My first Mother's Day was memorable. My newborn daughter was about a month old, and I still had the anxious, first-time mom cloud surrounding me most of the time. As we sat down to eat a nice Sunday dinner with my husband's family, my baby woke up and cried to be fed. I spent the next 45 minutes nursing her in the next room, listening to everyone enjoying their meal and having conversations. She finished off the feeding session with an exploding poop that required a full outfit change (and, as a rookie mom, I wasn't fully skilled with the blowout-clothing-removal tricks yet, so I'm pretty sure I made it worse). By the time I was done, everyone else was eating dessert, and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.
My second Mother's Day was spent, quite literally, physically miscarrying our second pregnancy. The kick to the face of irony gave me a dull ache inside. I had known for almost two weeks already that our little one didn't make it, and I'd been waiting for my body to complete the farewell process. In all honesty, by that time I welcomed the physical closure. I had already grieved emotionally, and needed to be able to move on. I was sharply reminded of how vulnerable motherhood makes you.
Did I get flowers, cards, and gifts on those days? Probably. But it's those emotions and disappointments that got burned into my memory. Everything about feeling defeated on a day meant to honour you leaves a scar to match the ones fading across your belly. Mother's Day brings a host of complex emotions to the surface -- gratefulness and appreciation, but also inadequacy and loneliness. It's hard to understand my own feelings, let alone explain them. I will try.
I am often told (not asked) that I "must love being a mom." My kids are cute, I take fun photos of them, we do cool stuff together as a family, so I must just be loving every minute. Sure, you're tired and busy, but you love who you are, right?
Cue guilt. Do I love being a mom? Honest answer... I don't know.
Ooof. That's not easy to say out loud, is it? I've never been good at hiding my real feelings. Before you gasp and judge me for being a cold-hearted and insensitive brat, let me interrupt by saying that I LOVE my kids. I love them for who they are, and who they someday will be. I love their smells, their skin, their little noses and sparkling eyes and eyelashes and pinchable bums. I love the silly and innocent and ironic things they say and do. I know I am blessed beyond what I could ever deserve, being entrusted with three beautiful, smart and healthy children. I know the struggles facing countless women who wish to hold a baby in their empty arms. Do not think for one second that my heart doesn't ache for those friends (and there are many). This post is not about being ungrateful for what I have, or wishing I wasn't a mom, or complaining that my very fortunate circumstances aren't good enough for me; rather, it is about dissatisfaction with myself in a role I thought I'd be better at, and how to reconcile those feelings with my mandate as a mother and with the immense love I have for my children. Motherhood can be a very identity-confusing place to dwell.
I'm not the first to write a "don't beat yourself up, moms, we've all been there" revelation. But I specifically want to talk to/about those of us who found motherhood a surprisingly difficult transition rather than the realization of our life's purpose. Some women are just meant to be happy, fun moms, and excel at it -- none of us are perfect, but some seem to have been given that extra dose of patience, and enjoyment of childlike activities, and mothering with all its chaos brings out the best in them. I sometimes see the really obvious "love being a mother" bloggers or friends
posting photos of their oldest child, with a caption along the lines of
"the one who made me a mama," as if it was something they had always
dreamed about, and then it came true, and all the pieces fell into place.
I always knew I wanted kids; but somehow I never really envisioned
myself being maternal. I was adamant that having kids wouldn't change me. I'm the one who would rather be researching strollers and feeding philosophies and creative discipline than sitting on the floor doing a puzzle with my child, or busting out the craft supplies. Not that I don't do those things and engage with my kids, but it's not my instinct. I have to be intentional because I know it's what they need. When I had my first baby and realized I knew nothing about kids, I set to work learning everything I could, and haven't stopped since. Now six years in, I am confident about most choices we've made and paths we've followed. But do I love who I am, who I've become, what my daily emotional snapshot looks like? Who am I? Essentially, my question is not whether I like having children, but whether or not I like the mom version of myself. And most days, I think I don't. I'm not talking about the tired, no-time-to-do-my-hair, yoga-pants version of me; I'm talking at the soul level.
Let's all think for a minute about those cliche mother's day jokes and cards that refer to the lousy pay and vacation time, zero sick days and cranky coworkers. Nothing new there. But go with that thought - that your role as a mother is your job or title. What does being that person look like? What emotions are tied to it? Personally, I never expected to feel so many difficult things. I feel like motherhood brought out the worst in me. It's not the stereotypical "mom jobs" that get me down. I don't care about changing diapers, washing dishes, folding laundry or vacuuming. I would rather attempt to sew a patch on the knee of my son's jeans than face the real-life drama of trying to figure out how to patch up his feelings after I broke down and yelled at him for something. It's so much more than aprons, ironing, carpooling and sandwiches. It's raw, human frustration and hurts, every single day. Some would think that the hardest things about mothering are that it's tiring and that it's thankless. But I don't need gratitude or more sleep (though either are welcome, in abundance). I need emotional first aid.
Imagine going to work every day at a typical "job" and feeling like the people you worked with constantly yelled at you, didn't listen to your instructions, lost things you gave them, and came by your work space periodically to undo everything you'd been working on all day. Frustrated and impatient? Abused and invisible?
You second-guess yourself for letting your baby cry herself to sleep. You doubt your own ability to decide on whether to vaccinate. You feed them a packaged or fast-food meal when you know your friend's kids are getting organic whole foods tonight (and every night). Guilty and confused? Intimidated and insecure?
You lose your temper and yell. You repeat yourself and complain about having to repeat yourself. You look at all of your tasks, trying to muster the energy, motivation and time to get them done. Disappointed, angry, regretful, mean?
You console your daughter whose feelings were hurt by a friend. You wonder if you dressed your son right for the weather. Is your baby too cold, too hot, in a place that's too loud or stimulating? Does everyone have a hat, sunscreen, snacks, enough water? Protective, overwhelmed, forgetful, indecisive?
You have to figure out a consequence for your daughter disobeying her dad. You have to figure out a way to get your son to stay dry through the night. You have to figure out why the baby is still waking up, and whether or not to just cuddle and feed her, or teach her to get back to sleep. Ignorant, confused, useless?
You have to get the lunches packed and the kids to school on time, but no one is listening and someone takes off upstairs to find a stuffed animal right as you head out the door with your arms full of bags and carseats. Panicked, stressed, impatient?
Your friends are going to a really cool event, and you can't find a babysitter...again. Your baby won't take a bottle. You haven't been on a date with your husband for months. Trapped, resentful, left out?
You spend 20 minutes trying to get the baby to sleep, and just as you lay her in the crib, your 3-year-old screams that he needs help going to the potty, and wakes her up. All your children are screaming/crying/talking/pulling on you at the same time, while you talk on the phone with an important call. Rage, defeat, frustration?
One of the kids has a high fever in the middle of the night. Your husband is away and there's a raging storm outside. Someone wakes up crying in an unusual way. Fear, worry, paranoia?
Quite simply, if we were in a romantic relationship with a person that made us regularly feel this complex negativity, we would have broken up with them by now! Time to move on and find someone that makes you feel empowered, intelligent, and confident. I don't like this angry, discouraged edition of myself. But that's not how this works. I have to figure out a way to love "mom version" of me, because they're just being kids and it isn't their fault. I can only equip them so much at a time. It would almost be easier to be robot mom -- no emotions, nothing to get upset about. Again, I'm not trying to whine about how hard it is. I just haven't figured out a way to process these emotions so that I can be consistently joyful and less stressed in the presence of my children. The older they get, the more I fear my own discouragement and stress will rub off on them, creating worries and insecurities they don't need. I need to choose joy--but that statement in itself reveals the difficulty moms are up against. We have to choose it.
Before I had kids, I think I was a pretty stable person. I liked my job for the most part, I had a solid spousal relationship and together we had friendships and activities that were conflict-free and enjoyable. I rarely lost my temper or yelled at anyone for anything. I felt confident about my accomplishments and daily decisions, and I was nice. I was always on time, early even. I wasn't often angry, resentful, frustrated, overwhelmed or guilt-ridden. I wasn't hating the sound of my own nagging voice. I didn't make people regularly burst into tears just by asking them to lift their chin so I could rinse the shampoo out of their hair, or by telling them we're out of popsicles. Some days, I could even call my former self fun to be around.
Around my house now, I feel like the resident a-hole. I'm not fun. I'm the one ending the fun, asking/telling/reminding people to do things they don't want to, warning them about dangers and consequences that worry me, keeping things on time and organized yet trying to keep it pleasant and low-key. Most times that I'm intentional about being patient, fun, or happy, it ends abruptly when I reach a threshold of whining, complaining, disobedience, injuries, spills, or fights. I crack. I'm the jerk again. When I send my kids away for a break or peace, it's not even about needing audible quiet or to be away from them. Sometimes I need to be able to turn off my own brain, get away from my own "momness" for awhile so that I can remember the parts about myself that I like. My mouth may be calmly saying "That wasn't a good choice... do you want to try again? What did we learn here?" but my brain is screaming "ARE YOU AN IDIOT? What is the MATTER with you? Why don't you ever LISTEN?!" That is not a pleasant internal dialog to constantly suppress.
I'll admit it, I'm a control freak. Maybe that's part of my problem. So much about mothering is out of our control, and while I've forced myself to let a lot of little things go, that's still not my instinct to go with the flow. If I plan things out a certain way, and prepare the best I can, it's pretty defeating to have things not line up or fall into place most of the time. I was a good student growing up, and I was used to being the best or winning (uh, not at sports... don't be ridiculous). Group work wasn't my favourite though, because the weaker link always seemed to bring us down and thwart our success and productivity. Now I'm living in "group work" land every day, my little links are weak, and I'm feeling thwarted. I need to redefine what success means. Can I love them without loving what I do?
While someone else may do the dishes and cooking on Mother's Day, and
give you a card and flowers to thank you for doing their laundry and
helping with homework and finding that lost library book every week, I hope this explains why those things, while appreciated, cannot come close to
shouldering this burden of emotion and guilt we carry. I don't want to be pitied
for this; I want to come to terms with not liking the "mom version" of
me so that I can do something about it. There are beautiful positives that come with having little people love you and depend on you, but so often it's hard to push past not liking your "job" a whole lot to savour those moments. Glennon Melton over at Momastery wrote a fantastic post about NOT "seizing the day" because it's impossible to enjoy every single second: "I think parenting young children (and old ones, I've heard) is a little
like climbing Mount Everest. Brave, adventurous souls try it because
they've heard there's magic in the climb. They try because they believe
that finishing, or even attempting the climb are impressive
accomplishments. They try because during the climb, if they allow
themselves to pause and lift their eyes and minds from the pain and
drudgery, the views are breathtaking. They try because even though it
hurts and it's hard, there are moments that make it worth the hard.
These moments are so intense and unique that many people who reach the
top start planning, almost immediately, to climb again. Even though any
climber will tell you that most of the climb is treacherous,
exhausting, killer. That they literally cried most of the way up." She reminds us that to acknowledge this difficulty isn't being negative--it's being honest. She points out that we can't dwell on our lack of enjoyment in every moment. We have to look for the meaningful, amazing moments and commemorate them.
"There was a famous writer who, when asked if he loved writing,
replied, "No. but I love having written. And I love having parented." (Go, read it. Read the whole thing).
We find comfort in bloggers and mom friends like these who share our feelings of inadequacy. We compare whose child has the most food crusted on their face, and whose kids have gone the longest without a bath or diaper change. It's good to laugh about these insignificant failures, because they truly don't matter in the big picture. When I'm having a bad day, I have people in my life who will tell me, "you're an amazing mom!" I accept their kind words hesitantly, and I'm sure my children would say the same thing. I just wish I could give my kids a mother who didn't feel like a dark cloud all the time in her role. I want them to look back and feel like I loved being their mom, that I wasn't frustrated and angry all the time, and that I had more grace and forgiveness. That I enjoyed what I was doing more often than I was upset. That though it was treacherous, they could tell that they took my breath away.
Back to my original motivation for writing this, I will end with this thought. Celebrating Mother's Day often leaves me with mixed feelings because I'm still in the middle of the climb. I'm huffing and puffing and wanting to collapse. It's not pretty. I don't love stressed-out me. So to be honoured for that "accomplishment" just feels misplaced, like it's meant for someone else who already reached all their goals, has had a moment to catch their breath, is smiling. Do I really want to celebrate being transformed into this grumpy, exhausted shell of my former self? We mothers are praised in spite of the journey being ongoing, but please remember we still see the summit looming above us. Whatever tokens you may hand us are appreciated, but nothing can truly carry us up that mountain. And be warned that we may curse the rest of the way up, and feel like ungrateful turds for not enjoying it more. Some may point out that many jobs are stressful and cause us to dislike things about ourselves. It's true, there are harder jobs out there, and ones that bring out the worst in people. The kicker comes when you remember that this "job" is your flesh and blood, who you love and are called to protect and raise into decent human beings. Daunting? Just a little. Every day I am reminded that my every action and word teaches them something. If I'm inconsistent, it matters.
Those of you reading this, I can imagine having three different reactions. The first will be those who feel like I do. To you, I say let's figure this out and talk about it. We need to recognize our feelings and do something with them. The second will be those whose experience is nothing like mine, and probably think I'm depressed or ungrateful or ignorant. To you, I say you have a wonderful gift of enjoying your role and identity as mother. Please understand it's more work for some of us to like our mom selves. You have an exceptional ability to genuinely find the positive in everything. The third will say, "Oh come on, you're too hard on yourself! All moms have those feelings, it doesn't make you a bad mother. You still deserve to be recognized on Mother's Day." But you know what? My kids deserve better. They deserve to see the side of me that doesn't frown at every mess they've made, or sigh at every post-bedtime request. As you can tell, my thoughts are a little scattered. One minute I'm justifying my frustration, and the next I'm saying that I have to do better. One minute I'm referencing Mother's Day, the next I'm trying to wade through my own identity crisis. All I can say is that this is what was on my heart, and I hope that admitting and explaining it will help somebody else, as it has helped me to write it. The best thing I can do is be aware of the traits I don't want to have, and push them aside when they well up. I can experience them, but be careful not to let them define me.
All I can do is keep loving my little family, looking for ways to put myself back into "mom me" and look for the magic in the climb. It's got to be there.