A few days ago the following meme scrolled across my morning Facebook feed and got me thinking about the expectations we heap upon parents, particularly mothers.
There is a cultural narrative that tells us that there is no sacrifice too great when it comes to the raising and care of our children. That to suggest that the sacrifices associated with parenting are too demanding means that the parent is selfish. And there is no doubt that many women, even women not raising children with complex medical needs or disabilities, make huge personal and financial sacrifices when it comes to parenting their children. I don’t want to minimize that fact.
I think most reasonable adults understand that raising a child, or children, will radically revise their lives. Most of us do so very willingly because being a parent is more valuable than any lost opportunities. But for most parents these sacrifices ease as children become older and more independent. The average parent, as the years go by, gets a decent chunk of their life back. They can return to work or hobbies, will sleep through the night, and so on.
But what if the care of your child truly required you to give up almost everything. For decades, perhaps even the rest of your life. Where the only hope of regaining some semblance of your life rested upon your child’s death or the relinquishing of your child to others. This is the life of an extreme caregiver.
What if your child required you to leave your job and miss out on social activities and valued hobbies – not for a few years until they started school but for most of your adult life. What if you child’s care meant that you didn’t sleep or eat regularly, never knowing when you would sleep for eight hours or eat a meal while still hot. And this reality won’t end with the toddler years but will continue indefinitely. What if every day and night of your adult life was filled with lifting, and diapers, and screaming, and medications? Every day. Every night. What if your child’s care meant financial difficulties to the extent that you are forced to make choices between purchasing your child’s badly needed medicine, and some other needed commodity like your medicine, or groceries, or a mortgage/rent payment? What if this happened every month?
This is what extreme parenting looks like for many mothers. Yes, there are some men out there who are primary caregivers, but statistically speaking the extreme caregiver is almost always a women. And mothers offer this care, yes, because they love their child without measure. But also because society offers no other choice. Society is abundantly clear that mothers are expected to sacrifice everything for their child even if that request is “too much” for one person. To not do so implies that you are selfish and society is standing by waiting to heap judgment upon that parent.
Memes like the one I shared above perpetuate this idea that there is no demand too difficult when it comes to caring for one’s child, when in fact, there are some parenting journeys that are indeed more than one person can possibly sustain. In fact memes like the one above can serve as a guilt trip for an overwhelmed mother questioning how much longer she can go on.
I don’t want to get into a competition of suffering here. Many parents make hard choices when it comes to parenting a child and I don’t want to be unfair to them. My point here is that for extreme caregivers a) there has been no choice, b) the sacrifices are all encompassing and without hope of reprieve, c) the care is more than one person can reasonably offer, and d) society offers no option for a parent, particularly a mother, to identify they have reached the end of their rope.
Not only does our society not offer a mechanism to share that the sacrifices have become too burdensome, but our cultural narrative is built upon memes like the one above that romanticize sacrifice without understanding that sacrifice can exist on a spectrum and that there are points on that spectrum where it is very reasonably “too much”.