I had never heard of a copywriter before, let alone been inside an ad agency. So when, as a recent communications graduate, I found myself being ushered into a woman’s office for an informational interview, I was in awe. It appeared to me to be the pinnacle of success — a woman who had her own office and was paid to write. She was kind enough to field my questions and give me an office tour, introducing me to her coworkers. She also divulged that she was leaving her job to go back to school. She was going to become a professor.
Appalled, I asked why. How could she leave such a great job? Walking back into her office, she lowered her voice, looked at me directly and said, “If you end up getting into advertising, as you get older and have kids, you’ll understand.”
At the time, the statement was confounding. Years later, as a creative director and copywriter myself, I would also leave at 40, and her truth would come back to me.
There have been many moments in my life when women have lowered their voices and told me a truth within a truth. These footnotes of a woman’s life, doled out in half-truths and measured tones, are where I received the most meaningful advice on matters of love, sex, health, and career.
Having heard all of this advice, why did the complications of motherhood, one of the most formative experiences in a woman’s life, come as such a surprise to me? Thinking back on all the advice I’d been given or overheard before I became a mother, I cannot think of a time when my female friends spoke frankly about the upheaval of motherhood, and how it affects everything from gender and jobs to sex and identity. Maybe the advice was just not plain enough, or maybe I was not experienced enough to understand it. And like that woman so many years ago who told me, plainly, that I would understand someday — I didn’t then, but painfully do now.
Which is precisely why, years later, when my oldest friend called me on her 36th birthday to say that she and her partner were considering starting a family, my unexpected reaction was not to congratulate her, but to warn her. To lower my voice and give her some frank talk about motherhood. Not to deter her, but to be sure her eyes were wide open.
It’s complicated to become a mother. You gain so much, but give up so much in return.
She, like me, had worked hard for her achievements. She’d worked her way up in a male-dominated field, and loved what she did. She also had a loving partner, a house, a life well lived. I wanted so badly to tell her my truth: that it’s complicated to become a mother. That you gain so much, but give up so much in return.
Sitting where I am today, a mother of two young children — listening to my friend on the precipice of that decision — I weigh my truth against the story I was told and expected to share about motherhood. The socially acceptable one. The one that’s marketed in movies, on TV, and on Instagram. The complexity of my truth, the weight of it, stands in stark contrast.
In place of congratulations, I want to give her the fine print on motherhood, and I want to give it to her straight. Not the social media haze of motherhood, but the bleeding nipples and gender inequality. The long days of boredom. The cost. Of course, I want to tell her the lovely bits, too — but it’s complicated. Maybe if I’d known all that before, I wouldn’t feel so hoodwinked now.
They do not write cutesy articles about the heavy weight of motherhood. There are no hashtags about #9monthson9monthsoff for this. This is a weight that’s rarely acknowledged, one that women aren’t encouraged to talk about at all.
Claire Cain Miller recently wrote in the New York Times that women were “increasingly caught off guard by the time and effort it takes to raise children.” She writes about how parenting is almost solely the responsibility of women — and it costs them their careers. Before I had children, I heard a lot about the hardship of giving birth, the challenges of breastfeeding and how I would never sleep again. But no one said to me — do you know that the cost might be your writing career? No one admitted motherhood might upend my sense of self, my partnerships, and knock askew even the most straightforward of career paths.
I was 35 when I had my first child. A normal pregnancy. A supportive partner. A successful career. I loved being a mother. I loved being a working mother. I had a career I enjoyed, and a daughter I was in love with. I went back to work right away. I was still up all night feeding the baby. Pumping all day. Still healing. I went right back to a job that didn’t offer maternity support, flexible hours, or child care assistance. I went back to work as the only mother working for a team of directors who were all men. And the measure of success, for the uninitiated, of a woman returning back to work after having a baby is to act exactly like you’ve not been away having a baby. The quicker you can return to your previous performance level, the better.
And so it was for me. Right back into the fray, and I passed with flying colors. I loved my career, after all.
Life went on. And after two years, things were going smoothly enough that we decided to have another baby.
I was 37 when I had my second child. A normal pregnancy. A supportive partner. I still loved motherhood, and my career.
In almost every industry, men are asked to forgo their stake in fatherhood for their careers.
Then I went back to work, and the wheels fell off. It was not that having a second child was more difficult than having just one. Though, of course, it was.
It was not so much that I had a demanding career, and a demanding home life now with two children under three years old. It was not solely that I had a job that didn’t have a culture of or structure for parental support, or that my partner had even less of one. It was the accumulation of ever-increasing pressures that, over time, became an impossible weight to carry. A weight that most women carry.
This is the weight that becomes a stone on my tongue as I struggle to articulate the complicated multitudes of motherhood to my friend.
How can I prepare her? Motherhood is the single most accomplished decision I’ve ever made. It’s also the one that created an impassable divide between myself and the measure of success I had planned for until then. How can I explain to her the depth of bringing life into the world, and how sharply it contrasts with the narrow space in which mothers are allowed to exist?
While it’s true that I continued on in my career, I was never once promoted, ceased to be invited to join larger projects, was unable to join happy hours or frivolous team-building travel, and my career momentum suffered because of it. I would eventually be transferred to a more remote department made up of other women and mothers, one managed by an abusive man with no oversight, where my voice would become overlooked and irrelevant.
There was no room for a woman to have multiple alliances — to both work and family. So, I was given work that was less than ideal and expected to be grateful for the opportunity to do it. I was expected to be thankful that my employers looked the other way when I had to be home for yet another sick day, doctor’s appointment, or school affair. In denying me flexible hours or work from home arrangements, the working world was cleverly designed to escort me out of my career altogether once I became a mother. I remember the shock of it. I am embarrassed by that naiveté now.
How can I explain to her the unexpected divide that also grew between my partner and me?
He went back to work right away after our children were born as well, but suffered no such career setbacks. While we had the same difficult choices to make — between work and family — as a man, he had the option not to carry the baby weight as I had to. And society has been designed to allow and support this transgression. It is an unspoken agreement understood by everyone. By the time you realize what you’ve agreed to, it’s far too late.
Men work. Women take care of the family. Men provide. Women provide care. This messaging starts when boys are young and is cemented by the time they become men and fathers. They are handed a pass on parenting, and they take it. They must. It’s expected. Enforced. Rewarded. But in doing so, they perpetuate the gender divide. It isn’t fair to ask this of men, and its consequences have far-reaching effects. In almost every industry, men are asked to forgo their stake in fatherhood for their careers.
Any time the kids are sick. They don’t have to be it. When the kids cry out at night. Not it. School functions or meetings or parenting events. Not it. Planning or decisions about daycare, doctors or dentists. Not it. Birthday parties, holiday gifts, and spirit weeks. Not it. Clothing, seasonal wardrobe changes, outgrown clothing, washing, folding, putting away of clothing, and all those endless tiny mismatched socks. Not it. Schedules, extracurriculars. Medicine types and amounts, vitamins, allergy pills, potty training. Not it. Who likes what, who is afraid of what, who won’t eat this but loves that, and the lengthy, detailed, ever-changing bedtime routines. Not it. Menu planning. Meal prepping. Not it. Eventually, all the decisions involving children and home management are left to mothers. Women are not allowed to not be it.
This. This is the suffocating weight women bear. Are expected to bear. Not just by fathers but by society. Men, women, employers, other mothers, their own mothers. Because if the fathers aren’t doing it, the mothers must. Silently, gratefully, gracefully and with Instagram-worthy aplomb.
I didn’t think about this weight when I had my first child. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know other women carried it. It felt taboo to talk about, as though I was denouncing motherhood by speaking about its difficulties. So I just lived with it. When I had my second child, the weight of having a job that did not allow for me to be a mother only grew. The weight of my partner moving weightlessly through the world while I slowly drowned. The weight of society’s incredibly gendered views on parenting. It came crashing down on me. I would ask other women at work if they found the weight difficult to carry, and few would admit to such a thing. It would have cost them their hard-earned place at the table. So busy leaning in, they didn’t notice the table wasn’t designed for them at all. One woman did, thankfully, open up to me about her struggles, and recommended her therapist. This would be my first step towards learning to cope with and articulate this weight.
Over the course of the next year, I would quit the job that did not support me. I would work to redefine the definitions of my own success. I still work at it.
We need to let go of the falsehood that women are painting motherhood or femininity in a negative light, or being shrill, when we speak honestly about these issues.
I would also deconstruct the foundation of my relationship with my partner — and we would begin the hard work of building a gender-equal parenting relationship. The shift to my becoming the default parent happened quickly — as soon as my partner went back to work after the birth of my first child. He had a job with later hours, so morning and evening child routines became my responsibility. Any time illnesses or appointments came up, he had meetings that couldn’t be moved, and I was the one who had to miss work. I was also the parent on duty for any and all night-wakings. And even though I had a full-time, high-powered job, his time and career always took precedence.
I was burning out. It took me years to comprehend the cost of this. Longer still to understand the part we both played in it. I was not a victim. And he was not a part-time parent. I dug my heels in and committed to building a more equal foundation. I developed my ability to articulate the inequalities, and to demand that he show up more as a parent and a partner. It isn’t perfect, and we revisit it often. But we are aware of it and talk about it honestly and patiently.
None of this has been easy. But I have learned to recognize the baby weight. To speak about the price of motherhood. To understand that it is not mine alone to carry, and to call bullshit on those who benefit from women carrying all the weight.
We must learn how to speak about it, how to listen, and how to support each other. I don’t want to drown in motherhood. I don’t want my daughter to gasp under this weight. I don’t want my son to expect any less of women than he expects of himself. I want them to know that being their mother is an honor. One I would choose every day. But, I also want us to work towards a more equal future for them. My daughter doesn’t have to define success as being a mother (unless she wants to). And if she does, I want her eyes to be wide open in the choosing. I want the men and allies in her life to act as equals, carrying the weight, and championing her causes.
To do this, to incite this change, we need to speak openly and loudly about the hardships women face when choosing motherhood. We need to create better systems of support — culturally, in the workplace, and within our communities. We need to let go of the falsehood that women are painting motherhood or femininity in a negative light, or being shrill, when we speak honestly about these issues. And our voices must be amplified and uplifted, even when they are speaking bruised truths.
In the end, I offer encouragement to my friend considering the leap into motherhood. I tell her the truth about how beautiful it is, and how I love my children more than I ever thought I had the capacity for. But also how, along the way, I lost myself and the things I held dear and had to fight my way back to them. I tell her about the baby weight. I hope, in telling her, I am giving her a truth she can use to inform her choices, and a safe harbor for all the joy and complications she may experience. Most importantly, I tell her so she knows she is seen and supported. So she knows the weight will not be hers alone to carry.