After eight rounds of artificial insemination and two rounds of in-vitro, there they were, at last.
Home from the hospital, sleep deprived and surrounded by breast pump equipment, bottles, feeding schedules, diapers, formula, nursing pads, pacifiers and books titled things like What to Expect the First Year, I sat there staring at my two perfect babies. I didn't feel joy, I didn't feel happiness, I didn't even feel gratitude.
I felt shame. A shame so big, it filled the room.
I hated this new life. I hated the sound of crying. I hated being awake at all hours of the night. I hated being responsible for another person's survival. But most of all, I hated myself for hating it all so much.
The dictionary defines it as a painful feeling that comes about from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, done by oneself or another. The root of the word can be traced back to an older word meaning "to cover."
And this is what we do. We hide our shame. We cover it up so nobody finds out. We keep it out of sight, which makes us blind to how it fuels our decisions and our actions.
I expected to fall into motherhood gracefully, to be entertained and delighted by my babies; to be a radiant new mother. I couldn't admit to the shame I felt for not living up to my own expectations, especially after all I'd been through to get them.
So I hid my shame, from myself and from the rest of the world.
I compared myself to the "good" mothers out there and threw myself into the role. But it didn't make me happy and it didn't make me a better mother. I became more and more exhausted trying to prove to myself and to the world I was a good mother. The harder I worked, the more exhausted I got and the less I enjoyed my children.
The turning point came on Mother's Day. I lost my mom six months into my pregnancy. There I was with no mother and two babies of my own when I stumbled upon an article entitled, "Mother Yourself." It was like fireworks exploding in my head.
I needed to mother myself.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, "You get your confidence back... by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side."
A mother, after all, stands militantly on the side of her children.
My children taught me I could hate my life, the lack of sleep, the sound of crying, the endless second-guessing and the intimidating amount of responsibility that comes with being a mother, and also be deliriously in love.
So, in the same way I still love my son after he uses my arm to wipe his nose and I still love my daughter after she throws a fit in Costco and won't get off the floor, I can love myself for being human.
I admit, sometimes after wiping applesauce off the wall for the third time in a day, I still yearn for life without kids. But then my daughter says to me in her precious 3-year-old voice, "Thank you Mama for making me food" and I realize I'd wipe up an eternity of applesauce for my kids.
I've learned how to have a life of my own and be my own kind of mom in a way that feels good to me.
You can too. Here's how.
Step 1. Acknowledge your feelings
Unexamined shame will motivate you to do things that will make you even more miserable. End the cycle. Be honest with yourself about what you're feeling.
Before I realized the shame I felt for being such a miserable mother, I drove myself to prove how good I was. I didn't sleep. I didn't shower. I didn't ask for help. It left me exhausted. As a result, I was less able to be the mom I wanted to be.
Step 2. Expose Your "Perfect Mother"
You no doubt have an image of "the perfect mother" in your mind. Describe her in as much detail as possible.
Even though I consider myself a "modern woman," my perfect mother is very 1950s. I can see her now... perfect hair and makeup as she gracefully removes fresh baked cookies from the oven.
Step 3: Identify Black and White Thinking
Look at your description of the perfect mother and think about how you're different. Are you buying into black or white thinking? You may not be like your version of the perfect mother in a lot of ways but that doesn't mean you can't be a good mother YOUR way.
Back when I was hiding my shame, I would take my kids to Story Hour at the local library and compare myself to a certain mom who always showed up looking great, her little girl dressed to perfection with braids in her hair. My kids still sported remnants of breakfast on their clothes and face. Instead of being proud of myself for getting them out of the house, I'd compare myself to her and conclude I was a bad mom.
Step 4: Discredit the "Perfect Mother"
When you believe there's only one way to be a good mom, it's hard to think of how to be a mother in your own way.
Consider these questions:
- Can you think of anyone who did NOT match your image of the perfect mother who was wildly successful at it?
- What's funny about your image of the perfect mother?
- What surprises you about your image of the perfect mother?
There are so many amazing moms out there who do not match my 1950s cliché: Martha Beck, Hillary Clinton, Marian Wright Edelman, Harriet Tubman, my own mother! The funny and surprising thing about my stereotype is that it's very Leave it to Beaver. When I think about all the amazing moms on my list above I realize that they did so much more than just devote every waking moment to their children. The work they did in the world and the example they set enriched the lives of their children in ways that June Cleaver never could.
Step 5: Identify Your Assets
Recognize how being different than your perfect mother actually serves as an asset.
My mother used to break out into spontaneous dance at the grocery store. It used to embarrass me. Now I laugh out loud when I think about it. That's the kind of mom I want to be. I may not be well groomed but I love to laugh and that's an asset in my book.
Step 6: Be Nice
Being militantly on your own side means loving yourself unconditionally. So... be nice! Notice how you talk to yourself. Forgive yourself for being human and treat yourself with compassion, understanding and encouragement.
Some mornings, when the twins hit each other over the head with kitchen utensils, and the baby cries because she wants to be held, and I find myself wiping apple sauce off the wall again, I don't make it mean I'm a bad mother for thinking I'd like to jump a train to the next state and start anew. I find the funny in the situation, I think of what I'm grateful for, or I think of how best I can mother myself in that moment.
Step 7: Repeat After Me: "I Don't Have to Be Better Than I Am"
When you wish you were different, more mothering or more patient, for example, you're essentially telling yourself you're not good enough just as you are. Accept yourself exactly as you are in this moment and repeat, "I don't have to be better than I am." My guess is you'll be a much better mother when you let yourself of the hook.
When I lose my cool I scream. I used to feel so terrible about it, wishing I could just keep it together. But now, I forgive myself. I'm passionate after all. And you know what? I find myself screaming a lot less.
Step 8: Give People Permission to Judge You
This is a tough one. We all want other people to think of us as good mothers. But letting the opinions of others dictate your self worth is a losing battle. There's a great deal of freedom that comes when you can allow others to have negative opinions about you, your actions, or choices, without needing to explain yourself or feel defensive.
This morning I took my kids to the park. One mom didn't seem very friendly. I found myself annoyed. "Is she judging me?" I thought. "What the hell did I do? Why wouldn't she like me?!" Then I stopped. I remembered that what she thinks about me is her business. It's what I think about me that really matters. And that was that.
Bryon Katie writes "You can't be free if you're hiding. And in the end, the things we're ashamed of turn out to be the greatest gifts we have to give."
My shame has been a gift.
I can see myself now... under the spell of unexamined shame. My hands sore from endless futile attempts at a decent French braid, charred cookies strewn about the kitchen, well groomed children wandering aimlessly through the house as I ironed my dress and applied my lipstick. Instead I faced the shame -- it taught me how to mother myself and to be my own unique brand of mother, and a happy one too.