I was scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday. Someone asked a question that got my attention. “What does it take to be a good mother?” 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 these beautiful women falling on the sword of motherhood. I have large scars from my own 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 that is what we are all doing. That is what we're 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 good mom. I believed it 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 that we think will give them a leg up. Multiple sports, cultural experiences, piano, language classes to help make them well rounded and confident. Some of us work outside of the house to provide or make ends meet. Some are working in the home. Either way, 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 husband or partner 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.
Underneath our selflessness, many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, sadness, and feelings of loss. We lament over it while drinking a bottle of wine with our closest friends. We talk about in side conversations at book club and in the lines at the grocery store making sure not to talk too loud. Heaven forbid anyone knows we feel completely exhausted because of our selflessness.
We love them so much. We think that our sacrifice teaches them confidence, bravery, self-regulation, boundaries, personal power and self-love. I handed my girls my heart, my dreams, my bravery 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. This my sweet loves... is impossible.
Prioritizing yourself and following your passions outside of motherhood leave you feeling unexplainable guilt and shame. We secretly fear that doing so will be the downfall of our children. Who would choose a yoga retreat over soccer camp? Go back to school? No way, I am saving for college for my kids. Family vacations are more important than time with your partner, right? To chose yourself goes against the grain. It’s like being at Jonestown and saying, “Nah, I’m good. I’m not gonna drink that.”
Choosing yourself can leave our peers asking, “How can she do that?” We bond over the collective exasperation and exhaustion that is motherhood. We secretly 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 others. I put myself on the lowest rung of the ladder. My boundaries flexed and broke and I frequently disregarded myself. I didn’t chase dreams and navigate failures. I asked them to be brave, to try new things and got 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 pointed to the lake from the shore and told them to swim. For the betterment of our children, we have to swim.
I started to swim 10 years ago. I was petrified by the thought of taking away their opportunities. Missing games and track meets for my pursuits felt like social and parental suicide. I carved out just a little more space for my physical and emotional health. I began to say no to volunteering opportunities and no the kids. I said yes to myself. My boundaries got some strength. 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 sitting here 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 put the Kool-Aid up to my lips frequently and question if my acts of self-love are selfish. But I know that is just the myth of motherhood whispering in my ear. I try to remember that sometime I can just float and watch them. Other times I can swim really hard with them following behind. But we are always in the water together.
What makes a good mom? We are all good moms. It’s who we are at the core, not what we sacrifice that make us good. We are at our best when we are whole and happy, not the one dangling from the sword. I wrote this blog to remind us to swim. It isn’t us or them. We can love ourselves and love them too. They will be what they see. Love yourself, down deep, big-time, all the way and swim. They are watching and waiting to see how it’s done.