Published on November 9th, 2023 | by Megan Evans1
Rejecting the Selfless Mother
It’s 4:51, and I find myself pushing the speed limit, willing the GPS to be wrong. It won’t take me 23 minutes to get to my daycare providers’ house. I let out an irritated sigh as the car in front of me slows to a stop. The sun is peeking through the clouds, and there are signs of spring finally arriving in New England. The stoplight in front of me turns yellow and, rather than proceeding with caution, I plow through.
I should have left earlier, I know. I had planned to, and my Outlook calendar pinged me to leave at 4:35. Hunched over my laptop, I was writing the discussion section to a research paper, situating my findings within the broader literature. The next thing I knew, it was a quarter till, and I hadn’t even put my shoes on.
By the time I hear the gravel of the driveway crunch under the weight of my car, it is 5:14. My daughter is to be picked up by 5:10, at the latest. I swoop her up in a big hug, “How was your day?”
As we get buckled into the car, she eyes me wearily and says, “Mommy, why are you always the last one here?”
I avoid her probing eyes. “Mommy got caught up,” I say, “I was working, and traffic was terrible.” These aren’t lies, per se, but they are not the whole truth.
The truth is that I am not a selfless mother.
The first time I consciously realized the extent to which complete self-sacrifice was culturally intertwined with motherhood was the day that we were assigned to debate abortion in high school. Out the window, all I could see were the endlessly green corn fields surrounding this tiny Midwestern town. I didn’t fit in inside either. I brought up the threat to a woman’s life that pregnancy and childbirth can pose, and a male classmate of mine confidently retorted, “But why wouldn’t you be willing to die for your child?” I felt as though I had been slapped.
My own mother wasn’t required to die for me, but she did always put herself last. After my father, my brothers, and me. After getting her degree in early childhood education, the first in her family to get a college degree, she birthed three babies in four years. Stairstep kids, she called it. She ran a daycare out of our home so she could afford to be with us. Later, she worked full-time teaching, making a similar salary as my father, while doing the lion’s share of the domestic labor. She cooked us big meals with vegetables she grew in our garden, cleaned up afterwards, and still made time to play. She aspired to be a writer, but I never once observed her spending her time writing. Even now, when I offer to buy her a spot in a writing class, she declines, not wanting me to spend my money on her.
I am not that mother. I am the first mom to drop my child off at daycare and the last to pick her up. It’s not always because I’m in a can’t-miss meeting that runs over. I often find myself lost in my work, striving to get a big grant or publish another article. Sometimes I take meetings during my daughter’s bedtime, despite her pleas for me to lay with her as she falls asleep. I even relish quiet moments to myself, knitting hats for my child that she refuses to wear and listening to We Can Do Hard Things. I’m constantly initiating difficult discussions with my partner about taking on more of the housework and childcare. I fight against my tendency to feel shame at this fact.
I see how far I am from the ideal mother that’s been ingrained in me. A social media tribute to my mother-in-law proclaims, “Never has there been such a selfless, self-sacrificing, giving person.” The thought that this is meant as gushing praise makes me recoil. Imagine having your total erasure celebrated as your greatest quality. I spent years finding myself, and I’m not willing to sacrifice her now.
I was nine months clean and sober when I got pregnant. In the naivete of early sobriety, I thought I had life figured out and was ready to share this wisdom with a child. After over a decade of daily drinking and drugging, this had been the single largest shift I had ever made. I removed my sole, if increasingly ineffective, coping skill, the means by which I had always fit into spaces that felt too small—drowning my discomfort with a mix of wine, weed, and OxyContin.
My daughter was born in January 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic. My husband took a single week off and when I said goodbye to my parents at three weeks postpartum, thinking our little family needed time alone to bond, I couldn’t have imagined it would soon be deemed unsafe to share airspace with anyone else at all. Two days after I returned from maternity leave, campus shut down and I was told to work from home. My daughter went to a total of seven days of daycare.
The following weeks and months were a blur of dirty diapers, dirty dishes, dirty bodies, and drudgery. I rarely showered. I attended Zoom meetings with a newborn in my lap, missing everyone’s points and still feeling as though I was neglecting my child. I tried dubiously to write my dissertation while my husband walked with our daughter for an hour before work each morning. I snapped at him often, and rage simmered just underneath the surface. I couldn’t believe that I had been so naïve, that I thought I could be a mother and a scholar, that I could be different than the selfless mothers who came before me. Maybe they hadn’t been trying to limit me after all, so much as save me from inevitable disappointment.
When my daughter was nine months old, I collapsed under the weight of it all. I had been up with her since 4:30 in the morning. We hadn’t slept well; she clung to me and seemed under the weather. Staring down yet another day of full-time caregiving, with no end in sight, I started bawling, big dramatic sobs with gasps for air in between. I couldn’t be this sloppy, seething mom covered in spit-up for one more minute.
Scanning our pantry for something sugary, I spotted it—a handle of vodka, about two fingers left. I didn’t know why I was holding on to it, as if I was someday going to offer cheap vodka to a houseguest. It sat amidst a couple of bottles of wine from well-meaning friends who knew of my love of a nice Syrah, who didn’t know that I often drank a bottle before meeting them and another after I got home. Maybe the memes that proclaimed, “Mommy needs wine” were onto something. If wine was my generation’s quaalude, our “mother’s little helper,” I was about to down a double shot of warm vodka at 7 o’clock in the morning. I anticipated my throat burning, the face flush that would follow, that instantaneous emotional exhale I so desperately craved. My mouth watered and I took a step towards the pantry.
But with that step, I felt the weight of my phone shift in the pocket of my hoodie, and it reminded me that I have other options. I stared at the screen for a second, took a deep breath, and called a sober friend. I did the things she told me to do, and the craving eventually passed. But I knew then that I needed to make a radical decision.
My daughter was in full-time childcare by the end of the week.
Relief did not come instantaneously, but slowly I clawed my way back from the abyss. I started working again, voraciously. I had adult conversations that didn’t revolve around my milk supply or colic. If I couldn’t numb myself into oblivion anymore, I would have to be unapologetically myself, even if that meant flouting the unwritten rules of motherhood. In a country that refuses to provide any tangible support to working mothers—parental leave, subsidized childcare, family-friendly workplaces—the last thing I am going to do is internalize these failures as my own. There is no one way to be a perfect mother, and a million ways to fuck it up.
Today—another in which I’ve lingered at work—my daughter is three and a half, and it’s 5:12 when I pull into the daycare driveway. Through the window I can see her playing with a friend, another child whose parent is late.
“Hi kiddo,” I say.
She gives me an exasperated look and responds, “How did you get here so fast? We were playing kitchen.” I smile at her and a wave of relief washes over me, like a splash of cool water on a sweltering hot day.
“Mommy missed you,” I say, and it is the whole truth.