Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thoughts on Being a "Good" Mom

Recently, a friend of mine asked a favor. She had a friend who is pregnant with her first child and starting to get anxious about adjusting to being a mom. She wanted to know if I had any words of advice to offer about the adjustment to being a mom and learning to not be hard on yourself. Well, apparently, being succinct is not my strong point. But, having taken the efforts to put my thoughts on this on paper, I thought I would share them here on my blog:

Sorry it has taken me a few days to get back to you. I can only share my own experience about adjusting to becoming a mom. I was a straight-A student, was very successful in my job and pretty much took it upon myself to do my best to be "successful" at everything I tried. I had my first child halfway through my masters program. I rushed to finish my graduate piano recital before the baby came and then had only a few classes left to finish to graduate.

Mothering was (and still is) something that I took very seriously. I decided that if I was going to be a stay-at-home mom then I would simply be the very best stay-at-home mom that I could: I would excel at mothering just like I had excelled in so many other areas in my life. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a fantastic recipe for disaster and depression.

To start with, I assumed that being a mother wasn't going to be that difficult to figure out. After all, I was getting a masters degree and had tons of experience taking care of kids (being the oldest girl of 6 children and a popular babysitter as a teenager). I was blown out of the water to find that mothering (despite society's depiction of it as brainless, menial labor) was by far the most physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually challenging work I had ever experienced. Aside from the obvious challenges (like being on call 24/7, rarely getting breaks and getting woken up in the middle of the night) there are deeper challenges like being calm and emotionally stable when you are dealing with a screaming child, finding that what works at some times may not work at others and dealing with the constant struggle to find the balance between being supporting/loving and setting/enforcing firm limits.

But by far the hardest part for me of being a mom is that there is no easy way to evaluate whether you are "excelling" at it. Being a bright person, I just decided to come up with my own measurement of "success." What I created was a composite of my own mother, my mother-in-law and every other woman that I admired: a Frankenstein-Super-Mother, if you will. I just decided that I would embody the best traits of all of them. I would have my mother's ability to connect and talk with her kids along with my mother-in-law's tremendous capacity to serve others combined with my friend's dedication to exercise, so-and-so's talent for cooking healthy meals, what's-her-name's incredibly clean house and someone else's kids that were always well-dressed and well-behaved. I set myself up with the perfect recipe for severe post-partum depression.

Sure enough, when I began staying home with my first child I felt tremendous, overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and loss. I felt inadequacy because of my inability to "perfectly" meet the needs of this beautiful child that I loved. The inadequacy deepened with my inability to keep up our house or a schedule in the way that I felt a good mother "should." You added to this the loss of the clear-cut affirmation, the accolades and tidy definitions of success that I had experienced in school and I was a complete mess. I was working my rear end off-- harder than I ever had before, both day and night-- but it seemed I could hardly manage to feed the baby, change him and grab some unhealthy ready-made thing to eat before he pooped all over his sleeper or it all needed to be done again. My husband came home at the end of the day and I felt like I had nothing to show for my efforts. It felt like things were no better-- or actually much worse-- than when he left. I was in total despair. What had become of me? I was once a self-sufficient, successful, organized and "together" woman and I had turned into a non-functional, sloppy, dependent mess who couldn't even get showered without help.

It took me a combination of time, experience, therapy, medication and lots of conversations with other women to come to a better way of looking at it. I am by no means a perfect mother, but (at least on most days) I can look at my imperfect efforts with satisfaction and see the good things that I am doing. (As just one example, I am writing this in my pajamas at 10:00 am while my two youngest watch Curious George-- and I'm okay with that.) Some things that have been helpful to me:
  • Recognize that mothering is difficult and demanding work. It is important work that should demand respect from both you and others. I felt like mothering was some easy, invisible thing that should just "happen" while I got other things done and kept my house perfectly clean. Especially when you have a tiny infant, taking care of your child-- just keeping him/her alive, fed, and diapered-- is pretty much a full-time proposition. Any thing else you do is frosting on the cake.
  • Allow your body lots of time to heal after labor and delivery. After you have a baby, a mother should have at least the functionality of someone who has been in a major car accident and hospitalized. Seriously, I look back at my post labor expectations for my first baby and think "What on earth was I thinking?" I expected to pop back to normal within a few days after being in hard (pitocin-induced) labor for over 12 hours, pushing for 2 1/2 hours and having an almost 1-inch episiotomy to deliver a nearly 10-pound baby. I pretty much felt like I had been run over by a truck. My body needed several weeks to physically recover and feel semi-normal again. That said, some people do feel pretty good again more quickly than that. If this is you, don't feel bad about that or feel like that means you need to jump back in to everything again. I would still get lots of rest, spend time with your baby and rebuild your emotional energy.
  • Accept and ask for help. Don't try to do it all yourself. People want to help you. Please let them.
  • Sleep whenever you can. Lots of people have said this, but it's still true. I figure it takes 2-3 years to catch up on the sleep you lose after having a newborn. Don't feel guilty about sleeping in or napping whenever you get the chance.
  • Your child's actions/personality do not automatically indicate your success/failure as a parent. Obviously, the way that you parent will have a huge impact on your child and should be taken seriously. But every action of your child is not an indication of your success or failure as a mother. For instance, if your child is fussy or always wants to be held, they may be hungry or sick... or they may just be fussy and want to be held. If you have a child (like several of mine) who is extremely strong-willed (they will scream about the juice box for two hours straight and they WON'T forget what they are mad about), it doesn't prove your failure as a mother. It shows that they are strong-willed. Your eight-year-old's lack of desire to comb her hair doesn't mean that you are a failure at teaching hygiene. Yes, we need to take our responsibility to parent seriously, but, no, we don't need to take every single action of our child upon ourselves as a source of pride or guilt.
  • Don't stress out about schedules or getting milestones "right." "Schedules" work for some people and don't for others. Having my kids on a schedule was about as feasible as teaching a dog to use the toilet, flush and wash its paws. There are some people that schedules work for, but if it's not you, don't stress out about it. Your kids will be fine. Don't stress about milestones either. If your child walks at 15 months instead of 9 months, it doesn't mean they are going to be athletically challenged. It usually doesn't make any difference.
  • Involve your husband in parenting. I felt bad asking my husband for help because it was "my job" to take care of the baby and he had to "work" each day. I felt like if I needed help from him that showed my inadequacy-- that I wasn't doing a good enough job. What I did by this was essentially devalue what I was doing -- I didn't consider my work to be as important as what my husband was doing-- and limit his relationship with our child. The truth was that we both had challenging jobs each day and that when he was home, we could (and should) share the responsibility for parenting our child. Expecting your husband to be actively involved as a parent benefits you, the baby and your husband. It helps him to have a stronger connection and relationship with his child. You will be happier and less stressed out and more available for your relationship with your husband. Sharing responsibility can harder to do if you are nursing, but there are ways to divvy things up (i.e. you nurse, he changes diapers). 
  • Real parenting is imperfect parenting. Do your best. If you mess up (which you will), don't beat yourself up. Make a mental note and try to do it a little bit better the next time. Don't be afraid to say, "I'm sorry," to your kids. It sets a good example to them of how it's done.
  • Have reasonable expectations for yourself, then lower them a little (okay, a lot). Life is about trade-offs. Nobody does it all perfectly. (If you aren't like this, congratulations on being superhuman. Don't tell your friends because they'll hate you.) ;) Just do what you can and let the rest go. There are times I have made home-cooked meals, but then my house is a mess and my kids aren't in any activities. If my kids are in outside activities, then we eat out more or buy frozen meals. I keep my house pretty clean these days, but that's because I pay for house-cleaners to come. If I get lots done, my kids watch lots of TV. If my kids aren't watching TV, I don't get very much done....
  • Moms have needs too. Make sure to take care of yourself. Do things to make you happy, that help you enjoy your life. It will help you be a better mom if you are happy and well-cared for, but beyond that, you are someone's child, too, and you deserve to be happy and cared for, just as much as your child does. By caring for yourself, you are also setting a good example for your kids. (i.e. It's okay to take care of my needs, to take a break or a time-out to read. It's okay for grownups to take a break to have fun or to spend time with friends. It's okay to spend money on things for mom, too. Life will go on if the world doesn't always revolve around them.)
  • Enjoy what you can but don't feel like you have to "love" everything. Enjoy all of the great moments, but don't feel like you have to "love" every last minute of being mom. Nobody likes cleaning up vomit or diarrhea. Most people aren't fans of a two-year-old tantrum in the grocery store. It's okay to not enjoy those moments. They will pass.
  • Connect with other moms. You will quickly find out that you are not the only one. Most moms feel exactly like you do and struggle with very similar things. This can be a huge support and help just to know that what you are experiencing is normal.
Sorry, I guess your request for some thoughts turned into a full-fledged five-page essay. By the way, I still struggle with all of these things-- it's still an ongoing process for me. But I am getting better at recognizing what I do well and acknowledging it.


1 comment:

Kelly(M&M) said...

I love how thorough you are Karen!! I would have loved this document before I had my first baby! In fact, it is a great reminder to me now. :-) I feel like I am at a place where I am trying to figure out what I want as a mom. It is different for everyone and I think we need to all be accepting and supportive to each other. You are a great mom and a great friend. I am so lucky to have you in my life!