitions,” she said. “All the girls who graduate today do. … And without our contribution and without our consent, our control over this future has been taken away from us. She continued, “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail … if I am raped, then my hopes, aspirations, dreams and efforts for my future will not matter.”
It’s easy to make these two recent stories just about abortion, but they also deal less directly with how these young women see and describe their potential future. They see a bright future as long as parenthood is not a requirement. Motherhood is where dreams, hopes and ambitions go to die. Children are dream crushers. Thing to avoid.
Another young woman on Twitter recently went viral wondering why a woman would destroy her body to have children because “You are only about 20 years of age to have fun with hot guys.” Sadly, we’ve underestimated motherhood (not to mention marriage) to such an extent that random encounters with strangers seem more appealing than making a person with someone you love.
They have this feeling because of our culture, because this is what we have shown them about motherhood. And this is the battle that the family advocates among us must fight against. And it starts by discussing the limitless joys of parenting with those around us and online.
In 2019, Dr. Keith N. Hampton, a researcher in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, examined whether the use of social media leads to deteriorating mental health. :
“When a person has an extended family member who experiences a change in their psychological distress, it has been reflected in changes in their own mental health. If the sanity of their tie improved, so did theirs. If it got worse, so did theirs. If they weren’t using social media, or if their extended family member wasn’t, then changes in psychological distress didn’t seem contagious, ”Hampton said.
Put simply, when everyone on your social media spits out negativity, it has an effect on your own state of mind. It’s a similar story for those you interact with in person too. The negativity of those who write and talk about parenting in your social circles, online and offline, not only informs your own personal perspective on parenting, but, on a macro level, also defines the societal narrative.
Recently the New York Times published an article on maintaining friendships in a post-pandemic world. A particular section attracted the anger Twitter users and was redacted a few days later. The paragraph read, “Indeed, depressed friends increase your risk of being depressed, obese friends increase your risk of obesity, and friends who smoke and drink increase your risk of doing the same.” The reverse is also true: you will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you hang out with studious, kind and enterprising people.
These statements, while blunt and perhaps insensitive, are supported by research.
Just as all of these positive and negative conditions can be very contagious, so can a mindset dripping with disdain for parenthood, online or offline. The messages we surround ourselves with dictate to a large extent how we feel about them. When we absorb negativity about parenting, whether before we take the plunge or afterwards, it can dictate how we feel about it.
Those who wish to see a reversal in our declining fertility trend must recognize that we are in a public relations battle against a smear campaign. How to push back this perception of parenthood and change the public relations discourse that surrounds it?
It starts with you and me. My husband recently taught my kids a Bing Crosby song when there were too many complaints and arguments in the backseat. The lyrics read, “Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark / What did they do / Just when it all looked so dark / Dude they said we better emphasize the positive / Eliminate the negative / Hold on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
And here’s the secret: Talking about the joys of parenting isn’t just a smart trick to get people to produce more human capital. No it’s the truth. There is no greater joy, no greater euphoria, no more exciting or exalted accomplishment than to bring a unique soul, theirs, into the world and orient it towards virtue.
There is a quality of contagion in the way we portray life with children, and that sets the tone that influences whether the next generation continues the great unbroken chain. We need to communicate this reality when we talk about parenting both online and in person. Parenthood is sublime. It is the greatest and most transcendent of human achievements. It’s not embedding, it’s not hyperbole, it’s just telling the truth. And we need more.