by Karen Caton-Brunings
I was scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday. Someone posted a question that got my attention. "What does it take to be a good mother?" I read the question three times. Before looking at responses, I answered the question for myself. Then I began to read.
"A good mother gives everything to her children."
"What makes a good mother is sacrificing your needs and wants for the betterment of your child."
"A good mother is the type of woman that puts her children first without question."
"She loves her children more than anything or anyone in the world."
"Good mothers provide their children with every opportunity to have a better life."
"Being a good mother is about sacrifice and doing everything possible to bring love and happiness to your children.”
One by one, I read the passionate and loving words on the screen. I read them over and over, and I began to cry as I envisioned beautiful women falling on the sword of motherhood. I have significant scars from my own motherhood sword. I jabbed it into my chest for years in the name of being a good mother. My mother did the same. So did my grandmother. I willingly bled out in the name of motherhood because it's what we were all supposed to do. That is what makes a good mother.
Ten years ago, this girl was tightly bound to the stake of mommy martyrdom, and the flames were whipping up my legs. I would have guffawed at a blog like this. I would have said something like, "Shut up, blog writer! You don't know shit! I willingly give my kids every piece of me! There is nothing I won't sacrifice for my children's happiness." My selflessness seemed a small price to pay to be a perfect mom. I believed this idea like I believe the sky is blue.
We cook, clean, hold the heart of the family together. We throw ourselves in crippling debt to give them the opportunities and things we think will provide them with a leg up. Multiple sports, cultural experiences, piano, and language classes help make them well-rounded and confident. Whether you're working from home or have a career outside of the house, I bet you are giving every last drop in the name of motherhood. It's a badge of honor to burn the candle at both ends. Complete self-sacrifice is acceptable and expected. Ninety percent of our energy is distributed outward. If we are lucky, 10 percent is left to connect to ourselves. We either hold on to that 10 percent like our lives depend on it, or guilt creeps in, and you find yourself doing 3 loads of laundry and volunteering to drive another shift of carpool. Ever have your partner or husband roll over and make moves on you, and you think, "Don't even think about it! Touch me and die! I have given enough already."? Yep. Me too. That's us holding on to our precious 10 percent. The "good mom" sacrifice can leave you feeling like everything is an act of service to others.
Many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, sadness, and loss under our selflessness. We lament over it while drinking a bottle of wine with our closest friends. We talk about it in whispered conversations at book club and at the grocery store. Heaven forbid anyone knows we feel thoroughly exhausted because of our selflessness.
I handed my girls my heart, my dreams, my hidden courage and said, "Go! Take this. Do better than I did. Dream big. Take chances. Set boundaries for yourself and others. Say yes to the things that are meaningful in your life. Live your best life. Be kind to yourself and be confident. Be brave. Above all, love yourself.”
Meanwhile, my selflessness told them that the path to being awesome is to give every last bit of yourself away. I asked them to do something that I was not doing myself. I wanted to teach them to do what I could not. We want our sacrifice to teach them confidence, bravery, self-regulation, boundaries, personal power, and self-love while falling on the sword. This, my sweet loves, is impossible.
Prioritizing yourself and following your passions outside of motherhood leaves you feeling unexplainable guilt and shame. We fear that doing so will be the downfall of our children. Who would choose a yoga retreat over a soccer camp? Who would go back to school when saving for college for your kids? Family vacations are more important than time with your partner or a solo adventure to Southeast Asia, right? To choose yourself, to pursue joy, feels like you're throwing up two middle fingers to motherhood and dropping the mic.
It even leaves our peers asking, "How can she do that?" because we bond over the collective exasperation and exhaustion that is motherhood. We want to choose ourselves more but get swallowed by the "good" mom myth. A refreshed mom is a selfish one. This is one of the biggest myths of all.
My girls watched me burn on the stake in the name of loving everyone but myself. My boundaries flexed and broke, and I frequently disregarded myself. I didn't chase dreams and navigate failures. I was too afraid not to be good. I asked them to be brave, try new things, and then became frustrated when they were gripped with fear. How could they understand self prioritization when their mother repeatedly said "no" to herself and yes to everyone else? I asked them to swim while standing on the shore, yelling at them to swim harder. Beautiful mothers of the world, we have to swim. It is not us or them. It's first me and then you. They will become what they see.
I started to swim 10 years ago. I was petrified that I was taking away their opportunities. Missing games and track meets for my own pursuits felt like social and parental suicide. I carved out just a bit more space for my physical and emotional health. I began to say no to volunteering opportunities and to the kids. I said yes to myself. I strengthened my boundaries. I felt more alive, a little less exhausted, and more grounded. I took 20, 30, and sometimes 40 percent of my energy. Amazingly, I began to see a shift in them. They started to paddle around in the water. And I swam with them. They began to trust themselves. I began to trust myself too.
This is not some kumbaya-I-got-it-right-everything-is-perfect-hallelujah blog. Hell no! I am not telling you that I am a good mom, and you are not. Hardly! I still struggle with guilt and shame. I wonder if I do enough. I wonder if I should give more. I frequently put the Good Mom Kool-Aid up to my lips and chug it down. But I know that is just the myth of motherhood whispering in my ear. So I pause, and then I pursue my joy so they may learn to seek theirs.
What makes a good mom? We are all good moms. Who we are is what makes us good moms, not what we sacrifice. A good mom raises her middle fingers to the notion of dying on the vine and calling it love. I wrote this blog to remind us to swim. Love yourself, down deep, big-time, all the way, and swim. They are watching and waiting to see how it's done.