Redefining the ideal image of motherhood

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

How young mothers have made their motherhood journeys their own.

The first time I met my niece, Charlie, she had just begun to walk. I watched as she delicately squeezed the rolls of my seven-year-old pug.

“Wow, Ate Bill, she’s so big na,” I said, feeling shivers as the images of all the titas who have ever said that to me flashed through my mind. “She’s a legit person.”

Her mother and my cousin Billie laughed as I stared in awe at Charlie chasing my pug. “Yeah, she is!” she said.

“I still can’t believe you’re a mom,” I said.

Billie was the first cousin in our family to get married and have a child. From the beginning, she’d made it clear that her motherhood journey is and was always going to be hers. She and her husband did not plan to have a baby during their honeymoon. Instead, they waited until they both felt ready. She is open about her experiences, too, choosing to share the highs and lows of motherhood on social media — how the changes had affected her mentally and physically, as well as how little Charlie is growing.

Billie with her daughter Charlie. Photo courtesy of BILLIE PUYAT MURGA

Even so, as Charlie now approaches three years old, I still couldn’t quite grasp that someone so close in age to me could be a mother. Then again, what was I imagining a mother to even look like?

Growing up, the cartoons I watched and the stories I read all painted one unifying portrait of the “perfect” mother — a woman who handled all the housework and child-rearing by herself, with poise and elegance. Mothers who were shown struggling to handle that were portrayed in an exaggeratedly negative light, implying that they were less than mothers who could do it all.

This was the first point of my confusion. I thought, is this what mothers should be like?

This image never really aligned with what I saw growing up. This was not because the maternal figures in my life couldn’t handle it — they certainly could. My mother raised my brother and me after my father passed, all while accumulating a growing list of achievements. Her mother, my grandmother, carried herself with the elegance of her ballerina background, and could haggle prices at the market like no one else could. My paternal grandmother was a paralyzingly beautiful woman with a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue.

But could they check every box in the imaginary list that idealizes the “perfect” mother?

In a later conversation, Billie and I discussed the concept of the “mental load,” or the emotional labor a woman often shoulders in order to maintain a household. This includes tasks like keeping track of groceries, doing and putting away laundry, and cleaning. Emma, a French comic artist, illustrated this perfectly in “You Should’ve Asked,” by comparing women to managers when it comes to delegating chores to their partners. This begets assumptions that, if a woman does not ask, she does not need help — she can do it all herself.

“I don't know if that's Filipino culture, or just the way I was raised, but it was a lot of giving and thinking about other people and putting other people's needs first,” Billie said. “Now, after a few years of motherhood, I realized that [an] important thing as well was my own relationship to myself.”

That mindset of putting other people’s needs first — “pagbigyan” as they’d always say — was familiar to me too, as a woman. Like Billie, I am the eldest daughter, so I’d always been told to be the bigger person, to let things go because I was the ate. I am not a mother, so I could only imagine how much more exacerbated this expectation was for them. So to really know and, hopefully, understand, I decided to ask other mothers about their experiences.

Billie introduced me to a friend of hers, Nicole, who is a mother of two — a three-year old son and a six-month old daughter.

“I’ve come to terms with all of the conflicting feelings I have about motherhood,” Nicole said. "I can acknowledge that it's hard, without complaining about it. I know that two things can be true at the same time — I can be both grateful and tired."

Nicole had given birth to her son five days after the lockdown. “It was a truly terrifying time, and my anxiety was through the roof,” she said. “In addition to navigating "normal" motherhood concerns, I had to deal with the anxiety around this then-unknown virus that could endanger me, my baby, my husband, or my family; as well as the loneliness of isolation since I couldn't see friends, and no one in my or my husband's family could visit us or help.”

Apart from becoming a mother, the birth of her son had brought a lot of lifestyle changes. Nicole left her corporate job to become a stay-at-home mom, and she’s had to be more careful about who she interacts with to ensure that the health and safety of her children aren’t compromised. Through these challenges, Nicole has made it a point to be open about her experiences as she was blindsided by all the “aesthetic” parenting posts that dotted her Instagram feed.

“I didn’t want to just celebrate the successes, though I share those too, but also acknowledge how I could “fail” at so many things that had to do with raising kids — feeding, managing their sleep, preparing activities for them — to remind myself and others that the most important thing is just being present and connected with them —though sometimes I fail at that too,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say being a mom comes naturally to me, as it might for some people. But it’s what I’ve chosen to make my number one priority in my life right now, and so I choose to work on doing it well every single day.”

Posting, to her, is like a way of letting go of the pressure to live up to an image, and of encouraging other mothers to do the same.

“I wouldn’t say being a mom comes naturally to me, as it might for some people,” Nicole said. “But it’s what I’ve chosen to make my number one priority in my life right now, and so I choose to work on doing it well every single day.”

For Nica Lahoz, a budding lawyer who balances her career with parenting her daughter, motherhood taught her to be kind to herself.

“It’s okay to take a break,” she said. “Nung anak palang ako, or wala pa akong anak, iniisip ko, Oh cool, my mom is so selfless, na parang that’s what being a mother is like. Parang lahat selfless, selfless, selfless. But now, naiisip ko, hindi ka pwede selfless lang, eh! You also have to think about yourself, because — sobrang cliche, but how can you be a good mom if you’re not at 100%? So you have to take care of yourself.”

Nica Lahoz and her daughter Amara. Photo from NICA LAHOZ

Nica does not only manage her time between work and raising her child — she splits her time between Manila and Vigan, where her daughter stays with her parents. “It’s so hard to balance everything when you’re starting,” she said. “Since I’m only required to go to the office thrice a week, if feeling ko wala akong kailangang gawin for the two days na work from home, I go home to the province — every week, as much as possible.”

She emphasized that, with everything that a mother needs to balance, it’s also important to accept that you’re never really prepared to be a mother. “Ang dami kong mga acquaintances na nabuntis and you’d see them post things [where] they study talaga [about] parenting,” she said. “I felt so pressured that time because, how can I prepare? Puro akong law school, law school, law school — wala akong time magbasa. Daming pressure talaga na, Oh, I didn’t read books, am I doing the right thing?” she said. “There’s no right way to raise your child talaga. Just do what you think is best for your child, and that’s it. Try your best. Iba-iba naman tayo ng situations.”

“The type of person I am is like — I like to do things on my own,” said Bianca, another mom I spoke to for this piece. “I don't like asking for help, especially from my parents, because I'll feel bad if they have to drop everything, or if anyone [feels] hassled by me.”

Bianca and I had known each other peripherally for years because of our endless supply of mutual friends. When her son, Liam, was born almost six years ago, I heard about it from all of our friends — one of whom had gone on to become his ninang. We finally met when I asked to learn more about her motherhood journey.

While Bianca’s pregnancy was unexpected — she found out right before her last two semesters of university — it felt like everything slotted into place. “It was not my plan, but it was God's plan,” she said. Even when she went into labor earlier than expected, she described it as surprisingly easy. “I fell asleep, I was pregnant. Then, when I woke up, I had a baby. It was so easy,” she said.

Bianca and her son Liam. Photo courtesy of BIANCA SAN JUAN

Raising Liam, however, is when she realized that handling it all alone would not be as “easy” as childbirth. She was feeling bouts of loneliness and was scared to be alone with her son.

“I didn't understand that because, if you know me, I’ve always loved kids. And I asked, why can I not be the same for my own child?” she said. So when her mother asked if she was going through postpartum depression, it hit her all at once. Yes, she had been going through postpartum depression, and that yes, it was okay for her to ask for help. “I was like okay, my parents know what they're doing, so I just accept the help that they’re willing to give, and that's when it was more manageable,” she said. “It became a happier journey. Compared to when I was doing it all by myself, when I started accepting the help from everybody, that's when I felt like, Okay, I'm a mom now. And you know, not like a student trying to figure out a project.” she said. “It takes a whole village — a whole country — to raise him right? I'm so thankful for that.”

Another mom, Maria, similarly stressed the importance of a “village.” An upperclassman of a friend of mine, Maria is the mother of a two, almost three-year-old named Marty.

Having that support group was particularly pertinent for her, as she described herself as the type to keep busy. Currently, she balances her work as a development manager at a FinTech company with freelance cosplaying, modeling, and streaming.

“One thing that really helped me was staying close to my own support group or my own support circle — so my friends and family," she said. "And at the same time, having a very supportive partner."

“My partner is also a content creator. So what happens is naga-alternate kami. If I have a gig on a specific date, he cannot have a gig on that date. And then if he has a very important big thing, I’m the one who has to adjust so that I can watch over the kid. And then also the people around us. If both of us are not available, we ask family members, we ask his grandparents if it’s okay that they can watch over him. It’s really about having a really good support group and, at the same time, also to have the discipline to do something like this. Kasi, in order for it to work, you have to be very organized and very careful with how you plan your schedule, and how you plan the things around you.”

Maria and her son Marty. Photo courtesy of MARIA BUVELLE

Maria was explicit, too, about her dislike for the “self-sacrificing” image pushed onto mothers. “I don't really like the whole, ‘Oh, you're the woman, you should stay at home, you should sacrifice everything, you have to do that, have to do this,’” she said. “I don't like that at all. I see myself and my partner as equals. We're both adults. And we're both equal partners here. So we both need to have the same kinds of opportunities. And we also need to both have the same level of time and commitment towards our child.”

It was becoming clearer to me, now, how the image of a “perfect” mother has evolved. One interesting thing I noticed through all the many conversations is how this change had also given birth to another new concept — children could be part of the conversation, too.

“So one of the things that we've always done with Charlie was treat her like a person. It feels weird for some people, and they don't get it,” Billie said. “Since she was a baby, as in a newborn, I would explain everything. I would treat her as a human being. Explain everything, don’t just do something to her — you tell her what you’re going to do, you ask for permission.”

With Charlie, she takes extra care when preparing her for situations, such as if she’s about to meet a crowd of new faces all at once, and to check in with her afterward to see how she’s feeling. She said, “They’re new humans. They’re new in this world and the only thing you can do is be kind to them and understand where they’re coming from, kasi hindi nila gets 'yung logic, hindi nila gets 'yung consequences at this stage. This is the first time she’s experiencing anger or frustration and she doesn’t even know the word for it or how to verbalize it. So why am I expecting her to act like an adult when she isn’t?”

“It’s really about explaining it and not forcing it also,” Bianca said. When approaching new things she wants to teach Liam, she introduces it to him, sees how he takes it, and then goes from there. “I never want it to be like, because I’m your mom you have to listen, you know what I mean? I hated that and I didn’t understand it. So it’s really more of trying to let him understand why it’s important to do this, or why you want to do whatever. Because, you know, kids, toddlers, they’re so curious and they’re so accepting of things. They’re also very smart. I think, if you just talk to them, they’ll understand it the way that they’ll understand it,” she said.

“Motherhood changed me because it made me just love myself more. It made me think about myself first and what I need, because I want to feel good about myself, and to feel happy and secure and confident, and to trust in myself."

Mothers come in different forms. When someone becomes a parent, it is inevitable that they change. Thus, a part of being a mother is getting to know who they are after becoming mothers, too.

“Motherhood changed me because it made me love myself more. It made me think about myself first and what I need, because I want to feel good about myself, and to feel happy and secure and confident, and to trust in myself,” Billie said. “Because I think that Charlie will see that and I want her to grow up seeing me — the way that I act and the way I carry myself, she'll see that and she'll model that. I feel the way that I act and the way she feels about me and I feel about that stronger than what I say.”

“I definitely became more vocal, more independent, and firm,” Bianca said. “I’m the youngest from my four siblings, and my siblings all have strong personalities. I was always just a follower. Like, okay I’ll do what you tell me to do, and I got so good at it. If I didn’t agree with something they liked, as the bunso, I would just follow. Like, I have an opinion about it, but I won’t say anything. But ever since I became a mom, it was like, no, I’m not doing that, or this is what I think is the best way to do it.”

“Who you were before you were a mother changes, you're not able to do the same things that you were able to do before. You have to make a lot of change,” Maria said. “Sometimes you feel like, nanay lang ba ako? Dati, ganito ako, dami kong nagagawa. Ngayon pakiramdam ko hanggang nanay nalang ako. And that's the time that you start to realize also that you're more than just a mom. You don't need to lose your sense of self. You can still be a cosplayer, you can still be a model, and you can still be a mom. You can be a hard working office worker, and still be a mom. Diba? You can be in the military and still be a mom. So just because nanay ka hindi ibig sabihin nanay ka lang. You are also you.”

In a fit of laughter, Bianca bursted. “You next, Maia! Have a baby na!” I laughed and told her, “It was nice meeting you, Bianca, have a great day.”