- The sentimental notions about parenthood in working-class America both reinforce positive family values and possibly undermine them. Tweet This
- I suspect that young men and women are quicker to intentionally get pregnant without marriage and other markers of stability because of the strong sentimentality surrounding parenthood. Tweet This
Emily, age 21, sat in the passenger seat of my 2005 Toyota Camry with her legs stretched out straight, her maternity jeans rolled up and cuffed just below the knees, the tattoo of a human heart on her calf, beating with blue, red, and gold wings. We were heading to the pizza shop to chat on a rare, kid-free night for us both. We drove past the sand and gravel plant, past an open field dotted with deer grazing in the distance, and past the “Abortion Hurts” billboard that featured a drawing of a woman with crimped black hair and large, dewy tears.
“Don’t you just love being a mom?” Emily asked me, sighing contentedly. “Well, I basically have been a mom since I was 14. I didn’t have my teenage years. I didn’t really have a childhood, for that matter.” Though she now has four children, at that time, she was pregnant with her second. Ideally, she would have liked to be married first—“because I believe in God”—but she and her boyfriend, the father of her first child, loved each other, and she figured that in God’s eyes, they were probably married anyway. “I felt like I was ready. I was in love. He loved me,” she said regarding getting pregnant. “I have all this love to give, why not give it to a baby? Am I going to get a puppy—no! I want to make something with this love.”
Emily grew up the second oldest of seven children. After her mom had twins, followed soon by another baby, she started getting up with the babies at night because her mother was often out getting high with her tattoo artist boyfriend, one of a long line of partners.
Emily was exhausted and often skipped school. Eventually, she missed too many days, so her mom just pulled her out. Thus, Emily was launched into “motherhood” early. Back then, she was a punk kid with multiple lip piercings, short red hair, dramatic eye makeup, and black clothes with skulls. But she felt a strong maternal instinct and saw herself as the nurturer of the family. She told me she felt that being a mother was what she was placed on this earth to do. With all her experience raising her siblings, “I knew I would be good at it,” she said.
Cassie, another young woman from the same town, felt similarly. When I first talked with Cassie in 2010, she was in her early twenties and had recently reconnected with an ex with whom she was having unprotected sex. “Kids are not punishment. They’re a huge blessing,” she told me. “That’s why I want one. I help take care of my family’s [children] for years…I’ve always wanted kids, ever since we got out of high school.”
Motherhood is enthroned in working-class culture, and rightly so. But in such a view, there is both wisdom and danger. The wisdom is in the generosity of loving without calculating the cost, the valuing of people over things, the embracing of a child-like pace of life—the in-this-present-moment-ness, where time is received as a gifted sequence. As Emily said of her decision to have her children, “Material things, they come and go. Family, people, love—it’s forever.” But the danger is in over sentimentalizing motherhood and then rushing into it with little thought about what is best for the actual child.
Motherhood is enthroned in working-class culture. But in such a view, there is both wisdom and danger. The wisdom is in the generosity of loving without calculating the cost; the danger is in over sentimentalizing motherhood and then rushing into it with little thought about what is best for the actual child.
Shortly after she and her boyfriend, Austin, moved in together, Cassie was feeling sick and waiting for her period. She panicked, wondering how he would respond. When she told him that she might be pregnant, he smiled and said, “I’m kinda trying to get you pregnant.’” Cassie was relieved: “That [was] an odd reaction for me. You know, expecting the ‘that ain’t mine!’ [and instead, getting] ‘yes! I did it!’ kinda thing.”
Cassie saw having a baby as the adventure of a lifetime, the glue of a relationship. Having a baby would “help strengthen your relationship even more because you learn to work together to take care of this child,” she said.
But she wasn’t ready for how the stresses of pregnancy would affect her relationship with Austin. Sitting in the booth of a Mexican restaurant with her newborn daughter sleeping in a car seat beside her, Cassie reflected on how their eventual marriage fell apart. To sum it up, she said, “pregnancy is a very big test in a relationship.”
Cassie wanted to love a baby so badly—to be loved by one—that she thinks she was blinded to who the father of that baby really was. The relationship soured. Austin’s enthusiasm for having a baby was transformed in Cassie’s mind from an affirming sign of love to a malevolent sign of control. “We both thought we wanted [a baby],” she told me. “I think he wanted a way to trap me, too. I think he knew that if I got pregnant with his child, that I wouldn’t leave.”
She stayed with him for several months after their wedding, putting up with his video gaming, pot smoking, and low-wage, irregular work hours, mostly for the sake of her unborn daughter. “I wanted to give her family like what I had. I didn’t want her to not know her dad,” she said. But as the marriage descended into dysfunction, she had to grapple with the fact that her decisions in a partner meant that her daughter would not have a healthy home with both of her biological parents.
Cassie, now 31 with an eight-year-old daughter, would tell her younger self that it’s best to stay in a relationship with the father of your child, when possible. “Know that you want to be with that person at least before you have a baby,” she said, “because it only makes it harder on you and that other person and then in the child’s life [if you aren’t together].”
“Know that you want to be with that person at least before you have a baby,” Cassie said, “because it only makes it harder on you and that other person and then in the child’s life [if you aren’t together].”
In the May issue of First Things, Julia Yost makes the distinction between parental love (“willing the good of the beloved”) and sentiment (“affection or ardent feelings”) in a stirring review of Regretting Motherhood, a qualitative study of Israeli women who say that they love their children but regret bearing them. While neither Emily nor Cassie experienced maternal regret—rather, the sensation of children filling the emptiness of their lives—it became clear to them that motherhood was more demanding, more requiring of self-sacrifice than they could have ever imagined.
Emily remembers the moment when she was holding her newborn first-born son squalling in one arm and a breast pump in the other. He wouldn’t latch, but he was hungry. “That’s when I realized that us as mothers, we do sacrifice,” she said. Her boyfriend lived with her but didn’t help out as much as she would have liked. “I really didn’t know what being a mom was until I actually became one,” she adds.
For Cassie, the sacrifice was transformative. “It’s changed me,” Cassie said. “I don’t just have my life to think about. I have her life and her future.” With that change in perspective, Cassie was motivated to accomplish things she’d been intimidated by before—she completed her Associate’s degree, found a job that she enjoyed, and eventually remarried.
For Emily, now 27, life took a different turn. Several years after that night we talked, her third son was born addicted to heroin, and she lost custody of her children. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depression, and PTSD from traumatic events during her childhood, Emily used drugs to cope, and she found her personality completely altered, every maternal instinct numb. She would hold her baby and feel nothing.
“When you are on drugs, you don’t care. Not even about your kids, which is really sad,” she explained. “That’s not me. That’s not who I am.” Her youngest had to stay in the NICU for three months, and she did not visit him once.
When she got sober and her mind cleared, she was devastated by what she had done. She called her aunt, who had custody of her three kids, and thanked her, “I owe you my life.”
When he was a year old, Emily signed over the rights of her youngest son to that same aunt. “That was another sacrifice right there—giving your child up,” she said. “Because I didn’t want to disrupt what he already knew.” As she tells me this, she cries. It was not something she wanted to do, and it was the most difficult decision of her life, a complex moral calculus involving her own needs and desires and those of her child—love and sentiment in conflict. “That was hard, giving him up. I just didn’t want to confuse him,” she said. “I didn’t want to just rip him away from [the woman he knew as mother]. I couldn’t do that…” Emily continued:
She raised him. She saved him. I wouldn’t have been no mother, high…I wouldn’t have loved on him like she did. Like she does. And I’m not breaking two people’s hearts just so I can be happy.
In Emily’s mind, given the circumstances, it was the ultimate act of maternal love. But most people misinterpret it as ambivalence. “A lot of people don’t look at it like that. They think I was just high and didn’t want him,” she told me, her throat catching, her eyes misting. She looked up at the ceiling to regain her composure and added: “But I don’t want him growing up thinking I didn’t want him. Because I did. I always have. I still do.”
When it comes to their choices, working-class young adults face enough societal judgment, and I’d rather not be another one of those critical voices. Yet I’m both inspired by the radical way that these young women embrace motherhood against mainstream cultural currents and struck by how the sentimental notions about parenthood in working-class America (just think of country music) both reinforce positive family values and possibly undermine them. I suspect that young men and women are quicker to intentionally get pregnant without marriage and other markers of stability because of the strong sentimentality surrounding parenthood.
As it did for Emily and Cassie, the experience of actual motherhood has a way of correcting this imbalance, as sentimentality gives way to sacrifice. But the question remains: how can a culture honor and celebrate motherhood without over-sentimentalizing it? It probably means providing more than just tangible supports to young mothers—diapers and medical care and parenting classes like the pregnancy center near us, or free meals and childcare and house cleaning like our church’s Elizabeth ministry. Maybe it means having more honest discussions about the difficulties of unmarried parenthood and a stronger cultural emphasis on intentional childbearing and the conditions children need to thrive. And it probably will require a stronger safety net or a more family-friendly economy, so that more people can actually achieve those conditions.
More importantly, we need to figure out how to have these kinds of public conversations without shaming and excluding the poor, the unwed, and those who have many children. This Mother’s Day, all of these issues are worth pondering.
Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and, along with her husband David, co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage.