Not too long ago I complained to my close friend Jenny about having to do all the “no-brain-work” around the house while my husband got to travel the world and meet interesting people. Without hesitation she shot back: “So what were you thinking when you decided to be a mother?” I can assure you that I never envisioned myself as I am now - a seasoned lawyer with a few university degrees changing diapers, cleaning toilets and wondering how I got here.

But as it turns out, Jenny’s question was the very thing I needed to cure my angst. Her question became the catalyst for three years of research and ultimately my thinking about why mothers are so unhappy today.

What mothers know intuitively is very real. They are working harder than ever before, they are depressed and exhausted and they are not advancing in the work world. Sadly however, things will be slow to improve until we acknowledge the things that hold women back and take steps to remove them.

The key to understanding why mothers are having such a tough time these days and why happiness eludes them lies in one simple fact: When mothers choose to have children they automatically enter into a fully developed system that keeps them from realizing their full potential.

Just like our economic system that allocates wealth in a particular way, this motherhood system that was created hundreds of years ago, sets out the rules by which mothers (and their families) function. These rules not only hold women back, but are rarely questioned and unfortunately almost invisible. For these reasons they are not changing – or at least not fast enough.

This system, also called the Institution of Motherhood, was described by Adrienne Rich in her bestselling book, “Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution” (1995) and in several more recent books including, “The Mommy Myth” by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (2004).

Until I read these books, I actually thought I was all alone, a slave to my home and feeling guilty for not being able to pull myself out. I felt inadequate as a mother and too ashamed to tell anyone about it. Now I know that millions of mothers feel this way too, and also don’t know how to make things better.

The Institution of Motherhood was designed mostly by men (e.g. those who had power) and requires that women and men do certain things and take on certain roles and responsibilities. Here are some of the beliefs that support these roles:

· Mothers will maintain and clean their homes and raise children for no pay

· Mothers will depend on their husbands (if there is one) for all their and their children’s needs

· Mothers will accept lower pay and few benefits for jobs they take on while raising children

· Mothers who work outside the home will hire and manage homemakers and caregivers

· Fathers will provide for their families for their lives

Although these roles were challenged somewhat by consciousness raisers in the 1960s, the Institution still thrives for many reasons. Although the job market might be a bit more inviting to women, huge pieces of the system remain firmly in place, rarely called into question and supported by out-dated beliefs about what women and mothers deserve and are capable of doing in the world.

But no one talks about motherhood as an institution. Partly because we can’t see it and partly because it is so normalized it is almost second nature. Also mothers do not want to be seen as complainers or feminists, heaven forbid! The topic has become taboo and to suggest that something is wrong with motherhood is almost as bad as saying that you don’t love your children or that you can’t support the concept of the nuclear family.

Sadly however, unless we see motherhood as an institution women will never be truly happy or free. They will live day in and day out, not noticing the barriers that hold them back. They will not find balance or fully contribute in our current system and almost every woman will realize this at some point in her life.

Three steps to mothers’ sanity

If you truly want to show your love for your mother on Mother’s Day take these simple three steps.

Step 1. Stop telling her to seek balance. In order for women to gain their sanity and freedom, they need to stop buying self-help books – especially those that suggest that women simply need to find that elusive “balance.” It’s important to realize that no amount of self-help will break down a culture that sets women up for failure.

Step 2: Name it. We must name the problems that mothers face as an “institution problem” and stop blaming men or women for its failures. It is an old and tired institution that is crumbling at its’ edges. Although we inherited it, it is no longer working for us as a community. But to change it we need both courage and perseverance.

Step 3: Ask questions. After redirecting our focus on the institution of motherhood we can slowly peel back the layers and replace those aspects that are holding us back. The easiest way to do this is by simply asking questions - day in and day out. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Why are school hours usually 9-3 and work hours 9-5 (or longer)?
  • Why is child-care so expensive while health-care and senior-care is funded?
  • Why do fire-fighters and the army get paid, but mothers do not?
  • Why do women do a disproportionate amount of housework?
  • Why do women carry the burden of planning and masterminding whole domestic enterprises?
  • Why do fathers not know their children’s shoe size, their teachers or their friends?
  • Why do men get so much credit when they help a small bit with mundane tasks?
  • Why, when men do more than one-third of the housework, do we think it’s unfair?
  • Why are there so few jobs with hours between 10am-2pm with high pay?
  • Why are women who divorce often worse off than their husbands?
  • Why do so few women run for political positions?

So, on Mother’s Day when pondering these questions take one further step and ask yourself: Do you think that mothers do the majority of the housework and child rearing out of the goodness of their hearts or because they absolutely love it? Or do you think that women as a sex are particularly skilled at doing domestic chores and it just makes sense to have them do them all? Perhaps husbands and wives everywhere have found that fine balance where each feels respected, valued and fulfilled for what they contribute in and outside the home. If you believe this you can ignore my comments.

Whatever you think about mothers, there is no denying that as a society WE have chosen to NOT give mothers many supports that would enable them to be all that they could be – whether as a stay-at-home mom or a lawyer – or both.

If, as a society, we truly want to honour and celebrate our mothers on Mother’s Day then I encourage you to thank them, but I also encourage you to challenge the institution of motherhood so that they no longer have to be martyrs.

"In my [ideal] world the question to the working mothers would not be, “How are “you” going to find childcare for “your” children while you work?” The world I would give my daughter would ask, “How can we “together” find solutions to enable women the freedom to work while raising healthy children, because they are our collective future?” (Jeanne in Elium & Elium, Raising Daughters p. 50)

Maureen F Fitzgerald, PhD is a recovering lawyer who practiced law in both Toronto and Vancouver before dedicating herself to writing about things that can change the world. She is the author of ten books including, Motherhood is Madness: How to Break the Chains that Prevent Mothers from Being Truly Happy.


Maureen, I'm truly sorry that you feel this way! In this article you pose Jenny's question but don't answer it. If the response is in one of your books, I, for one, will not be reading any of them!
First, motherhood, like any other "service" to and in society, is a purely altruistic exercise, and institutionalizing it is a total waste! So for those who wish to use it for gain, they must save themselves the trouble!
Next, in the gift of love a mother has for her children, there is inherent and lasting power, if that makes you feel any better! Like any other life experience, the rewards are more than worth waiting for, but one MUST wait!
In a more specific example, and with a bit of exploration, one sees the need for unions, even in this day and age. Many humble working women are in vulnerable positions of being taken advantage of, and need the empowerment of good unions.
In conclusion, there is NOTHING WRONG with motherhood! It is what you make of it! So until you see it as a privilege to raise your offspring in the very best way you can, you are tragically missing out on one of life's potentially great experiences!
Thank you.

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