Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why is it that we are so bloody hard on ourselves as mothers?

GIRL and I went to a lovely birthday party yesterday afternoon for a little friend of GIRL's who was celebrating her 4th birthday. It was windy and cold, so the party shifted indoors. There were six little girls, giddy with birthday party madness and creative play. The adults sat in the kitchen at the big dining table and enjoyed fresh guacamole, bean dip, and ceviche to die for. Along with some wine, which really added to the festive occasion. My friend is a wonderful hostess and incredibly talented. She had handmade the invitations, which were adorned with pretty blue ribbon and hand delivered to our door. She made a kitty cat cake with gum drop eyes and strands of black licorice for whiskers. Just before we sang Happy Birthday, she placed a simple crown wreath of greens on her daughter's head and spoke of the richness her daughter had brought to their lives and how happy they were to have each of the little girls there to share in the celebration. It was...simply beautiful, and I loved how she incorporated a ritual in which she included all of us.

Later that evening, as I walked with my friend to our annual Christmas Tree Lane celebration she said, "Oh, JCK, I don't know if I'm cut out for this mother stuff." She recounted how she had lost her temper with her daughter earlier in the day as she was preparing for the party, and that she thought she had ruined her daughter's special day. She went on to speak of being afraid she had squashed her daughter's enthusiasm, and that her daughter would probably remember forever how her mom had been so harsh with her on the day of her 4th birthday party.

I was taken aback. Not that she had doubts about her mothering. We all have those! The doubts about ourselves and our capabilities. But, she was so incredibly hard on herself. Here she was trying to get the house ready for a party with a 4 1/2 month old baby on one hip, and a very excited little birthday girl pinging off the walls in anticipation. Plus, her husband who is normally home to help, and is a great hands-on dad, had a commitment that caused him to be away from the house for a few hours prior to the start of the party. I think this earns her one ticket to Mommy Gets Snappy.

My immediate reaction was to tell her, and I believe this, that she had not ruined her daughter's birthday. Far from it. Her little girl was the very picture of happy birthday excitement. But, my friend was still hanging on to her guilt. And, the belief that she had damaged her daughter in some way that would scar her for life.

She's over it, but YOU are not, I said to my friend.

She agreed with me, yet...she couldn't let it go.

That conversation has stayed with me. Why is it that we are so bloody hard on ourselves as mothers? We've placed the bar so high that no wonder we're "failing." Sure, the better days of parenting are the days in which we can remain calm and collected and not shriek at our children. That is always the goal. But, it doesn't mean we always reach it. No one wants to shriek at their children, but it happens. More frequently than we would like to admit to ourselves or to our friends. Yet, I don't believe that it scars our children for life. Especially if we apologize afterwards. Then it can become a lesson. A lesson in learning how to say that we are sorry, and that even grown-ups aren't perfect.

Recently another friend talked of how she had "maligned" her children in some way.

I'm not getting the Mother of the Year Award, she said.

Well, who is?

Where is this coming from - this quest for being soooooooo perfect. Who says we have to be a bottomless font of grace and nurturance, anyway? Let's leave that to the saints, of which there are few. Because, truth be told, all of us are flawed as human beings. Becoming a mother shouldn't mean we have to be perfect. Most of us do the very best we can. All of us have off days. And some of them are really, really off. But, we get up and do it again. And usually we make it better. That is what I'd like to hold on to tonight. Because, I need to hear this, too. I recognize the voice filled with guilt and self-recrimination. It is one that beats at my door. For, as quick as I am to leap to the defense of a fellow mother, I also carry the burden of that voice of unreasonable expectations. Let's make that voice stop. Now.

*Madonna and Child with Saint Anne
Masolino and Masaccio
Florence, ITALY about 1424

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  1. This rings do deeply with me tonight! I totally freaked out on the kids today at the car wash. They were totally out of control...not listening, not sitting still, running around, stepping on people, LICKING eachother and THINGS for god sakes. I put them in the car and screamed at them.....refused to take them to a birthday party, and screamed that Santa does not bring toys to boys and girls who do not listen to their mothers!! I lost it becasue when they are out of control, it is really a reflection that my ability to mother them is out of control. It frightens me and makes me feel so "less than". I am learning how to pick myself up and dust myself off, and not hang on to the negativity. It is so hard. I love this post of yours. It gives me courage and helps me to feel not so alone. Thank you JCK!!

  2. You are going to make it through the teenage years just fine. Anybody that beats themself up over losing it occasionally is going to have a hard time later, when losing it can feel like a permanent state of being (which is fine, because they need it).

  3. Hear, hear! As much as sexism and men are some of my favorite topics, I do often think that we women are harder on ourselves than any outsider ever would be. Here's to mothering OURSELVES, eh?

  4. No Mother is perfect...we are all human, it's being able to say sorry that counts!

    In any case she sounds like a rather amazing Mother.

    Well done for telling her so!


  5. The unintended consequence of being so hard on ourselves is that our children will come to believe that the perfection we are striving so hard to reach is something normal and achievable. When they see us making mistakes (and they will.. oh the mistakes they will see!) and behaving as if this is unforgivable they won't forgive us...

  6. For me that voice started out as the voices of several in-laws when Max was born. From the very first moment I was a mother they did nothing but criticize everything I did. My first two years as a mother were absolute HELL. They RUINED it. After my daughter was born I put my foot down and told them I wasn't going to put up with it anymore, that I was a good mother whether they wanted to believe it or not, and that they needed to butt out. And amazingly enough, they did.

    I wouldn't be surprised if that poor mom has a nasty "friend" or in-law planting poison in her brain. Plus we are constantly beseiged with images in the media of what a mother is supposed to look like and act like, and if that isn't us (how can it be?) we feel like slime.

  7. Not to pass the buck, but I think our society primes us for this kind of experience. Advertisements, TV shows, magazines all make money by increasing our anxiety so that we will buy more so that we can be (hopefully) better.

  8. I was just going to leave a comment, but I ended up writing a post about this, and linking to you. Hope that is okay.

  9. there are many different categories of mommy... she is in the 'perfect' category... and I've got friends who are (sad to say) 'can't be bothered' category and yet they call themselves a mommy...

    I'm in the 'go with the flow' category... I think you are too...its more breathable, isn't it?

  10. I think what you said to your friend was perfect. You are wonderful, supportive, and GROUNDED friend to her.

    I agree that we are often too hard on ourselves.

    for me, in a funny way, I never really saw my "being a mother" as much of an accomplishment. I am so very very proud of my son, but I attribute most of his success to....him. His personality, his style of learning, his good nature.

    Perhaps my best contribution was being able to "get" what kind of person he is, and go with that.

    Alas, too - or happily, depending on your point of view - I am not much of a perfectionist myself, so elaborate parties were NOT in the picture.

  11. Great post!

    And a birthday during the holiday season? Oh my good grief - you get extra points for that crap.

  12. So true!

    I almost alway got in BIG trouble on my birthday! Mostly because I was rotten :) I still love my mom and always loved the party.

    Great post.

  13. Thank you for writing this - I struggle with it all the time. I think we're hard on ourselves because no matter how close we are with our friends, talking about the bad times is still kind of taboo.

    And we don't often witness other mothers having their bad moments, so it's easy to assume that we're the only ones who ever "lose it." I think one of the best things that we can do for each other as mothers it to be honest with one another, because sometimes hearing the stories is what gets us through.

  14. Since I am not a Mom, I can't speak from that experience, however, I am a daughter...and as such I can tell you that inspite of my mother's outbursts from time to time, all I ever wanted from her was her love....and that it always remembered and cherished by any child. You're right, we are all too hard on ourselves.

  15. "this earns her one ticket to Mommy Gets Snappy"

    oh, I just busted a stich on that one.

    and yes, excellent point, JCK. we mommas must give ourselves more credit for all love and goodness we provide. Life is too short to agonize over every "snappy" moment.

  16. Oh yes, I think we all feel like that sometimes. I do when I lose my rag with my lot. And you'd think having four I would have got used to it by now. But yes, it is important for our children to see that there are limits (to our patience as much as anything), that some times parents do not do the right thing (I often lose it cos I am stressed about something not to do with them), that apologising is a good thing but doesn't wipe away all the bad feelings - oh so many things.
    But however much I say it's a good thing now, it doesn't feel like a good thing for the first few hours after it happens.
    But yes, it always helps to talk to someone else and hear them tell their stories of when they lost it.

  17. My first thought when reading this post was, "geez, she sounds like a better mother than me and she's going hard on herself?"

    I think that statement is akin to a mommy double-negative.

  18. Amen sister!

    I am guilty of the same thing myself - it's like you just love your kids so much you feel like anything less than perfection is less than they deserve...

  19. It looks like TWO girls went to the little girls bDay party.

    See any good looking dogs there?

  20. As only one who is not a mother, but has had a mother, can say -- you're fine. Let your kids know you see the humor and beauty and strangeness in life. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you strong. And they'll always lean on and remember that.

  21. I do this all the time. You're a wise friend.

  22. I followed the bouncing ball from coffeeyogurt to you - so I read her follow up on this first and said I wanted to pin it to my shirt. I'll do the same with this one.

  23. yeah, if she's a bad mother, I'd best just go ahead and give my kids to her, because I've already yelled at my kids twice while reading this post. Granted, they're beating each other, but still. I should be finding them distractions rather than commenting, so that's what I'll do now. I'll finish catching up tomorrow.


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