Modern Motherhood // An Interview with Kristen

Kristen is a psychologist who teaches at a community college. She is mom to F, age 15 months, and S, age 5 1/2.

What did you love most about being a kid?

I have two younger sisters and I loved playing with my sisters. We lived out in the woods so there was nobody else around to play with, they were my playmates, and as the oldest I could boss them around and I liked that. I liked being the oldest because I always felt like I was my mom’s favorite—I’m sure we were all her favorite, but it felt like I had this privileged position.

What did you think about your mom when you were little? How did your feelings about her change as you got older?

When I was little I was really close to my mom, I thought that she was my best friend and she was fun and I liked being around her. I think [our relationship] got much more complicated as I got older…it was a much more idealized relationship when I was little. It’s been interesting to have kids of my own, I really hoped that was going to be common ground, because as adults we are pretty different people. As we’ve had that to share, it’s reconnected us, in some ways…at the same time, I would say we have very different approaches to parenting.

Tell me about your path to motherhood. Did you always know you wanted to have kids? How did you know you were ready?

When I was little I always envisioned I would have kids, I remember talking with my dad and saying, yeah, 24 is a good age to get married…and then I’ll have kids after that. My parents had kids when they were pretty young, [I] was an unexpected pregnancy and they had not known each other very long—my dad was 20, my mom was 21. Even when I was little I knew I definitely want to be prepared when I’m a parent, I don’t want it to be something that is sprung on me. Then when I got to be 23 or 24 I thought, I don’t think I am ready to get married [laughs]. I went to college and then worked for a few years and then went to graduate school for five years, so by the time I did all of that I was 33 or 34. I didn’t want to have kids before that, and if the opportunity had presented itself, maybe I would have gotten married, but it didn’t. (I had plenty of long term relationships but none that felt like the person I wanted to stay with and have kids with.) But then when I finished school, I thought now it makes sense to start a family and sooner is probably better than later. I ended up having S when I was 35, and that was so life-changing. It was such a transition, especially having had all those years. For my mom, she was a kid, then she became an adult and she had a family, and so that was her adult life, just being a mom. For me, my adult life was friends, and studying, and traveling, and doing a lot of other stuff. It was great to have all of those opportunities, but I think it was a starker contrast when I did have kids, like WOW, I am shackled—shackles of love, but still. 

Did I always know I wanted to have kids? I think there was a period in my twenties where I thought, well I don’t know if I’ll have kids and that was different because I’d always just assumed there was a compulsory motherhood kind of thing, that’s what women do when they grow up. Then when I met my husband I could definitely imaging having children with him and it naturally unfolded. I just had F right around the time I turned 40 and I didn’t expect to have children so late, but I had a couple of miscarriages after I was pregnant with S, and so I felt really lucky when we got pregnant with him. I had kind of resigned myself to the idea that we would just have one kid. I remember my husband and I talking after maybe the second miscarriage, well what do we do, do we keep trying? and I said, well I know I don’t want to be having a kid when I’m FORTY! [Laughs] dun, dun, dun!

Do you think your miscarriages made you want to have a kid more?

I don’t know that I would say that I wanted to have a kid more, because both of those were very much wanted pregnancies.. but it definitely filled a hole that would have been there. I think if we would have just had S and then stopped there, that would have been great, but I think that loss…all of it goes along with thinking that you’re going to have a baby, and then not…it was a constant absence that I felt. Then when I got pregnant with F, I had been running and I fell and injured my knee and it wasn’t getting better, so six weeks later I went to the doctor. They were going to do an X-ray and I said, you know, I’m about to get my period. You should probably do a pregnancy test just to make sure. The nurse called me back with this somber, mournful look on her face and said, [whispering] “the test is positive.” I was like, WHAT, What?! You’re kidding me!!! Even that was this great way to find out. I was very happy. 

What are some of your favorite things about being a mom?

They’re so sweet. My children are just so sweet! That’s not to say that they’re always sweet, because they’re not. I just love them. S is…I see a lot of myself in her, so that’s really touching. From the time she was little, it was like, I get you, I totally get you. For the good and the bad, there are times when I think, OH! Why are you making things so hard, you don’t have to! She’s just a wonderful little companion, I love the person she is. It feels early to know if it’s F’s personality, but he’s just so angelic and sweet. Maybe because I’ve already been through it, or because I’m older, but it’s easier with him in a lot of ways. I’m much more patient with him. I remember S crying in the middle of the night and thinking, I just want to snap her leg off! I won’t, I would never do that, but it would feel so good just to pull this baby’s leg off! [Laughs] But with him it was just like, oh, he’s crying, we’re going to get through this, I’m not going to get any sleep, but this is temporary. Some of it may have been [him being born with a cleft lip and palate] and I thought, things are a little tougher for him…and it pulled out a certain kindness in me. I just look at it him and think, you’re just the sweetest, cutest little person…it just feels very uncomplicated, my love for him.

What is one part of motherhood you struggle with?

Only one part? [Laughs] It would definitely be not having time to myself. I am an introvert, and I’m really at my best when I have time to myself—I’m kind of an extroverted introvert—I refuel and I love to go out into the world after, and it’s just impossible to get that [refueling time] with a family. It was hard enough with just my husband, making space for one other person, but with kids it really feels impossible. Last night I was up around 9:30 or 10, eating girl scout cookies and reading a novel, and it was like, I don’t even want this girl scout cookie that much, but it was the only time in the day where I could eat it without someone screaming, I want a cookie!!! [Laughs] I just have to do this while I can! My husband had gone to bed early and he doesn’t always…getting that time [is a struggle]…I exercise, I run or I do yoga, but it’s hard to even carve that time out, so the idea of spontaneously going out for a drink or to go get coffee…spontaneity is gone, and that’s a struggle for me. When I do imagine the future when they’re older, I realize that a time will come when they’ll be in school, they’ll have their own lives. I remind myself that this is a chapter in my life and this chapter will eventually end, and that time will be there for me. I always feel a little on edge because I’m happiest when I get time to myself and when the house is clean, and the house is never clean.

What have you learned about yourself since becoming a mother?

I have definitely learned more patience. I’ve learned humility, submission. I joke with my mom friends all the time that I feel like my spirit has been broken—again, in the sweetest, most loving way—like, I don’t want things for myself right now. It’s not about me, it’s about them. But I’ve learned that I can do that, because I’ve always been a very independent person. A friend of mine a long time ago called me “aggressively autonomous,” [Laughs] and I can put that part of me aside, and that’s been good. I’ve learned that I can go without sleep—I’ve always been someone who really needed a lot of sleep—and I don’t ever get enough sleep and I still function and it’s fine. [Motherhood] is a humbling process. 

What has surprised you about motherhood?

I don’t think I was prepared for that total absorption, that I would belong to them so fully. Or that I would be able to submit fairly gracefully. It’s not always graceful by any extent.

What are some of the biggest differences between your childhood and the one you’re creating for your children?

My mom was a single mom, she sometimes worked multiple jobs. In addition to being gone a lot because she was working, she was also dating. When we were teenagers she was still in her mid-thirties. There were a lot of distractions, and there was some absence there, some emotional, some physical. I think my response then is be present [with my kids]. I think with a lot of parents of my generation there is all that buzz about being helicopter parents. There’s this divide and I always feel torn, because I really want to be sure I’m present for them in a way that maybe my mom wasn’t able to be (in part because she was working so many jobs to put food on the table). I think she was more distracted, but I also don’t want to be so smothering that I become that parent that is too overprotective. I think there were some very positive things about having to be more independent. Having my mom not there as much pushed me to take care of myself, take care of my siblings. I do wonder sometimes, gosh, am I going to do so much for them that they’re not going to be able to do things for themselves? We’ll just have to see. 

And just being older makes all the difference. I had [my son] at forty, and I was in college by the time my mom was forty, so it’s completely different. Night and day in a lot of ways.

Are there any societal pressures on motherhood that you feel more than others?

I definitely feel a financial pressure. It’s hard not to look at peers where both of them are professionals, and think maybe they started earlier and so they’re just farther along in things. I look at friends and think that they’ve probably got a big fat retirement account and they live in a really nice house and they’re probably not going to be raising their kids when they’re in their 50s or 60s. It’s hard not to compare. There’s also that trade off, I could have a husband who works fifty hours a week and rising in his field, but I would be making dinner every night, which is not the life I want. My aunt always says that “comparisons are odious,” so [I’m trying to] be happy with what we have. 

How does technology impact motherhood? 

I make a pretty concerted effort to minimize technology. I don’t really do social media, although I was involved in a support group for moms of kids with clefts, and [without that] I would not have had anyone to check in with besides the medical community, so that was wonderful. I do know that with technology, there are constant demands, and as a teacher of an online class there’s the opportunity for constant interruptions. In the last six months or so I adopted a “no computers in the house from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. policy.” I would find myself trying to respond to student emails and then the kids would ask me something and I would get really frustrated, because it’s hard to multitask. I realized that it wasn’t fair to them. [Technology] is great because it allows me to work from home and allows a more adaptable work schedule for [my kids], but it also means that there’s this constant competition. With the kids it’s also a struggle because they want to watch something all the time, so figuring out how do I protect the kids from that constant presence of media? But it’s also an easy babysitter. It’s a boon and it’s a challenge. 

How has your relationship with your mom changed since becoming a mother? 

There’s a common ground there, as I mentioned, so I think that part is good. But it does tap into some anger and frustration when she does things with the kids in a way that I disagree with. I'll tell her that I don't want S to watch Disney Princess movies, and then I go over to her house and S is in front of the TV, glued to The Little Mermaid. When I see her with the grandkids—she’s so loving and so fun and they adore her—but her response to them is so different from mine. At the same time, parenthood does give me a greater appreciation for all she has gone through as a mom. I can't even imagine being 24 and having a baby, a 1-year-old, and a 3-year-old.  She kept us alive, which in itself seems like a small miracle! I'm not sure I could do the same [Laughs].

How has your relationship with your husband changed since having kids?

It’s definitely harder to get time together and it feels in many ways more like a business arrangement, like, I’ll do this, you do that! Especially with two…at nighttime putting them to bed, it’s a divide and conquer approach. I’m really grateful, he’s a very present dad.

Want to tell me a little about him?

He’s so happy to be a dad and really loves kids, and is totally equal partners. My husband had been at my sister’s and was talking to my brother-in-law, and my brother-in-law said, “Oh yeah, I never make dinner.” She makes dinner every night. My husband and I were both kind of shocked by that because in our house it’s much more “do what needs to be done,” very egalitarian. I feel so lucky. It’s good for me to be reminded of those things, that it’s not what everyone gets. 

There are all these great things that you don’t know about your partner until you have kids. There are also challenges of negotiating, what is this going to look like? I teach Psychology of Women and this is a topic I talk a lot about with my students. I think in modern age the roles are not so clearly defined, so the flip side of that is figuring out, okay, I’m working, but I want to be with my kids. He does a lot, which is great, but that also means that if he’s with the kids more, he’s not working as much, so sometimes, that’s challenging. We have to negotiate how we’re going to define gender roles when we’re making our own scripts as we go along. 

There is certainly a shift in intimacy when kids come into the picture, I was talking to a friend of mine, we were talking about going back to the doctor after we had our babies, and the doctor asked, “what are you going to do about birth control?” And we’re like, the kids ARE the birth control! [Laughs] I went to the OBGYN the other day and I was filling out the form that I’ve been filling out since I was fourteen, and it asks, “are you sexually active?” And I was like, how do I answer this questions?! I guess I am…but? I think that’s a very common experience. It takes more effort. It’s more deliberate. We do have a close, loving relationship, but sometimes it takes focus to maintain the romance that brought us together in the first place.

What are your hopes for your children?

I hope that they will be intelligent and kind, able to think for themselves. That they’ll be successful in ways that allow them creativity and freedom. I hope that they will do well in school, I hope they’ll go to college, I hope that they’ll have professions that are meaningful to them. I hope that they will have friends. I hope that life will be easy for them but not so easy that they don’t still develop character. That’s the interesting thing...I was reading a novel the other day and one of the characters was talking about “if all mothers had their wishes for their children the world would be such a dull place.” We want to protect them, but all the people I know who I think are the most interesting or appealing are people who have warts and scars. I want to shelter them but I also want to teach them the skills so they can go out into the world and have experiences. I think about having a girl and all the body image stuff that waits for her, or the sexualization, the gender stereotypes. I want to equip her to deal with all that stuff, but I also think, what kind of world could she possibly live in where she could escape that completely? I hope that what I can be for both of my kids is accessible enough as a mentor—I hope I can be a parent so that they know I’m not just their buddy—someone they can come to when they need guidance and leadership, but also I know when to step back so that I’m not smothering them. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see myself with more free time that I have right now! [Laughs] When I think about the future it’s always how old will the kids be then? S will be fifteen and a half and F will be eleven. That’s so hard to even imagine. I see myself having more autonomy than I do right now. I see myself running around a lot because I’ll have two kids who can’t drive yet. I hope that I will still be working a really flexible schedule. I always hear that there’s all this focus on being home with your kids when they’re little, but really when you need to be home with them is when they’re fifteen, so your house is not the one where everyone is smoking weed! [Laughs] I hope to be in a good place in my career, that’s important to me too, but also able to really focus on my kids. As the kids get older and we have a little bit more money banked, I would like to be doing some international travel.

Is there anything else you would like to touch on?

I think it’s so great that you’re doing this. The more that parents can talk about the challenges and how much their lives change, the better. I think we’re bombarded with idealized images of motherhood, how it’s beautiful and fulfilling, and if we don’t talk about how hard it is, then we all feel like we’re failures when we get to that place where we struggle. And we all struggle. I did a Soroptimist presentation a couple of years ago, and it was building on an Atlantic article about “why women can’t have it all.” It was so moving to see these women there [spanning from] nineteen-year-old college students to, I think the oldest woman there was eighty, and to hear these similar kinds of complaints and struggles, of how are we going to do it all? Especially the ones who had kids. Here I am, I’m trying to take care of myself, I’m trying to be a good partner, I’m trying to raise kids, I’m trying to keep my toilet clean, how are we supposed to do all this? The eighty-year-old woman said, “I felt that most of my adult life I was juggling all these balls and I wasn’t juggling any of them particularly well.” The more we talk about it, the more we feel like, ok, we’re in this soup together. How do we just do our best and not put so much pressure on ourselves.

Thank you Kristen!