Happy Mother's Day

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

True or false: "Women want to share parental responsibilities equally with their spouses.... All mothers love their kids.... Most mothers get depressed when grown kids leave home." Though widely held, none of these beliefs is true according to The Motherhood Report: How Women Feel About Being Mothers (Macmillan, $19.95). Written by a husband and wife, Lou Genevie and Eva Margolies, and based on the responses of more than 1,100 women between the ages of 18 and 80 from all over the country, the book (published next month) explodes these and other myths, revealing the mixed feelings that women have about their most passionate, and perhaps most important, role.

The findings of Genevie, a research sociologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Margolies, a therapist, supported Margolies' experience as a mother. "It's really gratifying but really tough," she says. But she is one of a minority of women who feel their spouses are excellent fathers. "Lou is very involved with our children," she says of his relationship with David, 17, and Melissa, 16.

Genevie and Margolies, both 38, met with Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson in their spacious home on Long Island to talk about the state of motherhood.

How do women today feel about being mothers?

G: In one word, ambivalent. Women strongly want to be mothers, and many love it. But they find it's a difficult role, for which support from men, employers and society is almost nonexistent.

M: Yet women will continue to be mothers. In our study, 81 percent said they would definitely do it over again and another 15 percent said they probably would.

Why do women choose to be mothers?

G: It usually starts with the desire to have a close family and someone to nurture. But only one in four women view the role with any semblance of realism beforehand. About 70 percent thought it would be, as one said, "like playing house." Others imagined perfection—perfect mother, perfect children, perfect family.

M: The desire to have a child was based less on wanting to nurture than a wish to be nurtured. Women want children to love but primarily they want someone to love them back.

So reality comes as a shock?

G: The worry and responsibility of motherhood is the biggest surprise for these women, as is the fact that their marriages don't get better after the children come. Twenty percent said their marriages improved, but twice as many reported their marriages got worse. The result is that these women feel stressed and over burdened.

M: The phenomenal thing was that the mothers who felt most overburdened tended to be those full-time mothers who did not enjoy being at home. They criticized and humiliated their children more, used corporal punishment more and had lower self-esteem.

How do mothers react to the different stages of a child's development?

M: Infancy is tough for many. After adolescence, it was the least-liked stage. In reality a baby is helpless and needs constant attention. Some women felt isolated, some were surprised to find infants boring, others felt that their identities had been swallowed up.

What phase did mothers like best?

M: Toddlerhood and the early school years were liked by more mothers than any other. Kids are less dependent, more curious and their ability to talk lets them reciprocate emotionally. Things bottom out in adolescence. Teenagers are moody and often obnoxious, and they are dealing with issues like drugs and sex. Mothers purport to raise their kids to be independent, but suddenly they are confronted with the fact that independence may mean things they don't like.

What happens when kids leave home?

G: Almost all women feel a sense of loss, but only one in 10 felt a great deal of depression. On the other hand, one out of four found the adult stage the most enjoyable, either because they liked relating to their kids as friends or because the day-to-day responsibilities were over. Sixty percent of all marriages reportedly got better.

What did women view as the worst part of motherhood?

M: Except for a child's death, the most devastating experience was being rejected by their child. It could be simply a child saying, "I hate you," or a grown child cutting a mother off. About half the mothers said there was a negative component to their relationships. The truth is, not all mothers like their children. If the temperaments aren't well matched, they react as people.

How do the mothers feel about their husbands' contributions?

G: Seventy percent resented their husbands' lack of practical and especially emotional support.

M: Still, one out of four mothers described their husbands as excellent fathers, men who saw their life at home as equally as important as their careers. Another 25 percent felt their husbands could be more patient and look after their children's needs a bit more, but they were usually involved and loved their children. The remaining half were dissatisfied. They said their husbands never put their children's needs first. One out of 10 said their husbands were completely inept—children themselves who needed to be taken care of.

G: Yet only one out of four women said they wanted a 50-50 split in parenting responsibilities.

M: The home is where mothers shine, and that's exactly the way they want it. Women are saying, "Yes, I want to be No. 1, but I want No. 2 close by."

What compensates for all the drawbacks?

M: Love and feeling loved back by their children is the joy of motherhood. A child giving you a spontaneous hug can obliterate everything lousy that kid has done all day. Pride was another plus, feeling that the children were moral or had accomplished something.

G: There is also this intangible we call closeness. It can transcend what kind of person the child is.

Do working mothers feel differently than full-time mothers about their role?

M: A big surprise was that working women were much more conflicted about working than full-time mothers were about staying home. Fifty percent of working women felt cheated, that they were missing out on the best years of their kids' lives.

There has been a lot written lately about women quitting their jobs to become full-time mothers. Are they?

G: That is happening, but only among women who can afford it. Most women work because they have to—they don't have a choice. What this trend does show is that we are gaining some perspective on the changes that have taken place during the past 20 years, when there has been a great intellectual and economic push for women to work. We're beginning to get a sense of the good things that were left behind. I don't think anyone realized how strongly attached to this role women are and how devastated they feel when they can't fulfill the responsibilities that it demands.

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