On Parenting

Defining Motherhood

How do you sum up something so extraordinary in 100 words or fewer? We asked readers to try.
Illustrated by Maggie Chiang

Motherhood. It’s exhausting, inspiring, soul-sucking and purpose-giving. It makes you question everything, while also feeling like you know it all.

What is motherhood? We asked mothers to define it in 100 words or fewer. Here are some of our favorite responses.

My daughter was born almost three months early. Time she should have spent curled up, protected, inside, was spent outside, in an incubator. She came home, grew and thrived, and became a cuddler. Sometimes she smashes herself against me; other times she extends a hand or foot for a light connection. I don’t want her to remember fights over shoes, or empty threats I made in frustration, or the disappointments of being young. I want her to remember the feeling of pressing her back against my chest, or climbing into my lap, and, for a little bit, being totally protected.

— Terri Rupar


Sorry, I hit send before I was finished.

Motherhood is the radical redesign of—

Yes, you can have a chocolate egg from your basket.

—everything we know: our values, our skills, our perspective, our ego, our empathy, our—

“Hey Mommy, I want to kiss you in the eye. And the other eye. Now give me another chocolate egg, Mommy. Can I see your boobies?”

What was I saying? I forget.

Motherhood is perpetual failure at multi-tasking.

It’s the ultimate roller coaster of joy and sorrow, comfort and fear, love and hate, fast and slow, past and future.

Motherhood is—

“Now kiss my eyes, Mommy!”

— Libby Chisholm Fearnley

She is a mother. She is vulnerable (just hurt her child, and you’ll see) and she is strong (just hurt her child, and you’ll see). She has been elevated (she is Mom) and she has been demeaned (she is just a mom). She is full (loving a child so completely will do that to you) and she is empty (loving a child so completely will do that to you). Who says she can’t have it all? She has everything.

— Sharon Holbrook

I’d like to tell you what motherhood means to me, except it’s challenging to sit at my desk while my pockets are full of rocks.

In the four years I have spent as a mom, that’s what I’ve become: I am the rock holder. My pockets are heavy with rocks. Rocks sag in my backpack. They clunk in my coat.

My son finds these rocks and urges me to have them, slips them into my good purse, sweetens the deal with crumbling leaves, an array of sticks, wildflowers, the occasional cicada shell.

He gives me the world. Or tries to.

— Maggie Downs

Life before my son was kinetic. I was a doer, rushing from one event to the next. Nights are different now. After daycare pick-up, time slows as we meander home. “Blue car,” I say, pointing, and he puts his index finger in the air. “Yellow daffodil,” I tell him as we pass a manicured garden. “Babababa,” he replies, pulling off his sock. Later, I sit on the floor of the living room watching him cruise on the furniture while hugging his stuffed donkey. If you asked me what I did each night, my old self might reply, “nothing much,” but now it feels like everything.

–Stephanie Merry

Motherhood is the ache I feel in my chest when my son can’t see the flock of birds that just flew overhead. It is the vintage Valentine in April that his brother, who is not blind, and who can walk and talk, brings home to me from his trip to Hawaii. It is slipping out of my younger son’s hospital bed, careful not to wake him, and returning home to be with his brother, who tells me about the girl he likes. It is the certainty with which I love them both.

— Molly Coffin

Foster parenting has been the most challenging experience of my life. The uncertainty, the courtrooms, the restrictions, the tears—hers and mine.

Every day I think, I can’t do this.

Every day I think, There’s nothing I’d rather do.

Loving this child who isn’t biologically mine is effortless; it’s love that came immediately, and has become indestructible.

She is pure magic.

Yesterday, she hugged me so tightly and I hugged her back, so tightly, and in that moment, I felt indescribable gratitude for the woman who brought her into the world. For in her own way, she is magic too.

— Katy Upperman

For the one weekend I’m gone all year, their dad pulled out all the stops. One hike led them along a boardwalk to a cave. Another up a mountain to a hazy view of the city. No time for the movies because of the biking and scootering adventure, then dinner out, then off to the greasy spoon for classic sundaes. They’d had even better a weekend than we’d hoped, but in school on Monday morning my kindergartener drew his Weekend News as nothing but a blurry, boxy composite of himself and me above the words: “Mommy came home.”

–Jenn Scheck-Kahn

I didn’t find out the sex. It was an insignificant fact that didn’t define a new human. I wanted to learn all about my child only after they were born.

Today, my child–whom I would refer to as my son–went to school wearing a dress. I may have knit this child together, woven them through with parts of myself. But this person wasn’t born completely formed, like I once thought. I may still sew them up from time to time, but they’ve taken over the shaping. There’s still so much to discover.

— Olivia Hinebaugh

Motherhood is like that one dream you had when you were 16 where you have this big test at school in history. You study for weeks about the American Revolution, but when you get to your chair you find out that the test was actually in math. So now you’re stuck trying to figure out the square root of an elephant multiplied by the weight of a neutron star and it isn’t until after the test is over that you find out the answer was Purple.

–Malinda Ruzicka Carlson

More reading:

A record number of congresswomen are mothers. Here’s a glimpse inside their first-ever caucus.

Motherhood gave me an identity crisis. Solving it was simple, but it wasn’t easy.

Deciding whether to have kids has never been more complex. Enter parenthood-indecision therapists.

Credits: By Amy Joyce. Designed by Audrey Valbuena. Illustrated by Maggie Chiang.