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When Motherhood Devours

Our approach to motherhood may be devouring our joy along with our children's potential. The tragedy is that so many women don't realize there is another way.
The second in a series exploring the practical applications of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s ideas for mothers and women in today’s world. (Check out part one here, “How Jordan Peterson Made Me a Better Mother.”)

It is clear to anyone watching the news that many women want to avoid motherhood at all costs. And women are not alone in their ambivalence about parenthood.  A couple of years ago a Hollywood director, Duncan Jones, tweeted out a rather depressing, and all too prevalent, view of parenting: 

I have two kids, 2.5 and 9 months; they are exhausting, frustrating, and life-destabilizing.  They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD and not obviously a good choice in life. This is where people feel compelled to say, ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world!’ But you know, of course, I would reconsider!  It’s exhausting! It is banal! What it is, is that it is. And they are mine. Hopefully, they will turn out okay.

Now as frightening as this tweet is, especially considering it was applauded as courageous by many, it is an honest representation of a now-mainstream view of parenthood: It’s not worth it.  

These reactions, while shocking to those in happy homes, should be examined. Parenting has become an onerous hardship for many in our day. By comparison, I cannot find many indications that it was this difficult in the past.  In reading ancient works of literature and philosophy, I don’t hear Plato complain about his teenagers. Sure, Hamlet was a handful and Juliet’s parents were clueless; but generally, children are viewed as a blessing, a motivation, and a reason for being. Religions were created and wars were fought to ensure “heirs.”  Parents didn’t seem “distressed” by the work and sacrifice of children the way we are today. Children were a fact of life—even the continuation of life.  As we progress materially, with more modern conveniences and free time, paradoxically parenthood seems to be more difficult, more disruptive, and more “life-destabilizing.”  

The burden of ease. I recently discovered one of the root causes of our current plague of joyless parents and unprepared children: modern dentistry. I had a horrific toothache on Christmas Eve.  The pain was excruciating. Luckily, within a few days, an endodontist had done a root canal. I am now recovered, only slightly traumatized from the experience. 

I want you to picture yourself as a new mother in the Middle Ages. After a painful birth, you are handed your precious newborn. You gaze upon her sweet innocence, and in that gaze of love and appreciation comes flooding in the harsh truth: multiple times during this child’s life she will have an agonizing toothache and—with no pain relief—have her teeth torn out of her jaw. Do you think, in your life of motherhood, you would worry about your lack of time for hobbies? Do you think you would fret about the strict schoolmaster?  Do you think you would escort your 10-year-old son to fetch water? You have toothaches coming—it’s time to toughen up. Your primary concern would be survival and strengthening your children against the inevitable agonies of life. Our female progenitors knew there was really no way to protect their children from significant pain.

We need to rebel against a culture intent on producing the narcissistic and addicted.

When women have a child everything changes—Medieval or Modern.  But it seems to change more for modern women. When modern women have children, the same biological and God-given desire to protect ignites in us as it did in women of the past— but we don’t have near the same dangers. And on top of that, we have an added expectation of fulfilling all our child’s desires.  In a novocaine-free world, such a quest would seem like something out of Fairyland.  All this underscores just how to ruin parenthood (and childhood): attempt to protect and keep our child happy for 18 years.  That is life-destabilizing.

Jordan Peterson speaks often and boldly against the over-protective nature of modern parents, making kids weak and parents miserable. He advises that we teach our children to “face the challenge of life forthrightly,” adding, “You can’t protect your children, you can only make them strong, and then they can protect themselves.”  

The pendulum swings too far. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages.  No one appreciates Novocaine more than I do. I don’t think it was good to send 15-year-olds off to war and I doubt most Dark Age mothers were model parents.  But the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Rather than raising hardened toothache-ready children, we are raising children unequipped for the intrinsic difficulties of life.  Evidence suggests that incoming college students today experience greater levels of stress and psychopathology than at any time in the nation’s history (check out the work of Jonathan Haidt for more on the increasing fragility of young people). 

Young people today might not have to fight in the Crusades but they do need to succeed in life, develop relationships, and confront threatening ideas and people.  Our children encounter trials that our ancestors never faced—such as attempting to maintain their virtue in the face of Twitter and Internet pornography.  

Since the introduction of birth control, we are having fewer children and those later in life—and that increases their value and our ability to hover. Too often they are allowed to become our sovereigns.  In the past, there was no rearranging life for kids; they had to contribute and join the larger family project. Today it is the parents who must conform.

If motherhood feels like a burden, it is often a burden of our own making. The other day I was at my son’s soccer game.  One of the boys was put in as goalie and his mother spent the next 30 minutes on the edge of her seat screaming instructions at her son, “Get the ball out of there!  Stand in the middle of the goal!” It was truly exhausting to watch. She was completely frantic. It’s great to support our children but there is a fine line between support and control, and control is exhausting. 

Mothers as artists or gardeners? Much of this exhausting control is an outgrowth of an improper orientation towards our role as mothers. When we are handed our precious newborns, we see their limitless potential.  We may think of them as a blank canvas with the opportunities and experiences we create for them working together to produce a masterpiece.  However, this perspective of parents-as-artists can put undue pressure on any of us since one wrong stroke and the masterpiece is ruined.  We parents can have a remarkable influence on our children but they are not blank canvases; their souls, their passions, and their personalities are their own. 

A more appropriate metaphor and mindset might be to view our child as a seed—of unknown variety.  We are the gardeners, responsible for nourishing our young saplings. We take extra care as it puts down roots.  As the plant grows, we consistently watch for weeds and add nourishment. However, as it matures, if we continue to shield our tree from the wind and rain, it will actually prevent the development of strong roots. Strong roots are made from adversity. Our seed may grow into an orange tree or a palm tree but the strength of the tree is dependent on our nurturing and the strength gained from persevering in the storms of life.

The tree that never had to fight

For sun and sky and air and light,

But stood out in the open plain

And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king

But lived and died a scrubby thing.

Good timber does not grow with ease:

The stronger wind, the stronger trees.

(Taken from Good Timber, Douglas Malloch)

The yin/yang of devouring motherhood. Jordan Peterson calls the pathological version of motherhood the “Devouring Mother,” since this mother devours her children’s potential along with her own fulfillment. Peterson typically focuses this analysis on the danger of overprotection in our parenting, wherein we protect our children out of their own competence.  However, I would like to add another, and seemingly opposite proclivity of the Devouring Mother: neglect. Neglect is equally destructive to children and does, in fact, result in the same ill-prepared and unhealthy young adults.  The Neglectful Mother abdicates her responsibility of clearing the weeds from impeding the growth of her young seedling.  The Overprotective Mother steals a child’s competence, but The Neglectful mother deprives her child of a solid foundation of values and good habits. Together these twin Devouring Mothers leave children mentally unprepared for the challenges of life. Overprotective and neglectful devouring mothers live in each of us.

“Does my involvement help or impede my child from learning a lesson?”

What’s interesting is that as bad as over-protection and neglect seem, there is a place for both.  A 6-month-old desperately needs to feel safe in the arms of her mother. And a 10-year-old boy needs to be “neglected” sometimes so that in his boredom he can think deep thoughts or construct forts in the woods. However, when overapplied, both protection and neglect can make motherhood unbearable. One may, in fact, lead to the other. Push too hard one way and there will be recoil.  Overbearing Mom quickly burns out from a hard day of unproductive micromanaging and control. Guess who’s there to give her a break? Neglectful Mom. All this imbalance and misplaced priorities perhaps help explain the sentiment of the Hollywood director, “Of course, I would reconsider having kids.”

Devoured by weedsneglect. I do have sympathy for parents like this Hollywood director; his kids are so young and little kids are hard.  It can be difficult to find fulfillment in the early duty-filled days of raising young kids. As Peterson once quipped, “If mothers didn’t fall insanely in love with their babies they would throw them out the window.”  However, if we are patient in the early years and attempt to build a strong relationship with our children, the blossoming of our little trees is truly glorious to behold.

While some parents are overprotective, others may simply not enjoy being with their children and would rather continue to live the life they lived previously.  This self-absorbed corrosion is another, more subtle manifestation of a parenting experience that “devours.” We cannot let selfishness allow us to neglect our responsibility. Without proper nurture and instruction, weeds can build up around our children and choke their potential.  

These distracting and potential-crushing weeds are becoming increasingly prevalent as modern society degenerates. Because a practice is common, such as boys playing Fortnite endlessly or girls scanning Instagram for hours, we may feel that it must not be that bad. But Mark Twain warns us, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

We need to rebel against a culture intent on producing the narcissistic and addicted.   Some may say, “Isn’t that overprotective of you?” No.  Building virtue and positive habits in children is not overprotection, it is parenting

When the culture loses virtue and is full of addicting and mind-numbing technology, we should return to time-proven methods of parenting.  It is our responsibility to shield our young children from the “weeds” that could damage their souls. As our children get older, if we have instructed them in virtue, we can trust that their reason and courage— built through personal experience—will allow them to rebel against the destructive elements of our modern age.

“Through self-discipline comes freedom.”  ~ Aristotle

Devouring the rootsover-protective compassion. Our culture needs to rethink our concept of a “good mother.” Often we see the ideal mother as a kind-hearted woman, endlessly concerned for and serving her children.  However, taken to extremes, this mother often ends up producing shiftless little monsters with no respect for her.  This is compassion turned to vice.

Jordan Peterson explains, “Look, you have to understand that you are a danger to your children no matter what.  You can let them go out in the world and be hurt, or you can overprotect them and hurt them that way. Here’s your choice, you can make your children competent and courageous or you can make them safe. But you can’t make them safe because life isn’t safe.  So if you sacrifice their courage and competence on the altar of safety then you disarm them completely and all they can do is pray to be protected.”

We mothers hate to see our children suffer. It is our biological urge to protect them. But when mothers extend the timeline of compassion beyond its necessary borders, it impedes competence-building time.  We don’t want to stall our children in the infant stage. 

We often, with these extra compassions, unnecessarily complicate life. We make our babies into a burden. We let them sleep in our bed and disrupt our romantic life. We buy every contraption possible for their clueless benefit, draining our resources. We give in to our toddler’s every irrational demand to avoid a tantrum, creating an unlikable child. These “good intentions” result in a child who drains our goodwill. 

When my husband and I lived in Hawaii as poor college students, we had a tiny apartment on the North Shore. When we had our first child, his possessions included one laundry basket crib, 5 pairs of PJs, and a pacifier. He was the chunkiest, happiest baby I have ever seen—and easily fit into our meager budget and lifestyle. In my experience, babies need very little other than loving and unselfish parents. If we give them much more than that, we could well be enlarging our own burden.

Devouring the roots even morecontrolling. There is also another kind of overbearing mother, and if we are honest with ourselves, many of us have some of her in us too:  The Controlling Mother. Unfortunately controlling behavior is hard to spot because much of it is passed off as a virtue.  “Let me make that sandwich for you sweety,” says the mother looking to maintain her spotless kitchen or avoid excess sugar exposure. Is our child’s development more important than a clean house or a perfect microbiome?

If we are not enjoying spending time with our kids, we are doing something wrong.

Jordan Peterson recommends we never do anything for our children that they can do for themselves, even if it means waiting 10 minutes for our toddler to get her pants on. We sacrifice time and expectations but the reward is that the child actually matures. My 6-year-old still puts his shoes on the wrong feet literally 75% of the time. Did I think at this point he would have mastered it? Yes. But once again, over-helping our kids actually keeps them from learning.

As Jordan Peterson explains, “For knowledge to be your own you have to integrate it with your own experience. You have to see how that applies to your own case and then have a story to tell about it.” That’s true for all of us. We must find the answers within ourselves for them to belong to us.  If we shield our children from potentially difficult lessons, we are keeping them from integrating this knowledge into their own character.

Children love making their own way and resent mothers who hover. My 4-year-old daughter gives me a death stare if I attempt to buckle her seat belt.  My physically-capable son wants to climb the tree unhindered by my warnings. Far more often than we realize, kids know they are better off doing it themselves.

The Encouraging Mother

Producing resilience. So how do we avoid becoming a Devouring Mother? We turn our God-given nurturing nature towards building a resilient, toothache-ready child. As Peterson has taught, “A resilient person is capable of standing up to things in the face of fear and moving forward voluntarily, convinced of their own competence and ability to prevail.”

The unexpected surprise of motherhood is that less is often more, particularly in teaching our kids resilience. Life will provide sufficient lessons as we walk forward confident in our, and our children’s, ability to learn.

Jordan Peterson’s Rule 11 in “12 Rules for Life” states, “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding.” After reading this chapter I had a chance to test my resolve to follow this counsel.  My son was playing football in the front yard with some neighbor kids.  An argument broke out over pass interference. I looked out the window and could see things were getting heated.  It was more difficult than I expected to restrain myself from going out and resolving the situation. But I did. Five minutes later they moved on to the next play. We must trust in the lessons we have taught our children, trust in their ability to deal with conflict, and trust that difficult experiences are often a far better teacher than suppression, micromanagement, or avoidance. 

Jordan Peterson recommends a level of “detached harshness,” which allows for the development of independence and unchecked mistake-making. Creativity and learning only happen when kids are allowed to resolve problems independently. Having mom around greatly reduces the chances of that.  Sometimes it is difficult to know when our presence is needed. The question I try to ask myself is, “Does my involvement help or impede my child from learning a lesson?” I am surprised by how often the honest answer is that the child is better left alone. 

I’m also finding this is a step in the right direction toward more joyful mothering.   Managing the trifles of my child’s life can be overwhelming and monotonous.  As I stop expending energy on the unnecessary and unhelpful, I am more eager to engage when I am truly needed. 

Although our modern children have vastly different worries than those of our ancestors and are missing fewer teeth, there are still a multitude of fears and hurdles in front of them. Fortunately, when we overcome one trial, we gain the courage to face others. As Peterson says “When you face a fear forthrightly you don’t become less frightened, you get more courageous.” 

Building a vibrant relationship. If we are not enjoying spending time with our kids, we are doing something wrong.  Peterson adds, “You need to keep your relationships with your kids pristine.” I have found applying this advice makes motherhood easier.  This may seem counterintuitive since keeping something pristine is difficult, as my kitchen can testify. But when we define the relationship as sovereign, we can let some things go. It is impossible to maintain a “pristine” relationship while simultaneously criticizing our children’s every imperfection, or micromanaging the dream of getting them into Harvard. Moving beyond those preoccupations, our focus can remain fixed on the relationship above all else. This does not mean we give our children their way for the sake of the relationship—quite the opposite.  Children who don’t have boundaries won’t respect their parents, and that is no relationship at all.  But we do accept them for the “variety” they are, orange tree or palm, and replace previously-held expectations in exchange for an appreciation of their unique traits.

The truth is, so much of this relationship tending doesn’t take much. Peterson weeps when he explains how little encouragement people actually need, but often don’t get. The key is to keep our limited interactions optimal and meaningful. As we do this, our children will grow in character and moral fortitude. As we parents attempt to improve ourselves as well, we can let our example do much of the teaching for us.   

Checking our motivations. We might also do well to engage in some self-appraisal at times. Why did we decide to be mothers? Do we want our children to one day leave us as capable young adults, or, perhaps subconsciously, do we want to keep them near us always? Do we want to be gardeners, tending a growing tree for the greater good of mankind?  Or are we attempting to selfishly paint a masterpiece for our own glory? If our attitude is the latter, we will very shortly become frustrated with parenting. After all, if we’re straining to make our child’s life a work of art, it would be folly to include suffering in the landscape. And when the underlying parental desire for children is selfish, we can quickly get disenchanted with the often-selfless reality of the undertaking.  

As a woman of faith, I firmly believe that my children were sent to me for a reason.  I believe God chose me as their mother to help them fulfill their unique purpose. I have many failings and there is much my children will have to learn from other sources.  However, I have unique talents, and sharing them with my children brings me joy. As I attempt to use my talents and interests to raise my children, I notice something miraculous starts to happen. As my children grow, I see myself less as their gardener and more as a fellow tree, growing beside them and experiencing the peace and storms of life together.  

In the end, parenthood doesn’t have to devour any of us. Let’s stop attempting to shield our children from the difficulties of life. Let’s stop retreating into selfishness in the face of self-imposed expectations of motherhood. Let’s use the trials of life to be the teacher of resilience.  Let’s have our love, talents, and “pristine” relationships do the work in developing our children’s character. And let’s let go of the rest. And then, when it comes time for our children to face the toothaches and pains of life, their mother will have prepared them well.

About the author

Allyson Flake Matsoso

Allyson Flake Matsoso has a degree in Environmental/African Studies and has published research in Social Work. She runs the celebrated "Philosophy of Motherhood" blog.
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