I would spend hours during that first pregnancy reading those books with the naive hope that it would ensure my success as a mother. I was going to be the best mom.
The only problem was, I didn’t count on my baby having a hard time learning to latch on, or anticipate the difficulty of functioning under the fog of chronic sleep deprivation, or doing everything on my own as my husband worked over a hundred hours a week, or the frustration of trying to be cute and stylish on a really tight budget with a flabby postpartum body. And I certainly didn’t count on my baby turning into a teenager. There wasn’t anything in those baby bibles about teenagers.
My own mother was the quintessential homemaker. She sewed matching 70’s-style prairie dresses for me and my sisters, made homemade wheat bread for my brown bag lunch, and served up both green and orange vegetables for supper from her own garden. My childhood memories are full of fresh-smelling sheets, snuggling up for reading time on the couch, and singing around the piano. After this upbringing, motherhood should have come much more easily. I should have been a natural.
Looking back, I realize that maybe I was a natural—as natural as a new mother could be. But I was a sapling, wanting to be an oak tree overnight. And maybe I wasn’t even an oak tree at all! Maybe I was a willow, or an ash, or a pine. (Some women do seem better suited to carry the burdens of motherhood.) No matter, I was a sapling, trying to push back a self-loathing for all the supposed inadequacies and imperfections of my “mother self” who had barely begun to emerge.
I desperately wanted to be a “good mother.” I had imagined myself in a rocking chair, singing sweetly to a newborn as she drifted off to sleep (in my beautifully-decorated nursery), my husband playing happily with the children in the next room while I peacefully made dinner (in my well-stocked and immaculately-clean kitchen), gathering my brood around me to read books together at the end of the day (on my stylish couch next to the fireplace), or taking my well-behaved and neatly-groomed children on stimulating outings (trim, toned, and stylish myself).
But I didn’t feel like a good mother at all. A good mother doesn’t wake up with a feeling of dread or anxiety about being left alone all day with her baby and toddler. A good mother doesn’t go to bed with the house in shambles, let her children watch TV so she can have a minute to herself, serve frozen pizza for dinner, or any of the other myriad offenses I committed on more than one occasion.
And I admit it: I didn’t always like being the mom. I mean, I loved my children, but I didn’t always like the work associated with being their mother. And don’t good mothers love what they do? Wasn’t it exactly what I had signed up for? The definition of the verb “to mother” is to nurture, protect, and care for, but what that actually looked like on an ordinary day was vastly different from the visions I had nurtured for so many years.
What was all this endless whining, crying, mess-making, disciplining, shopping, coaxing, budgeting, negotiating, laundering, calendaring, cooking, cleaning, and the constant feeling I was always forgetting something?
My list of annoyances and inadequacies seemed as endless as my misery. What was wrong with me? Where was the joy? The growth? The fulfillment I was so certain I would find in this, the most important job on planet earth—that of raising another human being to adulthood?
If only I could go back in time, I would love to tell my sapling self a few things. Things I have long since dealt with and embraced as truth. Things that now bring me comfort and strength instead of frustration and discouragement. Things about acceptance.
Real hard. If motherhood were supposed to be easy, it wouldn’t be so hard. (How many ways can I say this?) As a teenager, I read M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, and his words have saved me time and time again—especially as a mother:
Life is difficult. This is the great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
From the sleepless nights and physical stress of the infant and toddler years, to the sleepless nights and emotional stress of the teen years, motherhood demands a lot from us. That truth isn’t going to change anytime soon, so we may as well own it. Acceptance is the point at which motherhood becomes easier—accepting that it isn’t getting any easier.
This is an extension of accepting that motherhood is hard, because part of what makes it so hard is the never-ending nature of a mother’s work. I always chuckle a little sarcastically when I hear myself say the dinner/laundry/bills/homework/shopping are done. Whoever heard of such a thing? It’s as silly as saying the children are done!
Stop trying to get to “done”—to an imaginary finish line at which you can finally stop, stand still, and say “I did it!” Yes, there are markers and milestones, times when you can take stock and feel a sense of satisfaction, but by and large, motherhood is not a project with an end point.
It’s hard to move forward with your life and accept the other people around you if you’re not at peace with yourself. Accepting ourselves as we are is often hindered by what I call “The Compare Snare”—comparing our weaknesses against other people’s strengths. Most notably, other mothers. Imagine for a moment a world without blogs, home shows, or parenting/decorating/fashion magazines. How would your life be different? Of course it’s nice to get ideas and inspiration from outside sources, but how often do you go from getting ideas and inspiration to comparing, coveting, and coming to the conclusion that you just don’t match up?
Do yourself a favor: throw ‘em out and turn ‘em off. At least minimize their influence. Becoming the best mother you can be is about learning to follow your own inner compass, not somebody else’s. The sooner you can learn to accept and appreciate yourself for who you are, the sooner you can start living with a greater measure of peace and contentment.
There is also comfort in knowing that our children are blissfully ignorant of our so-called inadequacies—they think we’re perfect just the way we are (at least until they’re teenagers . . .). They don’t see our cellulite, our deflated bank accounts, our cluttered closets, let alone our undeserved self-loathing. All they see is their mother: the woman who takes care of them, feeds them, hugs them, listens to them, loves them. When you inevitably feel unqualified for the task at hand (and we’ve all been there) remind yourself that motherhood is ultimately about your children, and they think you are wonderful!
About those warts. Why do we try so hard to make our lives appear “perfect” when in fact it is the imperfection that perfects us? The child with an illness or disability that teaches us how to really pray and sacrifice; the difficult teenager who pushes us to dig deeper and love more; the “daily grind” that forces us to get more organized and disciplined; the financial struggles that keep us humble and motivate us to reach out to others struggling in similar ways. You see?
In her book Being Perfect, Anna Quindlen shares these words of wisdom: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” The irony of that statement is that if you do “become yourself,” you will be perfect, for you will be who you were created to become. It helps me to think of the word “perfect” as a verb, rather than a noun. To perfect means to improve, refine, hone, work on. Instead of trying to cover up the messiness of motherhood, embrace your perfectly imperfect life and let it work its magic!
Can you accept that even on your worst of days and in the worst of circumstances, your best really is good enough? We tell our children this all the time, but do we afford ourselves the same kindness? It would be nice if every day was like a scene out of Mary Poppins, but you know what? We haven’t died and gone to heaven yet, and as mentioned before, motherhood is hard. Even if you cry, lose it when you’re frustrated, and give up on occasion (only to get back up again), that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re a mother.
And why, oh why, when the going gets tough do we add insult to injury by mentally ripping ourselves to shreds? What is our obsession with negative self-talk? Much like our children, we need nurturing to grow into our best selves, but we’ll never get there if we spend our days saying things to ourselves we would never dream of saying to our children. Would you want your daughter to talk to herself the way you talk to yourself? It doesn’t do you or your children any good, so kill the inner critic and be kind to yourself. And encouraging. And complimentary. And forgiving. And supportive. (Doesn’t that feel better already?)
Being an empty nester probably sounds the most attractive when you have a house full of small children, and having a house full of small children probably sounds the most attractive when you’re an empty nester. Every stage of motherhood has its challenges and blessings, and the worst mistake a new mother can make is to think “it will get easier when . . .” or “I’ll be happy when . . .” It may get easier in some ways, but you can count on it getting more difficult in others.
I recently found myself in the most adorable boutique and bistro you’ve ever seen. Shabby chic and chocked to the brim with the most beautiful baubles and trifles a woman could ever hope to grace her home/wrist/hair. I took my three daughters there on a whim, in between a trip to the post office and the grocery store. Just a little look-see and cupcakes, I told myself, because a place like that isn’t really meant for small children. I was feeling that familiar feeling: suppression of my annoyance at their desire to touch every blessed thing, to talk too loud, to ask for too much. Oh, how I wished to come to a place like this alone, to buy what I pleased, and with money that wasn’t already called for! And then I saw it: the sign.
Kiss your life. Accept it just as it is. Today. Now. So that those moments of happiness you are waiting for do not pass you by. Kiss your life today. Now. Just as it is.
I’ve never appreciated a good slap in the face more than I did at that moment.
Today you may carry the burden of single motherhood, or have a rebellious teenager that wants to engage you in daily arguments. Maybe you don’t have enough money to fund all the lessons, activities, and family vacations you always dreamed of, or you shudder at the sight of your postpartum body. Perhaps you are exhausted from caring for a sick or disabled child, or you struggle with secondary infertility, postpartum depression, or—heaven forbid—all of the above!
Most of us could come up with a long and detailed list of all the injustices life has thrown our way, and we may be correct in our assessment, but there is still another reality—a parallel reality, if you will. What is yours? Today, mine is a healthy body for the day’s work, a little naked bum running down the hall, narcissus blooming on my kitchen counter, the sound of laughter, a friend for my teenager, inspiring music, and having loved ones who love me back.
Acceptance is not about throwing your hands up in the air and surrendering; it is about making peace with the bitter, as well as embracing the sweet. We create our own reality by choosing what we see. See the sweetness! See the joy, the beauty, and the tender mercies in your life as a mother. You can spend your precious time and energy wishing away your circumstances, wishing you had so and so’s “perfect” life, but the reality is, happiness does not come from having what you want, but by wanting what you already have.
Remember the description of my idyllic childhood? Could it be possible that amidst all the cookie baking, homemade costumes, and euphoria of childhood that my own mother struggled just as I struggle now? Of course she did. My own “quintessential” mother and homemaker suffered many challenges, disappointments and heartaches over the years. No mother gets through unscathed—it’s almost a guarantee. It may take several children and decades of time, but eventually “life” catches up to most of us. Still, she was a giant of a mother, and I never knew any differently.
Why do we think we are weak because we struggle, when in fact it is in the struggling that we become strong? Yes, if I could go back in time, I would tell my sapling-self that it’s not the type of tree you are that matters. What matters is how we build our root systems to stand up to the wind and how we use that wind to make ourselves stronger. It’s the trees with the strongest root systems that endure the mightiest winds, by bending and flexing under their pressure.
Accept the wind. Face it, open to it, bend with it, and be grateful for it. It is turning you into the mother you are meant to be.
This article is an excerpt from Deliberate Motherhood by Power of Moms.