the question that killed a thousand mothers

by Janelle Hanchett

Sometimes people ask me what I plan on doing after I finish my M.A., and sometimes I answer honestly, which is of course “I don’t fucking know.” But other times I answer by explaining my “plan,” which at the moment, is to apply to PhD programs in English literature, with an emphasis on American Studies. And quite often, the response I get is something like this: “Are you sure you should be putting your children through that?”

It just happened the other day. A fellow grad student asked me that very question. I looked at him dead in the eyes and responded “If I were a man, would you be asking me that question?”

He laughed and said “no.” And then I told him he was a douchebag and we both laughed. And to be honest, I wasn’t really offended, because I don’t really get offended that often, but especially when people say stupid shit and then own it.

As hard as this may be to believe, I frequently say stupid shit.

But I must admit it got me thinking. I’ve been surprised by how many people have responded to me with that exact question when I tell them my “plan,” (I’m putting that word in quotation marks because come on, really? a plan? Can you have a “plan” with three kids and a husband and personality like mine? My first “plan” was to get an M.A. in English…in 2-3 years. IT’S BEEN SEVEN. Case closed.).

And the thing that really got me thinking is how that voice, “are you sure you should be putting your kids through this?” has been like a low hum in the back of my mind for the past 11 years, yammering the same message in relentless monotone: “But what about your KIDS? What are you doing to your KIDS?”

You know why it hurts? You know why the question stings?

BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW, people, and I never have.

I have never known what’s “best” for my kids. How the hell should I know?

I’m not them.

Okay. Fine. I know a few things. I need to love and nurture them, teach them what it means to be a decent human. I know I need to tell them the truth, hold, hug and kiss them, own my shit when I screw up with them, too. I know I need to take them places, expose them to the world, ask tough questions, make them work, teach them some fucking manners. I know I need to help them find out who they are, whatever that looks like, and back the hell off in case who they are doesn’t match who I think they should be…But  mostly, all I really know is that my job is to help them grow into the people they are meant to become.

Beyond that, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here.

And yet, people continue to ask me these questions as if I’m supposed to have some sort of answer. I’m supposed to like KNOW. Is there some sort of guidebook I’ve missed? Were other mothers endowed with a mother-compass, guiding their feet along a well-marked path toward the Promised Land of perfect children developing into perfect adults?

This woman once wrote on my blog “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.” When I read it, my stomach did a flip on itself, because quite frankly I think that’s the biggest crock of bullshit I’ve ever heard, and its implications made me a little sick.

The happiness of my children composes my own? Nonsense.

That’s the most insidiously selfish statement I think anybody has ever told me in regards to parenthood; it’s the most fucked-up thing I can imagine putting on your kid. Imagine that: “Hey kids, you are not only responsible for your own happiness, but you are now also responsible for MINE. So don’t blow it! ”

In other words, you are not free to live your life, because I’m dependent on you for the worth of my own, which means if you blow it, you’re not just ruining your own life, you’re ruining mine. So just remember that, kiddo, when you’re out there trying to navigate the insane waters of existence: YOUR MOTHER will never be happy unless you’re happy – so add that to your burden, please, as if life itself isn’t quite enough.

Um, thanks, but I unsubscribe from that theory.

Sorry, world, but I am not defined by my kids.

There. I said it.

There are these children in my home, and I love them with every shred of my being, and I am devoted to them with all my heart, and I try my best for them every day, but they are not me.

And I am not them.

And there’s this side of me that has other plans, and it always has, and it isn’t quite fulfilled through the making of lunches and cleaning of houses and doing of homework. I care about the parent-teacher conferences, but they aren’t the most important moment of my week, ever.

I am not ripping on stay-at-home moms. I feel silly even writing that disclaimer, but I need to be clear. What I’m saying is that I believe with all my heart that the greatest gift I can give my children is an example of a person who has grown fully, into herself, becoming the person her heart yearns to be, walked the path her soul has carved, bravely, firmly, lovingly.

Whatever that looks like.

If it’s getting a PhD she does it completely.

If it’s raising goats and canning pickles on a farm in Vermont, she does it completely.

If it’s working as an administrative assistant at a law firm 45 minutes away, she does it completely.

If it’s home-schooling 5 kids, making lovely dinners for her husband each day by 5pm sharp, served with a smile and warm heart…

Then by God, she does it completely.

And she does with everything she’s got, with all that she is, like there is nothing else in the world.  She does it like a warrior. She does it like a champion.

She does it like a goddamn rockstar.

Because those kids will watch that, ladies, and they will learn. They will watch it and they will see a human brave enough to live, brave enough to drop the ideas of the world, shake their expectations, brush their judgment off her heart like a bit of dust on the shoulder of an old wool coat.

And they’ll learn, as she moves, as she struggles, as she walks out the door to write that paper, as she comes home after one more day of what has become a bull-dog like devotion to her cause, as she straightens the pillows on the couch, tucks the baby in, falls exhausted into bed, one more time, they will learn:

To thine own self be true.

Like a boss.

To thine own self be true.

And I guess we’ll know then, someday, when we watch our kids soar into themselves without looking back, with the strength we found in the moments we didn’t know, didn’t know what was best for them, but held on anyway to the truth in ourselves, because there was really nothing else to do.

I guess we’ll know, then, when we watch them live in freedom, and find ourselves doing the same, that it was “best,” for them.

And for us.



  • Jessica

    Amen. And thank you for speaking to (from) my heart.

  • Shelly

    I’ll second that amen!

  • Eddie - The Usual Mayhem

    So true! Well said!

  • Vicki

    You know I actually had a professor tell me that there was no way I could pursue my PhD because I had 2 kiddos. It came from the lips of someone I respected that it felt like a hit to the stomach. Sure I had my daughter 2 weeks before I started grad school, but dammit I made it through somehow with many, many, many sleepless nights. So why am I not applying to Lit programs?My CV is crap. But being told I can’t do something gives me even more motivation to dive head first. So fuck what anyone else says. I know you’ll make a great professor from my short experience with you. And you’re setting an awesome example for your kids.

  • Erin Mar

    You have a knack for saying the things people need to hear, whether thy want to or not. For saying things I often think, only much more focused and well-spoken and probably with much less profanity.

    Posts like this reinforce why you’re my favorite blogger.

  • Rachel

    Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect… I sit here typing an empirical research paper for grad school that is likely to drive me to wrist-slitting. I, too, get questioned about how I do it with a husband who works constantly, 3 kids who are busy finding their own place in this world, and 2 insane dogs that drive me to drink. Fact is, smartasses, that I love my life. I love the fact that my kids see my STUDYING, WRITING, THINKING, TRYING. They see me yearning to be better than I was yesterday. You can’t beat that. Period. And as for that PhD, my friend, ROCK ON. R-O-C-K on!

  • Kristi

    I might just put this on my fridge. Thanks for this!

  • Leah

    If there is a gaelic sybmol for “the best I can with what I’ve got” I want it tattooed on the back of my hand so people can see it when I flip them off for judging. It is all we can do while arming these little people with tools in their box. Thank you for writing such a powerful piece – AGAIN!!

  • Dee

    Indeed. I once had someone (a man) express surprise that I didn’t think my greatest accomplishment was becoming a mother. Like you said, nothing wrong with that…but yea, no. Not it for me. And the truth is that (usually) a happy mother is a good mother, regardless of her path. (My friend, a sociologist, who got her PhD w/ two kiddos told me so!) 😉

  • missy

    Right. Sniff, sniff. Once I dry my eyes and blow my nose, I’ll just get right back to writing a paper, studying for a test, and working on a presentation for grad school.

  • Sara

    You need to get your PhD, because is this is how powerful you write in your blog, I can only imagine your academic and professional writing. You will set the little corner of your world on fire.

  • Melanie

    Well said. You have such a knack for putting my exact thoughts into words. Mothers often wear “selflessness” as a badge of honor, when really the best thing you can do, and show, your children is to be true to yourself. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Shannon

    wow, I needed this. I’m sitting here trying to finish my dissertation wishing I was hanging out with my daughter. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • dixiebelle

    You rock.

  • Elaine

    Even if I had 36 hours days it wouldn’t be enough. I run my own privatie practice in statistics and I am studying towards my Ph.D. in statistics. I have a loving husband who is so proud of me although he’d like to see more of me, as well as 3 daughters in high school now…and they can’t stand math let alone statistics 🙂

    But I am who I am. They are who they are. And thank God you are who you are! Your words are a comfort to me my dear.

    Oh, and we also have 3 dogs…THREE! jeez.


  • Michael Ann

    Someone wrote this was “powerful” prose, and I couldn’t agree more. Beautiful, just beautiful.

  • Rebekah C

    I cannot quite put into words how smack-center this post hit my heart tonight. Once again, thank you. I hope all moms everywhere read this.

  • Marie

    You are a goddamn rockstar. Seriously. This sort of stuff has been blowing through my mind at hurricane speeds for the past month or so. Thanks for your post. It makes me feel normal.

  • Lesley


    I believe wholeheartedly the most important thing we do for our children, above and beyond all the accoutrements and awareness and constant, constant fretting is to model for them what a happy mother/woman/person is.

    Teach them how to follow their dreams by doing it yourself! Teach them how to take care of themselves by taking care of you. Teach then how to give in joy by giving in joy. Teach them how to love, by being loving. Teach them how to let go, by letting go.

    They are watching us.

  • Alyson

    At the end of my Grad. Dip. My chiropractor – my CHIROPRACTOR, told me he thought I should forget about my Masters and focus on my husband and my kids. He was also my cousin (my chiro, not my husband ew)… I changed chiropractors. I haven’t gotten my Masters yet but I did get published and my husby and kids are totally bored with my achievements so suck that chiropractor!
    (And thanks for this post – you’re awesome)

  • tiffany

    You know why you rock? Because you represent a change in the world. I have the right to choose my own journey. It is so hard to own that and it is so hard to ask others to accept that. This hit my email at just the exact time I needed it to. Thank you, Janelle. We don’t get to talk or see each other EVER but I hear your voice when I read your blog and that is enough for now because you still inspire me from 3000 miles away.

  • Jodi

    Exceptional intelligence and rational thought reign supreme!
    I love my daughter with all my heart and miss her every single day that I’m at work. However, she gets the benefits of relating to other kids/adults all day while I’m away, something that being home just with me I could not provide. She gets to be her own person, and I get to be myself too, we’ll both be better off in the long run!
    Thanks for sharing in your brilliant blog!
    It makes me laugh every time I read

  • Jessica

    GIRL you are on FIRE.

    I cannot get enough of this.

    I am a PROUD stay-at-home momma and I can confidently look people in the eye and say that this is what I was cut out for and don’t you dare question me. 5 years ago? No, not so confidently. But I have grown and learned that lovin’ up on my people…it’s my thing. Full time.
    I mean, sometimes, dinner sucks so we eat sandwiches or cereal. And there is a phenomenon that happens once in a while where my husband can’t find clean socks. But whatever. It’s not life threatening.

    And like you said….they will watch and they will learn.

    Own your shit.

    Haha, love it.

  • Deb

    Met a women this past week who got a PhD in biomedical engineering while raising triplets. And her attitude was “you get done what you need to get done in what ever way works best for you”. I’m just loving meeting such super women with great attitudes. Thanks for the post and keep up the great work!!

  • Kristina

    You have more flexible working hours while writing a PhD than you do slaving away at a 9-5 job every day. So look on the positive side. Yep, you’ll be up many a night til 1 am, but on the other hand, kids’ sick days aren’t as much of a hassle, and if you get out of the door 10 minutes late one morning to drop off at daycare, who cares, if you are only going to sit at your computer in your office. A PhD is what saved our family’s asses the past 3 years! So, come join the ranks of us momma docs!

  • Kate

    Another reason you rock is because you tell the TRUTH, bald and unvarnished, well, except for the delightful way you say things. Have you read any Kahlil Gibran? he writes a lovely poem about how our children come through us, not ours but gifts to themselves and the world. can’t find my copy right now, but I know it’s in “The Prophet”. might google it. hugs.

  • Amy Figgs

    It is funny, a friend mentioned that little saying to me the other day and I think I threw up in my mouth a little. It totally rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t verbalize why, thanks for doing that for me.

  • Pam

    Yes, yes, yes!!! You put that into words so well. I feel one of the best gifts I can give my daughter- in addition to my love, attention, and time, is the gift of letting her watch me go to work and watch me go out the door for a run. She needs to see what it looks like for a woman to be living a fulfilling life beyond motherhood. I will never apologize for having some goals and interests that don’t revolve around her.

  • Corinne

    And I cry again!!! Off to go do it completely..thanks for the reminders that I need in life

  • Athena

    Hell yeah you should do that PhD, even though it will drive you demented at times.

    Just last week a random bloke made some noises at me about what do I do for a living and my son, in his best you-might-not-want-to-fuck-with-her tone said loudly, “ACTUALLY, she’s doing her PhD”. And then he smiled at me in a very particular way and I realised he was proud of me and what I do. Mindblowing. Folks are always rabbiting on about raising children they can be proud of, how about being a person your children can be proud of?

    Your post is just – yes! Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely!

  • Nic

    I just discovered your blog and I have to say – I am very pleased to have found this topic. I have been tossing around the idea of studying to make a career change for years and around 2010 I was talking to someone about it and they said ‘do you really want to put your family through that?’. It floored me and here I am years later still in the same position I was then.

    So do I want to put my family through that? I think I will be the one doing the heavy lifting! Gld to have found you and will certain keep reading.

    Your parenting ‘philosophy’ matches me quite a bit, but I am not so eloquent!

  • Allison

    I couldn’t have stumbled upon your blog at a better time. Thank you for saying this, I don’t think I have ever questioned myself as much about whether or not I am doing the “right” thing until recently. You have reassured what I have always truly believed, but don’t hear often enough.

  • Lisa

    I’ve only just found you today but have already spent oh… an hour reading while the kids ate cereal straight from the box. I’m moved by what you say and how you say it and this post is exactly, totally spot on. I fell into a wishy-washy zone for a while in regards to my self/mom balance but I couldn’t agree more that my kids will benefit from seeing their mother reach her own potential. I was told my art would suffer when I had kids, and it did, but now I’m finding my own way. My own damned way, unapologetically. And you know what? It’s all fine.

    Thank you for doing what you do. I’m so glad to have found you.

  • Laurie Nunez

    Oh yes! Grad school is part of me as much as my boys are part of me! We juggled two parents in Ph.D programs and one smarty pants 13 year old in undergrad. It was crazy, but we did it! Follow your dreams and love all you can! And, no, I am not living my plans to be a full time professor; plans always change…as I was graduating, I was carrying my 2nd son 17 1/2 years after the first…so, no, I am not a full time professor. I am a mom, wife, flight attendant, part time professor and the president of a 501c3 foundation…not really in the plans! I wouldn’t trade this life for anything! Woot!

  • AmieJo

    Thank you for saying that. I am a stay at home mom of 6 and its funny the dumb judgements people make about me. I am not fulfilled by the daily housework, lunches and homework. I love SO much more! So much more that has nothing to DO with my kids! I love my kids. I had each one of them on purpose. That doesn’t mean my world revolves around them. It doesn’t mean that its ‘enough’. Not that they are inadequate but that raising babies just isn’t enough. I need more than that and you are the first person I have ever read that has an opinion like mine. Raising kids will only last for a small portion of my whole existence (I hope) so I need to have something else to do besides just depend on my kids and require them to depend on me. They are far more independent than most kids we meet because I also believe in letting them find what they like and persuing that. You are great. I think so, no matter what the ‘plan’ was. 🙂

  • Michelle

    Your wording on this matter could not have been placed better. You have inspired me to keep placing one foot in front of the other. As a single mother with big “plans” and a B.A (a useless B.A, but nonetheless) many things about this piece struck a nerve with me. Thank you for your perspective, I really enjoyed the read.

  • Shelbie

    Amen, sista! I will never give up being an RN, it’s who I am and what I love. I totally get ya. My own mother went back to school when I was in elementary school, before adult learners were the norm. By her actions, I learned that education and self-fulfillment are high in life’s priorities. I love her for it. I never thought of it as a selfish act.

  • K

    So…I have four kids…and an MA in English…and live in constant fear that my old professors are going to come back and reclaim it from me because I’ve squandered it by staying home with my kids for the last five years playing “mom.” Now that I’ve just returned to teaching part-time, I’ve been really thinking seriously about going back for my Ph.D. and have gotten so many comments and interesting bits of advice (i.e. ranging from essentially hiding the fact I even have kids from school applications to job interviews, to considering the damage I’ll inflict on them by spending more money on my college at this point, or spending time from them taking classes & studying, etc. ). So, it feels so good to know that there are other women out there facing the same issues. I realize this post is from a couple of years ago, and that it looks like right now you’re getting ready to have your #4, but I’d be interested in an update at some point as to what you decided to do. I hope you enrolled, or are planning on enrolling in a program soon!

  • Jennifer

    Just happened upon your writings. Good stuff. I was thoroughly entertained until something made me think. I wasn’t prepared for that. Truth is, I am currently half-assing my life — not fully committed to it. It needs to change. Thanks for putting the burr under my saddle!

  • Angie

    my 2 1/2 year old daughter will frequently comment on whether i am happy or not especially if i appear to be mad/angry/upset and she’s given me a kiss or tried to tickle me. i often will kiss her back and tell her that yes she makes me happy but she is not responsible for my happiness; it’s not her job to make me happy.

    i am beyond excited that i was introduced to your blog. i’ve spent an entire nap time chuckling, smiling, crying, and nodding. thank you!

  • Jolee

    Perianal strep, aka strep butt- THAT was my WTF parental moment. There have been worse things but somehow my pediatrician explaining strep throat of the ass was the one that had me saying, “You have GOT to be FUCKING KIDDING ME!”.