Recently, I committed the cardinal sin of internet browsing: I waded into the comments section after reading an article I enjoyed. The comments were related to a story on motherhood—and we all know it’s a beloved cultural pastime to lambast a mother, especially when she’s down.
The criticisms should not have been surprising. Instead of praising a journalistic effort to talk openly and honestly about the hardships of mothering in a pandemic, many bemoaned what they saw as unnecessary complaining and feckless martyrdom. I wanted to shout into the void, “Is there no winning?!” But of course, I already knew the answer. When it comes to the cultural concept of motherhood, no, there is no winning. We are either crushed in pursuit of parenting perfection, or we’re derided as ungrateful and whiny complainers, unfit to follow in the footsteps of those who went before us.
So in an effort to reframe how we talk about the honest struggles of motherhood, I reached out to psychology professor Dr. Jeannine Jannot. She positioned these conversations as a form of self-care. “Venting our feelings not only helps us reclaim valuable perspective, but also cultivates and sustains self-compassion,” she said.
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The Village Is About More Than the Kids
We’ve heard time and time again that raising small children takes a village. But our villages aren’t measured just in carpool help or last-minute babysitting offers—we need the community of other mothers to feel less alone in our struggles. And there are so many struggles tied to motherhood.
We need the community of other mothers to feel less alone in our struggles. And there are so many struggles tied to motherhood.
Especially in a year like this past one, when shoving women out of the workforce in droves earned its own laughable term, the “she-cession.” Or when partners who worked out of the home were suddenly faced with everything work-from-home moms routinely contend with. Or when moms the world-over were forced to wear a bunch of ill-fitting hats at once, from homeschool teacher to entertainer to regular old mom. What about any of this is easy, and what do we gain by pretending it’s anything but exhausting on every level?
Complaining in the Right Company
Natalie Moore, a Los Angeles-based therapist, had plenty to say on the topic. “One extreme is pretending like motherhood is sunshine and rainbows all the time, which it’s not. Telling yourself and others that you’re ‘just great’ is denying your emotional experience and putting up a facade,” she said. The other extreme, she explained, is taking a deep dive into negativity and dwelling on the endless hurdles ahead of you. What Moore encouraged parents to do is to find a middle ground between the two.
“Express yourself authentically,” she said. “Which will include the good, the bad, and everything in between, which is a more truthful depiction of motherhood.”
Lauren Luppino, a licensed clinical social worker, likened a good gripe session to a mental health cushion, explaining that speaking your truth about motherhood—even when it’s ugly—can be “self-protective.” A gripe session in good company can act as a release valve, she said, easing pressure and helping you navigate the big changes and emotions that plague new motherhood especially.
This is precisely why Dr. Jannot encouraged moms to develop a tight-knit circle of trusted confidantes, whether that’s made up of family, friends, or groups they create online. In this space, parents can put their release valves to work by trusting their circle to listen, comfort, and support them in their toughest times.
Venting Can Build Relationships
For those wary of being a downer, there’s plenty of good that can come from airing your grievances. Aside from safeguarding your mental health, unloading your stress and anxieties can forge meaningful connections, which Luppino argued are crucial to surviving the ups and downs of parenthood. For many of us, our pandemic year has underscored just this point. Without the built-in check-ins of school drop-offs and office small talk, there were stretches when we parented our kids in a vacuum. And as with most things we have been missing, there’s no substitute for the support of other mothers.
“Complaining creates an environment for parents to learn they aren’t alone, and connect with others who are living proof of surviving difficult phases of parenthood,” Luppino said. Not only can these moments sustain us through tough times, but they can also help us unearth a path forward. Luppino noted that our complaints can double as calls for help, prompting friends and family to problem-solve along with us.
Complaining creates an environment for parents to learn they aren’t alone, and connect with others who are living proof of surviving difficult phases of parenthood.
Moore advised moms to strike the right balance, erring on the side of emotional expression instead of traditional complaining. With emotional expression, she shared, you’re complaining to get something off your chest—but you’re also exploring how you want to grow and move through your experience.
Dr. Jannot echoed this idea when she added, “A ‘great mom’ is not a perfect mom. A great mom is a hot mess who knows when and how to vent in a healthy, productive way.”