Motherhood is the opposite of meritocracy, writes Raina Raskin.
“Despite all my attempts to distinguish myself, I’ve ended up like every other mother,” writes Raina Raskin. (Photo by Andrew Stawicki/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

How Motherhood Liberated Me

‘My daughter doesn’t care if I’m exceptional. She just cares that I am hers.’

In the early weeks of motherhood, I spent countless hours struggling to nurse my daughter. When I wasn’t nursing, I was calling my lactation consultant for latching advice or compulsively scrolling through Reddit for tips on increasing my supply. I was pumping and pouring bottles and somehow spilling my hard-earned milk everywhere in the process.

I felt like a useless cow.

Millions of women have this experience. And that was part of the problem: I didn’t feel special in the way I’d always wanted to. I wasn’t making use of my unique skill set. 

It was disorienting for a twenty-five-year-old who’d spent more than a decade trying to prove I was exceptional. I had defined myself by what I believed would make me valuable in the markets where I competed: college admissions, job opportunities, the dating pool. I’d distinguished myself in social settings with a series of tricks—smoking, listening to obscure music, talking about my time in Tajikistan. And now, here I was, doing something that literally defines the female mammal. Nursing didn’t require any knowledge of Tajiki or the local punk scene. 

“We envision ourselves as marketable objects,” writes sociologist Joseph E. Davis in his 2003 article, “The Commodification of Self.” He describes the way we sell ourselves: “To be successful at Me. Inc, my traits, values, beliefs, and so on. . . must be self-consciously adopted or discarded, emphasized or de-emphasized.” The market has its own ideas of value, and it demands we pitch ourselves as unique, and irreplaceable. You’ll be the best student; you’re the best woman for the job; the person sitting across the table should fall in love with you—and no one else. 

While you’re doing this, it’s easy to develop a prejudice against what we have in common. The skills that everyone is capable of aren’t as important as those that are rare. I knew that providing my baby with milk was the most useful, necessary thing I’d ever done in my life—but it made me feel the opposite of extraordinary.

That is, until my daughter turned six weeks old—and she did something that changed my world forever: she smiled at me. 

That smile blew all those traditional status markers out of the water—better than a million Instagram likes, an Ivy League acceptance letter, a competitive job offer—even though making my baby smile was one of the easiest things I’d ever done. I booped her nose with my finger and made a silly sound. Really, anyone could have done it. But that didn’t diminish my daughter’s amazement, because she doesn’t care if I’m exceptional. She just cares that I’m hers

Unlike my husband, my employer, or my college admissions officer, my baby never had the opportunity to survey the market, evaluate the options, and pick me to be her mother. Our relationship isn’t predicated on any talent or skill on either of our parts. I love my daughter unconditionally, not for what she might accomplish or might be. And she loves me not for my job, or my degree, but because I make little raspberries on her belly. I toss her up in the air and shout “Pizza Baby” in a ridiculous Italian accent. I hold her tight and give her milk.

She declares her delight and love in all sorts of wonderful, wordless ways: her big, toothless grin. The excited shallow breaths. The squeal that almost resembles a laugh. The calm lifting and lowering of her brows as she feeds.

Motherhood is the opposite of meritocracy, writes Raina Raskin.
Raina Raskin with her daughter. (Photo courtesy of the author)

All this makes me so glad that, despite all my attempts to distinguish myself, I’ve ended up like every other mother—on the floor, singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” yet again to make tummy time a little less scary.

This might sound terrible to the average young American woman. We’re a demographic fueled by ambition: about 75 percent of young women say they want to advance to senior leadership in their organization, according to a 2023 study of over 200 companies. And 46 percent of American women think having a happy career is essential to having a fulfilling life, a recent survey found, compared to just 22 percent who say the same thing about having children.

I can’t help wondering whether the pursuit of chosenness is what’s making us anxious. It’s no secret that my generation—and its women in particular—is experiencing an anxiety crisis. And there’s been criticism of how elite college admissions trap ambitious young people in a nerve-wracking cycle of seeking social and managerial approval. What if they never manage to shake it off?

My daughter was born as birth rates in this country hit a record low. And I sometimes worry that some of my peers who are delaying, or forgoing, motherhood do so because they can’t reject the demands of the market, of our meritocracy. I couldn’t either, until my baby smiled at me.

In the weeks after her birth, as I pumped and nursed at all hours of the night, I rewatched Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is currently experiencing a streaming revival among my peers. “I think I might be the voice of my generation,” Hannah Horvath declares to her parents in the first episode. Desperate to be an extraordinary writer, she spends her twenties chasing exciting experiences as fodder for her writing. But when the series concludes, we see Hannah living in a small house in the Hudson Valley, wanting nothing more than to nurse her infant son successfully. 

Hannah Horvath does, actually, represent our generation—though perhaps not in the way she would have liked. Her story is typical. When we are young, we believe ourselves to be outstanding. But very few of us actually are; the rest of us are mostly delusional.

Motherhood isn’t the only path to accepting this, but for me, it was my daughter’s love that freed me from my delusions of grandeur. It liberated me from the tyranny of trying to prove myself. Since her birth, I feel calmer and more secure. I have a sense of security I haven’t felt since I was a young child, living with parents who unconditionally loved me. Now, I care less about what other people think of me, and my ambitions are healthier. Whatever I was chasing before—and it really varied from moment to moment based on my social settings—seems to have evaporated.

I don’t need to be chosen anymore, because I belong.

Raina Raskin is an editorial assistant in The New York Times opinion section. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @tinychalice.

If you enjoyed this Mother’s Day essay, read “The Benefits of Being a Young Mom” by Liz Wolfe—and subscribe to The Free Press today:

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