I’ve learned that motherhood is a different experience for all mothers. We are all experiencing a lack of sleep, stepping on Legos, cleaning up puke at 2:00 am and going far too long without a shower, but under all of that, we are experiencing motherhood just as differently as we are different from each other.
I’m lucky that I learned this early on with my first child. No matter what I did, what books I read, or what advice I was given, my daughter would simply not sleep. She would not fall asleep, she would not stay asleep, she would not sleep in a box with a fox… you get the idea. And through this I learned that there were others who thought that all babies had some sequence of buttons to push in order to get them to do different things. If I just follow these instruction, or these, or those, my baby will certainly fall asleep, eat this food, potty train this way, be accepted into Harvard.
Motherhood is different for everyone, because no two people have the same children. Even two mothers in the same circumstances and demographic still have very different emotions, dreams, hopes, goals, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. It amazes me how so many people do not get this. How so many people think that all mothers should be accomplishing this, that, or the other. Like this woman, Maria Kang, who may remember from a few years back. In 2013, Kang came out with her “What’s your excuse?” campaign. Almost immediately her campaign to “empower women” became a controversial topic among mothers, fitness experts, and families across the United States.
In 2013, Maria posted the photo that would launch her career- and her life- into controversy. She stands above her three children, with her extremely fit physique in plain sight (complete with booty shorts and a sports bra) and asks those of us looking at said picture to effectively put up our jaws off the floor and ask ourselves, “What’s your excuse for not looking like this?”
Maria’s notion of “no excuses” was based on the premise that no matter what, moms should be able to find the time for fitness. After all, Maria with her 3 kids, full-time job, and no nanny was able to do it- so why can’t you? But many did not see it as Maria simply trying to motivate them to put their fitness as a priority in their lives. Her critics saw it as a dig to mothers who were struggling- moms who were experiencing postpartum depression, moms who weren’t sleeping, and moms who were barely treading water. They saw it as Maria saying, “You could look like me if you were a better mom/wife/person.”
However, those who supported Maria Kang’s “No Excuses Mom” saw it as motivation to get themselves, and their bodies, into shape. Maria stated that, “[her] message is that fitness should be a priority (not your first or only as many of [her] critics have stated). She found herself at the center of mommy-debates with parties divided on the two sides. And those divisions came out with fiery fury.
I feel like I’m a pretty compassionate, warm person. Motherhood has certainly softened me up. I empathize readily and I’m not quick to judge. So when I see a fit, beautiful woman asking me what my excuses are for not living up to a standard of – what – fitness? Beauty? Health? I literally feel rage build up inside of me.
I feed my family well, but the first few months of my son’s life I lived off chocolate. Who am I kidding? The first year of being a mom of two kicked me in the rear. I don’t drink coffee and I had no other way to stay awake after four hours of broken sleep. Every time my toddler tantrumed or my baby cried, my hand went in the candy bowl before I dealt with the situation. It was my crutch, a very unhealthy one, but I don’t know what I would have done without it. My chocolate habit prevented me from losing any baby weight. I hated it. I felt miserable in my skin. Going through a difficult phase of life while feeling like Jaba the Hutt does not make for a happy mom. So imagine me in all my rolly polly glory looking at this professionally taken photograph.
Look at that. Look at all of her hardships. Surely you do not have it worse. Surely “no nanny or chef” is like right at the top of your first world problems. You are tired, you say? Well Maria-take-your-excuses-elsewhere-Kang has limited sleep too! She’s just like you moms! I saw this and started thinking about my excuses. Then I looked at her would-be excuses and laughed. Working over eight hours a day, Maria? I wish that made the top of a bullet point list. I started thinking about what I had done that day instead of working out. I thought about the sleepless night ahead of me and the string of ones behind me. Then I thought about all the other women looking at this poster child of health and wondering if they had the strength to realize how much it’s crap.
My biggest beef with Maria is that she is specifically attacking mothers in this campaign, as motherhood is her own would-be excuse. She is attacking the post-baby-bellied mama and asking her what on earth is your excuse that you still look like you are six months pregnant? Maria clearly has all of the same trials and tribulations of life that I do, right? She is a working mom just like you and me. So what is my problem, what is my excuse, what is it that is holding me back from looking like this former pageant queen? If she can do it, I can do it, right?
But I do want to be fitter. I do want to be healthy for my children and for myself. So one day I planned on doing a workout video. I set up the WHOLE DAY to be able to do this video and for it to have the highest chance of being successful. I manipulated nap times, I hid the laundry in the closet, and I conquered bedtime routine like a boss. Still, I had to pause my video FIVE TIMES in twenty minutes. That’s not an excuse, Maria. That happened.
For three years I’ve been getting four hours of broken sleep at night. Every night. And there is no end in sight. That is my reality. For you to take my struggles, my reasons I break down at night in my husband’s arms, the things that weigh on my heart every day, the reasons I feel like I’m not being the best mom I could be, the reasons I lean on television more than I’m comfortable with, the reasons I run my hands through my hair in frustration every day – to take all of that, crumple it in a little trash-sized wadded ball, and throw it in the garbage labeled “EXCUSES,” is worse than walking up to me and punching me in the face.
There is a real problem with calling someone’s struggles “excuses.” Someone you have never met. Someone living life in survival mode. I take a personal offense to this campaign, and I am shocked there are mothers out there who don’t. Spend one day in my life, see how I have to eat all my meals (which consist of my children’s leftovers) standing up, see how all my energy goes into not crying as I console a baby while my daughter begs for my attention, see how I fall asleep in the middle of the day and wake up in terror that something happened during my lapse.
I dare someone to tell me I should have thirty minutes to work out every day. I dare someone to tell me to my face that it’s about ‘making time’ not ‘having time.’ I dare someone to ask me what exactly are my ‘excuses.’ (Hear the growl in my throat, feel the heat of my skin, and see the red in my eyes as I say,) I DARE YOU!
I have an immediate blood pressure rise when I hear moms tell me that my health and well-being should be a priority. Really – I am failing at yet another thing? I thought the thirty minutes I spent cuddling my daughter to sleep was the selfless action, not spending that time working on my abs. How silly of me to choose internet searching healthy meal ideas for my family instead of doing lunges around the room while holding my baby over my head. I have chosen to not stress about my physique, that is how I help myself to help my family. I have chosen to take what fleeting moments I have throughout the day in a stress-relief activity that I actually enjoy, as opposed to obsessing over getting back into my pre-pregnancy jeans, something that apparently Maria Kang and the whole world thinks should be a top priority of mine.
So here was my problem with this campaign, despite Maria’s claims, it is not empowering at all. It is the very definition of mom-shaming. It shames mothers who use their current life circumstances as “excuses” for not looking fit. What we need, and what I needed that difficult year of my life, is someone to share with me ways they overcame their own obstacles. I needed ideas. I needed someone to tell me how to break my sugar habit. I needed someone to go on walks with me. I needed support, a mom to say, “I so get it!”
I did not a beautiful woman with a scowl snubbing her nose at my hardships in life. I have – finally – lost the baby weight, and no, you don’t get any credit, Maria. My baby got older, my oldest got more independent, and summer came along with long walks with my sweethearts. I entered a new phase of life that gave me new opportunities and it allowed me to take a little better care of myself. Would you believe it, I even got my hair colored and cut for the first time in two years.
Since the controversy took place in 2013, Maria has reformed her previous “no excuses” stance. In 2016 she came out to explain how her body had changed- she gained 10 pounds- because of martial problems and, well, life. She now encourages moms to find their reason for keeping themselves physically fit, with many moms stating that their reason to get back into shape is to continue to be healthy for their kids. In order to encourage moms to start back on their physical fitness journey, Maria started a non-profit organization called “No Excuses Moms” that provided free workouts to moms in over 30 country all over the world. These programs were run by No Excuse Moms coordinators and allowed children to attend. She also has come out remind moms everywhere that physical fitness isn’t about your size or your weight. Being physically fit comes in all shapes and sizes and the important part is not pushing past excuses but doing it for the right reasons.
“Through my No Excuses mom group I read daily about the struggles women face, so it didn’t seem fair to ask them what their excuse was anymore,” Maria says. “I know, they know. The next step — after you identify what’s holding you back — is to find your reason for succeeding.”
But that original campaign by Maria was painful to many moms at the time, including myself. I so wish that during the phase of my life where working out on a schedule was impossible, someone hadn’t made me feel like a failure. I wish she hadn’t reminded me that I still looked pregnant a year after delivering my son. I wish someone hadn’t trivialized what I thought were very good reasons to put a dedication to physical fitness for a later phase of life. Post-baby time is one filled with hormonal moods and vulnerability. How do we as women think it’s okay to tear a mom down during this trying time? And since some mom out there somewhere will always be in this difficult phase of life, I would like for Maria and other moms to keep their words empowering, not shaming.
If I need a kick in my butt, I’ll be the one to let you know. Because you never know when a kick you give might be the one to send someone over an edge they can’t easily return from.