“Why isn’t motherhood enough?”

A smart, career oriented, devoted mother I know recently asked this worthwhile question to a group of mothers discussing the work/motherhood thing (and I’m not going to say work/motherhood “balance” because that phrase makes me cringe).

So many mothers struggle with the question around whether to work, and how much. There is an inner doubt that sounds like, “Is just mothering enough?” She wonders whether she “should be doing more,” and is unsure if it is ok to “just be a mom.”

A wise and reasonable part of her asks, “Is being a mother enough?”

Consider these factors that add fuel to these questions:

One factor is the feminist values that support women in establishing financial autonomy, pursuing higher education, and obtaining a strong professional identity. For those of us who already had successful careers going into motherhood, it matters a lot to maintain what we worked hard to build, especially if we also love our work. We know the reality of the divorce rates, and the fact that single mothers are one of the populations most at risk for poverty. The progress women have made in the world professionally, through education, politics, and business, is having an essential and profound impact on society, and we enjoy being part of that. But mostly, we just feel more valuable when we are working and earning money, because that is what we know and what we have prioritized.

Another factor is the current popular mothering style that is intensive and attachment informed. We now have this amazing research on child development that shapes society’s current and growing form of mothering. The emerging mothering style is more involved physically and emotionally (especially in those early years) than we have seen in previous generations in our society.

So, a mother today typically has a strong sense of her professional identity, a sense of value and worth in her career, and an internalized value on her education and position of power in the larger society. At the same time, her maternal and nurturing inclinations are underscored by research and experience that her presence, and the way she attunes to her babies, has a tremendous long term impact on her child’s development.

So, a woman today enters into motherhood at an intense convergence: it is a crucible that needs to play out. We want and need to be more involved in the larger world, and more involved in our homes, both.

I didn’t start asking my own serious questions around work and motherhood until I had my second child, which is when mothering became much more intense for me. I was tasked with meeting the needs of an infant AND a toddler when my daughter was born (my son was 22 months old), and it was then I first questioned whether working outside the home made sense for me anymore.

My fear was if I give up work entirely, a career I genuinely loved and valued deeply, I will become depressed, crazed by the relentless demands of our household, lose my identity, and never find my way back out. I feared this scenario partly because I saw other mothers struggle with being home with their kids (which I still see). However, I also felt deeply compelled to be home with my children: breastfeeding, wearing, and raising my children in the way I wanted to raise them, while navigating the emotional, social, and developmental experiences that our life was so full of with two kids felt paramount.

I recognize a large part of my struggle was that I had bought into the idea that the most important contribution I could make to the world was through my professional accomplishments. I had not, by any means, been just as invested in the value of mothering, nurturing, and creating a rich and loving home base for my family. I primarily valued nurturing only as it related to my career up until that point.

So for a few years, I kept asking myself, over and over, “What do I want?” I asked this around work, mothering, marriage, my social life, my precious alone time, everything really. Everything had to be reevaluated under this enormously transformative and new context of being a mother. I wanted to know what was holding me back from feeling just as empowered in my role at home as I had felt working out in the world.

A couple years ago, I wrote down a list of things I loved, and the first ten were things about mothering. Work came up when I had exhausted my feelings about my family and close relationships. Seeing my words on the page shined a light on how strong my orientation to my family really had become.

I saw that I valued mothering more than anything else. And even if society or everyone I knew thought that I shouldn’t, it didn’t matter. What mattered was what I thought about my life, and where my deepest insights and truths were leading me.

Once I allowed myself to fully get behind my role as a mother, and no longer doubt my choice to orient around my family, everything in my life became more easeful and straightforward. The elusive balance around work, motherhood, and all the other aspects of my life crept in as I made choices based on what was true for me.

As we know, reorienting to life and work and everything else after becoming a mother is not an easy task. This makes perfect sense when we think of the crossroads women are at in society: the need for our involvement in education, business, and government, alongside the emerging research that invites us to deeply invest ourselves in creating secure attachment relationships with our children.

But it doesn’t have to be such an inner conflict. Because of these (seemingly) opposing messages from society, that both have value, we must do the inner personal work to come to our own conclusions about our own lives. We have to get clear on what we value, on what our timing looks like, on where our energy is best utilized now and going forward.

If you struggle to find balance, to feel that being a mother is enough, to feel ok about working, or some version of these things, I want you to know those questions are your deepest self talking to you. She wants you to stop, look around, and take notice. She wants you to do whatever it takes to stop expending precious energy on uncertainty, doubts, or believing you should be doing something else.

This interesting convergence of values in our society makes it more intense, and more necessary, for women to come back to their own minds and hearts and make their own choices. That is what those behind the women’s movement have always wanted for us: real choices for women that reflect the many ways we are of incredible value to our society. We know this as women: that this world would stop turning without our heartfelt, wise, and fiercely loving participation.

A mentor and friend of mine, Christiane Pelmas, posed a great question years ago as I was sorting through some of these choices. Her question sounded like, “What is necessary for the care and feeding of all parts of you? Of your body, mind, heart, and soul?” In her inviting way, she reminded me that I am responsible for advocating in the care and nourishment of each aspect of myself.

I know each of us has different circumstances, different lives, and thus different choices to make.  Here is to all of us staying involved in the conversation within ourselves, letting our lives show us how we’ve grown and changed, and allowing ourselves to be transformed and evolved by this incredible endeavor of mothering.