A few weeks ago, a picture started circulating online. It was a well-intentioned, inspirational message about motherhood stating that once a woman becomes a mother she stops being the picture and becomes the frame.
As with anything posted online, the reaction was mixed. But this time there were significantly more angry face emojis than hearts, way more eye rolls than thumbs up, which made me wonder: are women finally becoming fed up with the expectation that we sit still, look pretty, stay calm and mother on, be the frame, not the picture?
If so, yay us!
“Be the frame” touches a nerve not only because we’re tired of being told how to mother but because we’re even more tired of being told that mothering is incompatible with having your own life.
In this metaphor, the frame represents a position outside the action, a position to the left or right of the main event. As the frame, mothers are indeed important because without us there’s no structure. The frame allows everything within to be shaped and contained, and while that’s hardly a bad thing it’s still relegation to the margins, which begs the question: why can’t we do all that from inside the picture?
Why should we exist on the periphery and not at the centre?
Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that women are expected to become largely invisible after child-bearing age. Thank you for populating the earth now step aside and stop blocking our view of the pretty, fertile ones. Once we’ve fulfilled our (main?) biological function, society is pretty much done with us. If we’re lucky we become the frame, but not the picture.
Never the picture.
To many of us, being the frame doesn’t mean putting everything else aside and giving the proverbial spotlight over to our children and families. Instead, it means setting an example that rejects motherhood as our sole priority in life. It means modelling a full, vibrant existence that includes whatever we want it to, not what other people think it should.
There’s a famous quote about freedom of speech that reads: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, which is exactly how I feel about mothering. You want to pose topless or breastfeed your kid till he’s five? Not for me but I will back you up 100 percent if that’s what you want.
Somewhere along the way, parenting (mothering in particular), became a competitive sport; and she who made the most sacrifices, she who dedicated the most time and effort to her children, was declared the winner. Somewhere, somehow, impossible standards were set and “winning” became synonymous with losing one’s own identity.
To me, winning looks like having work, friends and interests that have nothing to do with my children. I don’t seek this separation, but I don’t run from it either. The picture I’m creating includes me in the centre, mothering, mentoring and living in a way that is authentic to me and makes me happy. This idea is not, and never has been, mutually exclusive to successful parenting. If you want to be the frame, be the frame. But don’t put yourself there because you think that’s a requirement of being a “good” mother.
Mothering can be your top priority without being your only priority.
The connection between motherhood and sacrifice is well-established. Some of it is unavoidable, but much of it isn’t. The examples we set and the lives we lead are a choice. If you want to devote your waking hours to supporting, serving and nurturing your family because that’s what makes you happy, good for you. And if you want to work 80-hours a week outside the home and outsource everything else, that’s awesome too. And if you’re trying to carve out something in between, here’s a virtual high-five because I am right there with you, trying to do the same thing.
The point is, these are all valid choices. If you’re going to choose Door Number One, good for you; just don’t do it because you think you have to.
Defining motherhood for ourselves or for our generation is not a new phenomenon. Every era has tried to pigeon-hole its mothers, to define what should and should not be done in the raising of children. When I was a kid (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, dirt was newly invented, etc. etc.), free-range parenting was the preferred style. Heck, it wasn’t even a style, it was just what most parents did because they were parenting by instinct and necessity, not because they were following any particular style or celebrity-endorsed method.
These days, come home when the street lights come on has been replaced by text me when you’ve arrived at your destination three blocks away and every thirty minutes thereafter. So-called old-school parenting is being romanticized as evidence of a simpler, better time, while modern parenting has become synonymous with over-parenting, where everything is sacrificed – our time, our interests, our identities – for our children.
Hence the frame.
Whether we blame modernism, ageism, misogyny, the beauty industry, Trump’s America, global warming, none of the above or all of the above the point is this: Moms, the choice about whether or not to stay in the picture is yours and yours alone.
Only you get to decide.