A Professional Lady Correspondent Stares Down Motherhood
Gaia flows through me. I'm a cool mom.
Happy 2023, dear readers.
My latest essay is a long one, so I won’t drag things out with a similarly long introduction. The title here says it all: I’ve covered gender issues for much of my career. Now, I’m about to be a mom, which adds, minimum, nine zillion new dimensions to my thinking.
And so I have elaborated on exactly what has changed for me.
(The usual links and so on will come in a future newsletter. OK let’s roll.)
I want to have a kid, but I don’t want to Be A Mom.
I don’t want to stand next to my partner at parties, watching him field questions about his career and hobbies, while I get “So…how’s THE BABY?” I don’t want motherhood to permeate all of my writing, my thinking, my identity. I don’t want to stress about bosses or colleagues thinking that I’m ducking out for maybe TOO many pediatrician appointments. I don’t want to worry that they’ll realize during my parental leave that, huh, they can get along just fine without me. I don’t want to tap my mental brakes when I consider ambitious projects because I’m a busy mom now. I don’t want “Mom” as a qualifier or a modifier or an amplifier – I don’t want to do something impressive in the nearish future (write a book, run a marathon PR, win whatever award) and for anyone to add, “And she’s a NEW MOM.” I don’t want my friends to dread my texts, knowing that an onslaught of “You’ll never guess what Junior said today” is coming, or perhaps my ninth “Guys I’m so tired and were you aware that being a parent is HARD” of the day. I don’t want my partner to feel he always comes second. I don’t want myself to feel like I always come twelfth. I don’t want my brainful of jokes and long-memorized Chopin preludes and quotes from novels and verbatim 30 Rock exchanges to be displaced by daycare pickup and dropoff times or encyclopedic lists of the preschool class’s food allergies. Other parents inform me that new-parenthood is the end of freedom and sleep and an easy marriage and unstained clothes and enjoyable vacations…and I’m not ready for my life to be drained of joy just yet.
And this isn’t just about my anxieties. I’ve spent most of my professional life digging into sexism in one way or another, and a lot of that sexism manifests in how we treat moms.
I’ve covered the gender wage gap extensively. I know that overwhelmingly, it happens because of motherhood. I’ve covered paid leave (or lack thereof) and childcare availability (again, or lack thereof). I’ve covered the exorbitant cost of that childcare. I covered the economic hit that women took during the pandemic — I think a lot about a mom who, yes, had more earning potential than her husband, but also understood that she would be the one to cut her hours if schools remained closed. I know that while women face a motherhood penalty, there has been evidence that men are get a fatherhood bonus. That single, childless women are the happiest women. That dads get substantially more leisure time than moms.
To be clear, motherhood is happening, whether or not I’m excited. I’m 7 months pregnant right now. In fact, little Buford (that’s what we’re calling him in utero) has been trampolining on my bladder as I’ve written much of this essay.
I’m becoming a mom despite the guarantee that it will suck at times, and despite the possibility that it just might suck in lasting, profound ways.
I don’t want my ambitions hampered. I don’t want to be less happy.
I will now take questions from the imagined audience, which I assume is sharpening its collective knives in its collective fury at my lack of maternal joy.
So let’s hear it.
Aren’t you a highly-paid lady with a bajillion advantages?
Why, yes. I have a great job, with generous (for the U.S.) paid leave. I have a home. A partner who wants to at least aim for an equal parenting load. Friends already offering to babysit. Offers for all sorts of free hand-me-downs.
And while I’m checking my privilege, let me add this: by any objective measure, I’ve had it easy so far in this pregnancy. Getting pregnant itself wasn’t hard – my partner and I managed to create a person unassisted at 38 and 39, respectively. Genetic tests and ultrasounds have all been normal. Hell, I haven’t even vomited once.
But okay. Let’s talk about pregnancy, which I never realized was such a drag, despite the many pregnant women I have known. My ignorance here leads me to believe that either (1) all the moms I know are fucking troopers, (2) I am of particularly weak mental and emotional constitution, and/or (3) I have, in my child-free bubble, managed to block out the complaints of all pregnant people in my orbit.
Any combination of these three possibilities might be true.
At any rate: The moment pregnancy starts, a host of life’s small joys are out — edibles and strong cocktails, most immediately. And then if your placenta is in the wrong place by a centimeter or three: no sex, either. Sure, you will sleep a lot — you’re wildly exhausted — but your sleep quality is uneven at best. Soon, you’re getting up two or three times a night to pee, and when you get up to pee, your hands are numb from carpal tunnel, and the bed you come back to is cold and wet from your night sweats. Your spouse informs you that your snoring is not only epic but also causes you to stop breathing every so often. Also: you need new clothes. Then more. And all those buttons society has programmed you to have, about your belly protruding and your thighs rubbing together and eating too much – pregnancy mashes them all at once. People you don’t even like – people you don’t even know – feel free to comment on your body. Even the pregnancy manuals, which feign a nice soothing tone for nervous moms-to-be, chide you every other page about “Remember, Mama: you aren’t really eating for two,” as if you were a nitwit who precisely doubled her food intake upon conception, as if it’s bad to eat when you’re hungry – which you are, all the time, to the point that eating grows more annoying than pleasurable. But hey, Mama: don’t overdo it or anything. Oh, and relatedly: people start calling you “Mama” – even health professionals who are ostensibly treating you, a human person with a name (“Let’s check Mama’s blood pressure.”).
You still have outlets, though – your hardcore workouts you normally use to obliterate your anxiety? Ahhhh, not so fast – those could hurt the baby. What about some yoga? Sure, but not that pose. Or that one. Or…know what? Why not do some gentle side stretches and call it a day?
At the very least, you have a backstop, in the meds you take to keep your depression at bay – and, fun fact, as a woman, you are way more likely to be clinically depressed than a man. And as a pregnant woman, your hormones might send you careening into a deep depression.
And yet: no one can seem to tell you with anything close to certainty that the dosages you have so carefully calibrated with doctors — plural — over the years — plural — really are safe for your baby. And at one of your early ob-gyn appointments, you will ask the doctor if you can maintain your Zoloft dosage, and she will respond, “Sure, if you really need it.”
And then you will spiral, wondering if you do in fact need your daily life to be livable, if it’s selfish of you to threaten your child with low birth weight or untold horrifying defects, if the tradeoff is that you don’t, bare minimum, have a Tobias Funke shower-cry every day.
To be pregnant is to tattoo on your brain the half-dozen things that will for-sure hurt the kiddo, and then slowly amass a list of the bajillion other things that might hurt them: your moisturizer. Lying on your back. Too much coffee. Gaining too much weight. Gaining too little. The wrong sandwich.
Lord. Let’s talk about sandwiches. I was in Kansas this summer, covering the abortion ballot measure, shuffling my queasy and terminally sleepy first-trimester body around suburban cul de sacs in the 90-degree heat, following pro-life/pro-choice door-knockers from house to house. One joy that got me through it all: daily trips to this incredible bagel place a short walk from my hotel.
And so there I was one morning, idly poking at pregnancy websites on my phone, jaw-deep in a lox bagel, taking enjoyment in one little damn thing for once, when I saw a site cautioning me that deli meats are out for pregnant ladies.
Could that include lox? I wondered, tearing up, because please God don’t take this one pleasure away from me. A further search showed me that – surprise – there are conflicting opinions.
Speaking of work trips, I had volunteered mid-2022 to go cover the war in Ukraine. Pregnancy made me back out, which made me feel guilty, like I was leaning out already.
But then, there was another huge story to cover here at home, in the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. I soon discovered that the ruling put another huge anxiety on the pregnancy board: picture me, repeatedly getting into an airport rental car in Wisconsin or Ohio and whispering to my belly, “Ok, little buddy. We are going to be safe, you hear me? We got this.” And then picture me praying harder than usual that my nearly-40-year-old womb wouldn’t miscarry, because in some states, who knows what would happen next?
Even an “easy” pregnancy, it turns out, can be a fucking slog.
But moreover: even my easy pregnancy has made me feel diminished, eating away at my ability to work or think or have a conversation that isn’t about my size or fears or baby gear stash, no matter how much I try to remind not just other people, but myself, that I have hobbies and interests.
Motherhood threatens to diminish me more. I am terrified of that.
Another audience member has a question: you selfish [epithet for women’s genitalia], why did you even get pregnant, then?
Of course, I am excited about this child. I love my partner. I love me. I especially love us together. I don’t think I’d want a kid on my own, but with him, this could be an adventure. We could be good parents. We get to welcome another little being into the joyful two-person club we’ve created.
Honestly, beyond any of that, one of my best explanations for why I am having a kid is this: I think I’d regret it — as in, full-body, painful regret — in 10 or 20 years if I didn’t. This is also the logic that led me to go to that college that intimidated me a little, to go backpacking that one summer, to become a journalist – so it has served me well. The biggest returns come on the biggest bets.
I recognize that this still isn’t a great rationale. You could use it to justify pretty much anything, after all.
But then, I have yet to come across a person with a great Reason why they procreated. Any explanation has holes.
Having a child was a beautiful way to celebrate the love between me and my partner. Sure, but kids also put one hell of a strain on your partnership.
We’re good people, and we wanted to put another good person into a clearly broken world. I dunno. Sounds awfully narcissistic.
Everyone else does it. Seemed like the thing to do. I at least applaud this answer’s honesty.
God wants us to be fruitful and multiply. Know what? This one makes some sense. If you believe that, that is an airtight reason to have kids. At the very least, it’s as straightforward as it gets.
If I mentally wade around too much in the philosophical question of why I’m procreating, my brain gets gummed up. The concepts are ill-defined and impossible to quantify, the answers unsatisfying.
Which means I start thinking about data again. Speaking of which: let me tell you my favorite fact about the gender wage gap. It’s smaller in careers where workers are more interchangeable.
Pharmacists are often cited as the ultimate example of this. The reasoning: when you go down to CVS, you don’t make an appointment with a particular pharmacist. Whether it’s Kara or Kevin filling bottles that day, that’s who’s getting you your medicine. And that means there’s more flexibility – Kara and Kevin don’t have specific patients demanding to see them and only them.
Conversely, there are people like lawyers and doctors. People are used to talking to their lawyer, not just any lawyer – they want the lawyer who knows their divorce, their contract. Or they don’t just want any doctor; they want the specialist who has been treating their heart condition for months now. And because these doctors and lawyers have clients who do demand to see them and only them, the oncologist can’t easily duck out to chaperone a field trip or pick up a sick kid from school.
And as moms tend to be the ones who do those kinds of care tasks…they tend to do worse in these fields.
When I think about this phenomenon, I try to think also about how institutions, careers, expectations could someday be reformulated in such a way that moms and dads have more-even odds: not only could marriages be more equal, but someday it could be the norm to have a team of lawyers familiar with a small pool of cases, a team of doctors you know and trust, as opposed to just one.
And yet, amid my thinking about reshaping society for the better, I invariably end up in a self-centered panic. Because also: what if you’ve worked your entire career to be irreplaceable?
What if you have spent more than a decade working ever-harder, doing more research, writing more, reading more, knowing more, developing more skills, studying more competition, keeping your elbows out (and sharpened), powering through humiliating failures, knowing that as a woman this is just how you stay afloat, but also, you want more – more knowledge, more bylines, awards, recognition? What if you know there are people in your field (let’s say it – often, men) who have unearned confidence and accolades, whereas you, in your humble opinion, have more than earned every scrap you’ve got, more than earned your spot on a ladder that wasn’t even visible to you – wasn’t even known to you – as a little girl being taught platitudes about how girls can do anything, and by the way, that little girl wouldn’t know for two decades that there was any reason to even doubt that she could “do anything”? And so anyway now in your career you genuinely feel like you have achieved some of your dreams, and you want to dream bigger, but in getting pregnant, you could easily stifle any number of those dreams…
What then, huh?
You sound awfully judgy of moms.
Lord, don’t I know it.
I have thought about this a lot – that any mom I know could read this essay and think, “So…Danielle thinks I’ve stopped caring about my career and gotten boring.”
That’s not really it.
God, I hope it’s not.
I don’t think it is.
Once again: part of my anxiety here IS driven by data – the fact that women do end up doing more of the work. And we’ve all seen it – the many moms we know using the lion’s share of their brain capacity to remember appointments and meal-plan and apply band-aids and worry worry worry, while dads live their lives.
But my anxiety is also driven by culture – growing up with ‘90s sitcom moms who had no identity beyond “a walking uterus that once held babies.” The endless conversations about whether women can “have it all,” whatever we decided that meant. The perfectionist momfluencers. The standup comedy by women with children, where the routine is just one tired joke after another about hey did you know that parenting is rough?
My perception is that to be a mom is to risk becoming hollow, harried, obsessed with talking and thinking about being a mom.
Pffffft, that’s not me, says my brain.
And yes, I want to maintain hobbies outside of mothering…but also, there’s more than a whiff of “mom stuff SUCKS” in my thinking. And that sentiment is a close cousin to all sorts of other ways that some of us ladies try to shrug off the clear-and-objective-lameness of being a woman.
It’s like being the girl who is friends with the boys, because “girls are just too catty.”
It’s the Cool Girl thing, of being the chill girlfriend who drinks beer and watches football and also, crucially, has the decency to keep it tight.
It’s being the bride who not only doesn’t care about the floral arrangements, but has to tell you about how she doesn’t care, because she’s not high-maintenance like that.
And it’s rolling your eyes at Mom Bullshit – bridesmaid-font shirts with sassy slogans; unflattering, pointy, short haircuts; chirping about how pregnancy has ruined your figure; joking about being a Wine Mom. All of it basic, unoriginal, uninspired, tragic.
And look: on the one hand, I do abhor bridesmaid font. I have better things to talk about than my weight. I do want my friends to kick me in the shins with steel-toed boots if I ever refer to wine as “mommy juice.”
But then, the reason Wine Mom jokes exist is to communicate that, haha, mothering in this society, with all its uneven partnerships and misogyny and the invention of the phrase “mommy pooch” and then also there’s the lack of social supports or jobs that take the reality of parenting into account – that mothering in that shitstorm is impossible and making a joke about alcohol is a societally acceptable cry for help lol.
What I’m realizing is that in the process of not wanting to identify as a Mom, I could easily instead buy into a similarly limiting identity: the Mom who can hang. The Cool Mom. And both identities are traps that misogyny built.
The mother I most admire in my life right now is my older sister. She wouldn’t want me sharing any personal info, so I’ll just describe her as successful in her career, as well as a patient, involved, empathetic mother. Her kids are setting the bar high for little Buford, as they are objectively the best children on the planet – smart and sweet and very funny. And when a toddler is tantrumming or tearing her away from eating just one blessed peaceful meal, she turns steely, but never angry or frustrated.
The closest I’ve ever heard my sister come to complaining about parenting was one time, when her first child was a toddler. I talked to her while I stood outside a bar near DC’s Chinatown, waiting for an ex-coworker to show up for happy hour – and I remember that fact because that’s how rare it is to hear this woman lose her composure.
“How is motherhood going?” I asked.
“It’s really hard knowing you can’t give 100 percent at work OR to your kids. You really just can’t do your best at everything,” she said, with an uncharacteristic quiver to her voice.
But then, my bar for good mothering simply cannot be “never complaining.” Elder Sister Kurtzleben is a woman of Herculean patience.
I think what I take away here is what younger siblings always get from their older sibs: an example. I’ve been able to watch a somewhat comparable person with comparable peccadilloes (in our case: stubbornness, perfectionism, obsessive work ethics) learn how to parent – seen her grow more patient, more empathetic. Every so often, I’ll see that she has materialized an emotional skill we didn’t get from our parents– I once watched Sis sit with her daughter on a Sunday night, when anxiety about facing another week of school has deflated the poor child. They just quietly talked, my sister listened, and my niece's feelings got more tolerable. It was miraculous.
I have seen my sister keep showing up in her job and with her kids and her husband despite knowing that it all can never be perfect, that hard work can’t always win the day.
My God, it sounds trite: the lesson for my darkest moments, I suppose, will be to just keep going, perfection be damned.
It doesn’t mean it’ll all work for me, but as far as datapoints go, I weight the datapoint of my sister far more heavily than all others.
What it comes down to, I think, is this: a corollary of “I will regret it if I don’t try parenting” is the uncomfortable truth that there are no guarantees.
Yes, parents of young children regularly psych me out, reminding me ad nauseam about how “haha you’ll never sleep haha!” (Note to pharma companies: some of the best birth control on the planet is conversations with people who have children under 5. Bottle and sell that.)
The people to talk to, I’ve found, are the older parents. The most profound, unexpected joy of pregnancy is telling people with grown kids that I’m pregnant. They melt. They pause and stammer a bit, and then, dewy-eyed, unleash a torrent of joy at me.
In the last few months, these parents have assured me, unbidden, that parenting is the one thing in life that you can’t overhype, that this is the adventure of a lifetime, that I won’t regret it in the slightest.
It doesn’t even have to be people given to sentimentality; even cynical, veteran journalists, even one of my toughest former professors, have assured me that watching your offspring grow is blissful, indescribable, incomparable. These parents are fascinated, infatuated, flat-out crushing on their kids.
There are no guarantees, but based on my informal polling, this is what I’d characterize as an “overwhelming majority” of parents – As in, An overwhelming majority of parents of adult kids report high satisfaction with the long-term experience of raising children.
Yes, there is probably real polling data or peer-reviewed research about longitudinal parental satisfaction out there.
Please don’t send it to me. I like my data.
OK, I’ll take one more question.
This is all lovely, but again, this whole thing has amounted to a bitchfest from a wildly privileged lady.
I know. I do.
I care about my privilege, about moving ever-closer to the goal of a more equitable world, even if that goal feels like it’s always on the horizon, always receding. It’s probably why I got into this line of work, and in particular why I found myself constantly banging away at reporting on gender.
And not that it’s the reason I got pregnant, but a benefit of the whole thing is that, perhaps, I can use the experience to inform how I tell stories about gender.
An anecdote: before getting pregnant, my only fertility-related experience had been as a single lady actively trying not to conceive.
And so, when Texas passed its law banning abortions after six weeks, I kept reading lines in news stories saying something to the effect of, “many women don’t even know by 6 weeks if they’re pregnant or not.”
And I quietly wondered, “How?”
It’s not that I didn’t believe it; I did. But I didn’t understand it – the 20-year-old inside me, gripping a pregnancy test in a dorm bathroom stall, was shouting, “HOW are you not counting every minute between periods?”
The 39-year-old who maybe wanted to conceive, who found that sometimes periods just play tricks on you, and that the cheap pharmacy-brand pregnancy tests in particular can get it wrong…she gets it.
Speaking of which, knowing what it feels like to be pregnant, period, probably improved my reporting in the Dobbs era.
I reported on abortion a lot this year. And I’m not saying that my pregnancy made my stories wildly different. But it changed things by a hair – my interviews were the smallest bit more intimate, more understanding, as I nodded and agreed and unconsciously put a hand to my belly as women told me about the joy, the fear, the magic, the discomfort of growing a whole person inside of themselves.
Another example: an attorney general candidate in Wisconsin made the 20-week ultrasound a focus of his stump speech this year — the oh-THERE-they-are wonder of counting your child’s tiny toes in a blurry photograph. During the campaign, I got my own photo of Buford’s feet with their ten miniscule toes, a photo I still marvel at.
The speech made a lot more sense to me then.
One benefit of mothering might be that, as a Professional Senior Lady Correspondent On Lady Issues, I can better grasp and convey what mothering is like – this thing that can improve or derail our lives…or both.
I hope that’s true. Come talk to me in just over 18 years. My guess is I’ll still be raging at the injustice of motherhood, will still be a pissed-off feminist, only with personal, visceral anecdotes of societal misogyny toward moms, and also with misty eyes and maybe, maybe, somehow, still, glowing reviews of the whole experience.
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Mom and Dad, I know you’re reading, and yes, you still did a great job.