Motherhood has a major PR problem. Every time we’ve announced a pregnancy (and we’ve done it five times now), married or coupled friends of my age will often reply in a somewhat strange manner. They’ll congratulate me, and then go into detail about why they haven’t yet had children. They’ll usually have some variation of the following explanation: “I don’t feel ready to walk away from my life. There’s so much else I want to do. So much more I want to accomplish, before I put a stop to it.”
It’s fairly insulting, though I’ve never told them.
The implication is that eight years ago, when I had my first, I stopped living my life. I stopped accomplishing anything. I am now in a static state of being, living only for my children, and not for myself.
I blame this perception of parenthood, but more specifically motherhood, on our culture. The media is to blame, sure, but I believe the larger problem comes from how motherhood is discussed on social media.
Memes about motherhood are often about the struggle and difficulty, because that’s easier to market than the joy and fulfillment. Even pro-family conservatives get the message wrong, portraying motherhood as a noble sacrifice borne by martyrs.
Both portrayals of parenthood set roughly the same picture — that it’s oppressive and life-altering in a destructive manner. Those who opt out of child rearing use this image of parenthood to explain their choices, and those in the more “pro-family” camp do it to lionize those who have taken the “noble” plunge anyway. Both perceptions are wrong, and perpetuating them has deleterious effects on not just our societal fertility rates but also, I would argue, on the well-being of our souls.
I didn’t sign up for parenthood because I’m a glutton for punishment or because I’m somehow a noble martyr; I did so because our kids are fun and enrich our lives, our home, and our community. The messages of negativity around motherhood have taken hold in our society, and it’s up to pro-family groups and individuals to tell the other side — to counter that perception for both those who are making up their minds about family life as well as for those who have allowed negativity to color how they view their own family lives.
This campaign against motherhood has taken root and flourished among what would be the next generation of parents in disturbing ways. Take two recent viral videos, one on TikTok, and one on the graduation stage of a local Texas high school.
In both videos, young women celebrate their access to abortion. In the first that went viral on TikTok, a young woman lamented a positive pregnancy test and then celebrated her abortion appointment with a glass of wine. This is an entire genre on the social media app: young women celebrating their “freedom” thanks to their access to abortion.
It’s this access that another viral young woman celebrated in her high school valedictorian speech in Texas recently. Paxton Smith told her Lake Highlands High School classmates, “I have dreams and hopes and ambitions,” she said. “Every girl graduating today does. ... And without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us.” She went on, “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail ... if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.”
It’s easy to make these two recent stories as just about abortion, but they are also less directly about how these young women view and portray their potential futures. They see a bright future as long as parenthood is not a requirement. Motherhood is where dreams and hopes and ambitions go to die. Children are dream crushers. Something to be avoided.
Another young woman on Twitter recently went viral wondering why any woman would destroy her body for the sake of having children because “You only have about 20 years of adulthood to have fun with hot guys.” Unfortunately, we’ve undersold motherhood (not to mention marriage) to such a degree that random hookups with strangers sound more appealing than making a person with someone you love.
They have that impression because of our culture, because that’s what they’ve been shown about motherhood. And that’s the battle the pro-family advocates among us must fight against. And it starts by discussing the unmitigated joys of parenthood with those around us and online.
In 2019, Dr. Keith N. Hampton, a researcher in Michigan State University’s Department of Media & Information, tested out the question of if social media use leads to declining mental health:
“When a person has an extended family member who experiences a change in their psychological distress, it was reflected in changes to their own mental health. If their tie’s mental health improved, so did theirs. If it got worse, theirs did too. If they were not using social media, or if their extended family member wasn’t, then changes in psychological distress did not appear to be contagious,” said Hampton.
Put simply, when everyone on your social media is spewing negativity, it has an effect on your own state of mind. It’s a similar story for those with whom you interact in person as well. The negativity of those writing and talking about parenthood in your social circles, online and off, inform not just your own personal views of parenthood but, on a macro level, set the societal narrative as well.
Recently, The New York Times published a piece on curating friendships in a post-pandemic world. One particular section drew the ire of Twitter users and was redacted several days later. The paragraph read: “Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll be obese, and friends that smoke and drink make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true: You will be more studious, kind, and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people.”
These statements, although blunt and perhaps callous, are backed up by research.
Just as all of these positive and negative conditions can be highly contagious, so too is a mentality dripping with disdain for parenthood, online or off. The messages we surround ourselves with dictate in large measure how we feel about them. When we imbibe negativity about parenting, either before we take the plunge or after, that can dictate how we feel about it.
Those who wish to see a reverse of our downward fertility trend need to recognize we are in a public relations battle against a smear campaign. How do we push back against this perception of parenthood and change the PR narrative around it?
It starts with you and me. My husband taught my kids a Bing Crosby song recently when there was too much whining and arguing happening in the backseat. The lyrics go like this: “Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark / What did they do / Just when everything looked so dark / Man, they said we better, accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
And here’s the secret: Talking about the joys of parenthood isn’t just some slick spin to get people to produce more human capital. No, it’s the truth. There is no higher joy, no greater euphoria, no more thrilling or exalted accomplishment than bringing a unique soul, all their own, into the world and orienting them toward virtue.
There’s a contagion quality to how we depict life with children, and it sets a tone that influences whether the next generation continues the great unbroken chain. We must communicate this reality when we talk about parenthood both online and in person. Parenthood is sublime. It is the greatest and most transcendent of human achievements. This isn’t sugarcoating, this isn’t hyperbole, it’s just truth telling. And we need more of it.