Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Motherhood Shouldn't Be A Competitive Sport

A word about Mother's Day ...

I had a good one, thank you, but I found myself thinking a lot about the mothers I know and the mothers I talk to, and the mothers I hear from, often because of our weekly conversation with the Moms.

One of the great things about the segment is that it allows me to hear from a very wide range of mothers about the kinds of things that interest them, please them and trouble them. And if there is one through-line to what troubles mothers these days, it is a sense that they are being judged constantly and forever found wanting.

Maybe you think that's a problem for middle-class yuppies with too much time on their hands, but I don't think it is. I hear from all kinds of women, from all kinds of backgrounds. And the one thing that sticks out is the sense that whatever they're doing, however they have ordered their lives, somewhere someone is going to come along and try to stick a pin in their balloon. And, I think they're right.

I think this, in part, because of the feedback we get on the Moms segment. Don't get me wrong; we get a lot of love. I am grateful to the men and women, parents and nonparents, who tell me how much they appreciate hearing real women — and men — talk about the real stuff that goes on in their lives as parents.

But I have also heard from black mothers who are annoyed that we have white mothers in our segments; I have heard from white mothers who are annoyed that mothers of color talk about race. I have heard from middle-class mothers who think they can speak for and correct mothers who are dealing with very different life circumstances. And I have heard from men, and a few women, who are annoyed that the mothers talk at all.

Now, I do point out tactfully that no one is under court order to listen to the segment, but still, it's quite amazing to me that anybody calls up here to tell us to stop having a weekly 17-minute conversation about any subject just because it happens not to interest them. Do I call up ESPN and tell them to stop talking about motorcross?

I don't think so.

Can I just tell you? Over the two years I have been doing this program, I have also heard all kinds of crazy stories from people believing they have a right to weigh in on the lives of mothers they do not even know. I have a few myself: When I was pregnant I was about to start an interview with a very famous and well-respected faith leader. I had been speaking with this man for about, oh, 30 seconds before he asked me if I planned to stop working when my children were born.

I asked him if he planned to send my children to college when they were grown.

Then there are all the people who think they can ask you why you aren't putting your kid in math-rocket-ship-piano camp. My answer is always the same: I'll be happy to take your input when you start writing the checks.

And speaking of that, don't get me started on the kinds of judgments poor mothers encounter when they fail to meet society's standards for their children. Now, I recognize that some of this comes from the sense that this is familiar territory — most of us have a mother; we think we know what mothers do; and we have a stake in what happens to kids — but if that's so, why then are we, as a country, so ambivalent about offering up anything resembling consistent support or help for families raising kids, like affordable and accessible health care or child care, or parenting classes or respite care for caregivers of frail or disabled children or adults?

While we're at it, shall we point out the other dirty little secret: How much of the judgment and ridicule directed at women and mothers comes from other women and mothers? An article in The New York Times over the weekend on workplace bullying says that while most workplace bullies are men, some 40 percent are women. But while men are equal opportunity bullies, women bully other women more than 70 percent of the time.

My take on this? It goes back to the judgment that people think they can direct at mothers. I think it comes from an attitude of powerlessness, or a sense that power is only derivative (it's handed over by someone else). So your worth is never your own accomplishment; it's always in comparison with others. It's like the difference between track and figure skating. In track, you just have to be the fastest. In figure skating, you have to please the judges.

And it's as if, as mothers, we are figure skating all the time, always looking for the perfect 10. And it's never going to happen because it isn't a competition.

Too bad too many of us haven't gotten that message.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues