Being a ‘Mom’ Isn’t What It Used to Be

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

At the beginning of the pandemic, I used to wake up frequently with an elevated heart rate, one eye barely open, already feeling like I’d lived an entire day, percolating with anxiety and dread before I’d even put a foot on the floor. There were an infinite number of moments when I was nursing a newborn with one arm, cradling a toddler with the other, and tapping out an email with whichever hand could best reach my laptop without disturbing this precarious scene.

In those days, I was utterly consumed by the act of mothering, engulfed in the relentless flames of parenthood in a way I had never anticipated. I also assumed I was totally alone in this experience. Only when we started admitting to each other out loud — on social media, in trend pieces, in our group chats — that parents, and moms in particular, were not okay did it become clear how ruptured everything had become for all of us.

But it also felt like something important and necessary was being shattered around the idea of what a “mom” should be and how much she should carry.

Even before the pandemic blurred the lines of what a parent’s role is (part-time epidemiologist, full-time juggler, all-the-time Lego builder), I found myself disconnected from the word mom. There is something especially solitary and lonely about the images that spring up around this particular label for me — mom is an all-consuming identity, something you are instead of something you do. The supermom who is ever prepared, swallowing her desires for the sake of her family, the unshakeable vision of grace, the consummate nurturer. It brings to mind the momfluencers in matching baby-and-me nap dresses, rigorously committed to maintaining an illusion of perfection even in the face of complete upheaval and often, as the wine-moms can tell you, at the expense of themselves. For every Instagram or TikTok in my feed of a giant, impossibly clean, sunlit home with a placid mom in the center extolling the virtues of gentle parenting, I thought about my perpetually messy 400-square-foot apartment, wall-to-wall with plastic toys, nipple pads, and the screams of a toddler and newborn threatening to swallow me and my milk-encrusted T-shirt alive.

The “mom” label conjures up a certain kind of woman: wealthy, put-together, white. I am none of the above, so I often felt my identity as a mother shore up against the limitations of that word. Yet my experience of parenting was so often defined by it, even as I found myself shrinking away from its expectations of me.

The word mother feels like a closer approximation to what I do, encompassing more of my relationship to this role, both active and present, yet separate from the other parts of myself that pulse and thrive and demand to be carved out.

Sometimes in the midst of my kids’ cries for “mom,” I wonder who they’re talking to. Are those little hands really searching for me? Even though the version of mom they’re looking for feels so far away from who I am?

I spent the last two years howling in our collective primal scream over the daunting, exhausting, often crippling nature of trying to parent and work in the midst of a public-health crisis pushing on the nerve of every facet of modern life. And while my screams have mostly quieted to a hum, I still feel an ever-present buzzing of fear and worry about all the ways change feels even further out of reach.

Both my kids are under 5 and remain unvaccinated, yet most public protections for them have been eliminated. The loss of free tests, child benefits, and grace from employers over tenuous child care have made every parent’s daily plea of “Can I get through this?” that much harder to answer.

These problems have persisted under the surface of parenting for so long, helped along by the alienation that’s created when we define motherhood by the strict limits of who a “mom” can be.

On top of that, there seems to be a cap on empathy extended to moms precisely because there’s an assumption of personal choice. We chose to do this, so we should bear the consequences. Many of us are still managing an impossible-to-juggle work-to-care balance, yet those encouragements to sign off impractically long Zoom meetings early have been replaced by urgent calls to return to the office. Never mind the slim margin of control remote and flexible work has given so many of us, the message is clear: Employers have moved on, and so should we.

Two years on, the sheer chaos surrounding pandemic parenting may have subsided to a manageable degree, but it hasn’t eliminated the problems that created those panicked, anxious feelings that used to consume me as a mother in the early days.

Only now I feel more depleted, disenchanted, and increasingly alone — it’s not how “moms” are supposed to “feel,” and yet it’s exactly how we’ve been set up to. It’s clearer now than even two years ago that something about modern parenting is broken. And while the pandemic didn’t break it, it illuminated and hastened its demise and made clear how little we’re interested in actually fixing it. So, now what?

Being a ‘Mom’ Isn’t What It Used to Be