I’ve struggled a lot with the concept of motherhood. I didn’t play with baby dolls when I was a child, confused over what the appeal was of caring for a plastic infant when you could care for a plastic horse. And later, after learning the pivotal “how babies are born” information, I became even more skeptical of the joys of pregnancy. Throughout my teens and twenties I actively sought to avoid not only the actuality of motherhood, but also the idea of it, joking to my friends that pregnancy seemed like growing another foot. “You just have this extra, annoying thing to tote around for nine months? How is that natural?”
Then I turned thirty and the jokes came up against reality. Two years later, having watched friends and family cross that no-going-back threshold into motherhood, I’m still wracked with this feeling of anxiety because I can’t figure out how pregnancy and children could fit into my life.
People say that you figure it out. And we just accept that. Despite all the evidence, the dominant narrative is always the same platitudes: “you’ll be okay,” “you’ll figure it out,” “there’s no right time.”
Even the recent push for parents to be truthful and “tell it like it is” still reinforces the idea that un-sureness is a silly, fleeting feeling that future-parents should grow up and get over. Over and over we see the same stories. “Parenting is hard, I spend my day covered in vomit, you’ll never sleep again … but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” That sureness, again and again, that definitive yes, I made the right decision.
Obviously, I’m not a parent, so I can’t attest to the truthfulness of those statements, but as someone considering future parenthood, I’m less concerned with the truth about parenting (I’m sure it’s hard but people love it) and more that there seems to be little acknowledgement that making the decision to procreate is scary, nerve-wracking, and sometimes not gone into with 100% certainty.
It’s this concept — this grey area that is scary and hesitant and anxious — that seems to have only recently gotten its due discourse in pop culture.
Television has always been a normalizing medium. As a society, we often take our cues about social behavior from entertainment. In the past, TV has helped normalize everything from couples sharing a bed to abortion. And thankfully this kind of detailed storytelling is finally making its way into the depiction of motherhood.
Growing up in the ‘90s I was fed a steady diet of of two specific types of motherhood. The first was the stay-at-home mom (i.e. Jill Taylor of “Home Improvement,” Amy Matthews of “Boy Meets World,” and beyond!) These women were presented as feeling safe, secure, and satisfied in her role, content (overall) raising children and running their homes. The second was the working-mom, i.e. Rebecca of “Full House” or Jamie on “Mad About You.” They were presented as feeling safe, secure, and satisfied balancing work and family (usually after just a single episode devoted to juggling home and office!)
No matter the path, it seemed, motherhood should make you feel safe, secure, and satisfied. This constant representation was enough to make you feel like a failure if even the slightest feeling of hesitation or doubt dare cross your mind.
The first inclining of a tide-turning shift came a few years ago. Throughout early seasons of “How I Met Your Mother,” Marshall’s desire for children and his wife’s uncertainty about becoming a mother was played for laughs (Say what? The man is the one who is baby crazy?!), but to the writers’ credit, the joke turned serious as the characters rocketed toward adulthood and the conversations became about real issues couples face when deciding to have a baby, all the messy confusion of fertility-age, family support, and career trajectories laid bare.
The show redoubled its commitment to this narrative after Marshall and Lily’s first child was born. Instead of jumping ship and changing Lily’s character to suddenly fall in love with parenting, it steered into the storm, ending with Lily tearfully telling Ted, “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t a mom. Sometimes I want to pack a bag and leave in the middle of the night and not come back.” The willingness to show this, a mother who wasn’t sure she’d made the right decision in becoming a parent, comforted me. It was the first time I’d seen any parental figure, let alone a mother, express that.
And recently, Bernadette’s character arch on “The Big Bang Theory” has shown a surprisingly realistic, if less nuanced, understanding of pregnancy-anxiety, particularly in a culture that keeps insisting women can “have it all” even when they clearly can’t. Despite laws, pregnant women still face discrimination at work and Bernadette’s worry about losing out on a project after her pregnancy accidentally goes public reminds us that attitudes don’t change simply because laws are passed.
“The Big Bang Theory” continues to explore this in the next episode, with Bernadette snapping at Raj while cleaning out her future baby’s nursery, saying that not all little girls dream of becoming mothers (after confessing she shipped her dolls’ children to an orphanage she made out of a shoe box). Later, explaining her earlier frustrations, she confesses that she feels something is wrong, she’s not excited about the baby like she thinks she is supposed to be. Though the show assuages her fears with some pat assurances, having a fan-favorite character on a family-friendly sitcom express these worries is a big step forward in normalizing the feelings many women have towards parenting.
Lily and Bernadette show us that pregnancy and motherhood can be imperfect and it’s okay to say you didn’t know what you’d signed on for.
They show us that it’s okay to be scared.