A Conversation with Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile
I Was A Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood by Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile recounts their research interviewing mothers across America about their experiences of motherhood. The book sets out to address the gap that they believe exists between the expectations we have of ourselves as mothers and the reality of being moms. Ashworth and Nobile both live in Northern California with their families and have between them “five kids, two husbands, two dogs, three-quarters of a career, steadily improving skills at negotiating with toddlers, and way too much stress.”
Ashworth and Nobile’s second book, Dirty Little Secrets From Otherwise Perfect Moms, was published in April and is a collection of confessions garnered from the mothers they interviewed while researching their first book. Ashworth explains, “The ‘Dirty Little Secrets’ from our first book really resonated and ultimately led to our putting together this second book. It wasn’t easy getting them, however. We got e-mails, secrets scrawled on crumpled paper handed to us as we exited the gym, and confessions after hour-long conversations on the phone. But once the flood gates opened, it was very fascinating.”
Blogger and writer Heidi Scrimgeour was delighted to have a legitimate reason to ignore her children for long enough to read I Was A Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids. She interviewed Ashworth and Nobile to find out how the book took shape and how the process of writing it altered their views on motherhood and changed their expectations of themselves.
Friends for over 12 years, Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile set out to address the little-talked-about gulf that exists between the reality of modern motherhood and our pre-pregnancy expectations of it. The book took shape as they began baring their souls over the unexpected challenges and disappointments that they discovered along with the joys of motherhood.
Ashworth and Nobile describe in the introduction of their book how the idea to write it came after one of ‘those’ days — “. . . dog poop tracked into the house, wild children in the aisles of Target. Laser-eyed, we watched our clocks until 4pm. Then we poured ourselves a glass of wine and picked up the phone to call each other.”
Prior to becoming mothers, both had enjoyed successful, challenging careers — Ashworth in advertising and Nobile in PR, but at the book’s inception Ashworth was a stay-at-home mom while Nobile worked part-time. Despite the differences in their circumstances, their sacred daily phone calls made one thing clear: as mothers they shared the very same challenges and frustrations as they describe in the book, “. . . questioning our choices, grappling with guilt, and wondering if the other mothers we knew were struggling to keep it together, too.”
While many of us have asked these questions of ourselves in times of quiet desperation, few venture far beyond the debilitating belief that every other mother we know must just be handling it better than us. Not content with that explanation, Ashworth and Nobile smelled a conspiracy and set out to find out the truth behind the perfect-mommy veneer. Over the course of the next six months, they interviewed more than one hundred mothers throughout the USA, logging six thousand minutes of conversations.
Uncovering the truth wasn’t easy, however. Ashworth and Nobile said that the mothers they interviewed all began by extolling the virtues of motherhood. Eventually, after an average of 22 minutes, they dropped the pretense and admitted to the deeper and darker truths of their experiences as moms. Ashworth explains, ” . . . it really took a lot of prying to get to the truth — 22 minutes, to be exact. Once we got women anonymously, over the phone, and allowed them to ease into it, they eventually spilled out the truth about how they’re feeling as moms today. Over and over again we heard one common theme, no matter where the mom lived, how many kids she had, or whether she was a stay-at-home mom or working mom: She had overblown expectations of herself and an unrealistic image of what a ‘good mom’ was. That commonality was amazing.”
The result is an account of what modern motherhood is really like, warts and all, interspersed with insights and confessions from the moms they interviewed. The book tackles eight core issues facing modern mothers, which Ashworth and Nobile believe stem from overblown, unrealistic expectations. They added quizzes and check-lists to provide a guide for readers to examine and reconfigure those expectations.
Perhaps the ultimate test of a how-to book is the extent to which the author has followed her own advice. So I asked how writing their book and redefining their own expectations had changed their experiences of motherhood. Ashworth explains, “Even our husbands benefited from it! We heard so much good advice from moms, therapists, authors and the like, and certainly grew in so many ways as a result of this process. Every single day we would laugh and cry and wrap our arms around why we became mothers in the first place. When do you really get a chance to embrace that? We so often don’t allow ourselves that.”
In their book the authors describe the magnitude of the mothering role; “. . . as a mom you’re supposed to be an accountant, chauffeur, personal trainer, hygienist, interior decorator, camp counselor, servant, chef, personnel manager, and cheerleader. . . . Queries like ‘How was your day?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ are not meant to be answered honestly. Because really, what are Dad and the kids going to do if Mommy says, ‘My day was terrible’? Or what would happen if Mommy replied, ‘Yeah, well, I’m burnt out, and I quit.'”
While the workplace analogy makes for a compelling illustration of the pressures of modern motherhood, it also gives away something significant about where Ashworth and Nobile are coming from. They ask in the book why so many of us “. . . smart, sensible women — are having such a hard time managing one of the most primal occupations on earth,” but I can’t help but wonder at their choice of the word ‘occupation’ to describe motherhood.
At the heart of this book is the idea that so many of us have fallen short of the expectations we had of ourselves as mothers, which developed long before the day we first peed on a stick. Ashworth and Nobile encourage us to let ourselves off the hook and to realize that so many of our pre-pregnancy expectations were unrealistic. “We didn’t realize that being mothers would make us feel so unsuccessful. We didn’t realize that motherhood would involve so many sacrifices. We didn’t know we’d lose control,” said one of the mothers interviewed. Success, sacrifice, control. When did we start applying the words of the corporate world to the rest of life?
It strikes me that Ashworth and Nobile’s effort to reinvent modern motherhood, as stated on the cover of the book, draws on the sort of marketing tricks that might be just as readily applied to re-energizing a failing brand. It’s inevitable that their professional backgrounds shape what they have to say; we each bring our wider life experiences to bear on our role as mothers, but I wonder if it’s a mistake to bring the tools of the marketplace into the home and if it’s overly simplistic to suggest that the tricks of the corporate world hold the answers to the questions faced by many modern mothers. Instead, perhaps the dichotomies and conflicts at the heart of the experience of motherhood for so many women has less to do with having “insane expectations,” as the book suggests, and more about the fact that we are groomed for success of an altogether more commercial kind.
My suspicion is that the modern motherhood ‘problem,’ as defined by Ashworth and Nobile, has less to do with unrealistic expectations of motherhood, as they claim, and more to do with the simple fact that so many modern societies have lost all sense of equipping girls for futures as mothers. We dispatch them to the corporate world with only the flimsy, artificial tools sold to them by the twin giants of advertising and consumerism, and we wonder why they feel so bereft when motherhood robs them of the body they’ve been taught to believe is only attractive if it’s thin and the independent identity they’ve been encouraged to carve out and defend above all else. Motherhood at its simplest level is a form of altruism, which is increasingly unfashionable in the 21st century.
The book touches briefly on the impact of feminism on modern motherhood. While the authors credit the feminist movement with having enabled and inspired women, they deem it to be a “work in progress.” They conclude that “how to do it — to be empowered, to take our own lives by the reins, to have children and be happy, all at the same time — is something most of us have yet to figure out.” And yet Ashworth and Nobile could easily be considered poster-girls for having done just that. They are attractive, successful, and, according to my interview, happy. They combine successful writing careers with motherhood and appear to do so with relative ease, as Ashworth explains, “We’ve somehow figured out a system (for writing) that works with the kids’ schedules. And sometimes it just comes down to sticking the kids in a bedroom to watch Scooby Doo and eat lollipops, while we work!”
Ashworth and Nobile make a convincing point that our uniquely modern ability to choose so many aspects of our parenting journey — sometimes right down to the month in which conception takes place — leaves us with a false feeling of control, which is at odds with the chaotic unpredictability of the realities of mothering. I wondered what their most difficult choices in motherhood had been. They declared this a tough question and agreed that the decision to return to work after having children had been difficult for them both. Nobile says she realigned her expectations and came to the decision that working was something she truly wanted to do, which was right for her family. Ashworth says her return to work after having been a stay-at-home-mom for six years involved refining the image in her head of what a ‘good mom’ was.
It strikes me that Ashworth and Nobile’s difficult choices might seem like luxurious options to mothers in different circumstances. They argue that when choices proliferate past a certain point, the result is not greater freedom or flexibility, but a sense of being overloaded, which can result in stress, unhappiness and anxiety. In the book they make a convincing point that “a too-busy mom has failed to make conscious choices at all.” I welcome the book’s encouragement to take a considered look at the choices, conscious or not, that I make as a mother, but this argument doesn’t take into account that for many mothers the decision to return to work after having children is anything but a choice. Whilst it might be true that too much choice can restrict us, I tend to see the choices of modern motherhood as privileges that the likes of my Irish Grandmother, who birthed ten babies, probably only dreamt of.
I wonder too whether mothers with less glittering pre-pregnancy careers might feel the strains of motherhood, as defined by Ashworth and Nobile, less keenly? They interviewed a wide range of mothers from different backgrounds but many of the quotes throughout the book express a sort of mourning, feeling the loss of once very rewarding careers. Their book operates from the assumption that Ashworth and Nobile’s own experiences of motherhood are universal, though I’m not completely convinced of that. So while it’s understandable that the authors kept their focus on the United States when conducting their research, given that the book is aimed at the American audience, I think a more universal approach might have made their case more compelling.
My family and I recently moved from a trendy part of North London to the wilds of the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland. The differences between the expectations of mothers here and in London are distinctive and surprising. Here teenage girls talk freely and with excitement about when, not if, they’ll get married and have babies. There is an emphasis on family and community that gears these girls up for motherhood. I wonder what would happen if Ashworth and Nobile’s theories were reverse-engineered, if these girls were plucked from the culture that trains them to be mothers and immersed in pressurized, challenging careers. Wouldn’t they experience something similar to the mother-shock which Ashworth and Nobile’s interviews unearthed?
To my mind Ashworth and Nobile are asking all the right questions and should be applauded for starting a dialogue around the experience and expectations of modern mothers. But I feel as though they’re short-circuiting some of the answers, politely stepping aside from the more complex economic, social, and political issues that are at the core of this discussion. Perhaps rather than settling for store-bought cupcakes over home-baking, as they suggest in the book, we ought to turn our attention to the shifts that have taken place in society — the rise of consumerism, the affliction of Affluenza, the absolute breakdown of family, etc. — and the changes that those dynamics have wrought in who we are, how we live, and what we expect from life. Then we might be better informed to understand the impact of those things on modern motherhood.
Yes, an almighty kind of seismic shift takes place somewhere between the before and after of becoming a mother. It can be destabilizing, but I remain unconvinced that it’s the ‘problem’ that Ashworth and Nobile imply or that the answer is that we try to ‘solve’ it. It’s a strange kind of irony that motherhood marks our bodies in the ways it does; maybe it’s symbolic, an age-old rite of passage if you like, designed to physicalize the changes that motherhood will make on every other ounce of our being. Perhaps we’re not supposed to know about the realities of motherhood until we have kids. If we knew what was in store, we’d surely cling to birth control like comfort blankets and politely ignore the ticking of our biological clocks. Maybe it’s supposed to be a head-trip, designed to teach and change us as we grow with our child. Maybe the answer isn’t so much to adjust our expectations and simplify our choices, as Ashworth and Nobile suggest, but simply to embrace the ride whole-heartedly, highs and lows together, accepting that happiness might not sit easy with us all the time.