Being a mum wasn’t something I spent my childhood looking forward to, dreaming about or wanting.
To be honest I didn’t ever think much about becoming a mum. I have never felt particularly ‘motherly’, whatever that is meant to mean. I used to believe that to be a good mum you needed to feel ‘motherly’. I believed this was about feeling ‘broody’, excited about screaming children and knowing ‘how to be the perfect mum’…whatever that is. However, I have in fact become a mum twice now. So what has changed?
My expectations and understanding of what it means to be a good mum and parent have changed. We set ourselves unrealistic expectations based on how we view and compare ourselves to others and how we are told we should be by the world around us. We often don’t stop to notice these beliefs about ourselves or others until they are not met and we are left feeling disappointed or not good enough. Most often what we see in others is never the full picture and we find ourselves comparing the worst parts of our lives with the best parts of others, setting ourselves up to feel rubbish and not worthwhile.
The expectation that to be a good enough mum and parent is to be the perfect parent, is a narrative that to many is normal. Sadly, however, this mindset sets us up for failure. It goes something like this… a perfect parent is infinitely patient, never shouts, always knows what to do, have children that are always happy, obedient and always show love to their parents. Their houses are always tidy, yet they have capacity to run the best extra-curricular activities without getting stressed about their houses becoming a mess. As a perfect mum they hold down a full-time job, yet have all the time in the world for their children, while looking after their wellbeing, perfect image and being a good wife of course. All at the same time and for all of the time.
In order to meet the expectations of being this ‘good mum’ I believed I had to change. The issue wasn’t the expectations but my capability and who I was. I believed that the version of myself that I could see wasn’t good enough. It didn’t match up. It told me I had to become someone I wasn’t. This ultimately was about me being deeply dishonest with myself and setting myself up for my biggest fear…failing. Failing at one of the most important things I would do. Who was I if I failed at being a mum? Without even realizing it I believed I needed to be someone else. Someone better. Someone worthy. All because I didn’t fit the picture I had seen and told myself was important.
My expectations had me believing I would come home from hospital, skip out of the car holding my baby with perfect hair and my body looking like it did before I became pregnant (who are we kidding right?) I believed I would be intently happy with my ‘new life’.
There were so many problems with this. Firstly, I wasn’t that happy with how I viewed myself before I became a mum so no screaming baby was going to fix that no matter how cute he looked. Secondly, expectations on what I thought would happen to my body, my life, my relationship with Tom (my husband) were also very unrealistic. The pain I felt on the most part was disappointment in myself because I was not copying and living up to the unattainable standards I had set. The situation I found myself in wasn’t the perfect picture I had imagined. It didn’t feel fun or joyful despite what the new baby cards told me. The gift of my child, who is a gift, at the time didn’t feel like a gift at all, but the biggest burden. Being a mum felt like a mistake I couldn’t take back and I felt so very terrible for even thinking that.
Looking back I wish I had been kinder to myself and more understanding. I wish I’d known that the way I felt was ok. Normal even. But I didn’t know that then. I was in honesty very close to postpartum depression and later my experience in hospital would contribute to postnatal PTSD amongst other challenges the last number of years have brought. There were countless times I had gone to bed crying and got up crying telling myself I couldn’t do ‘this’.
Looking back, I realised that no wonder I couldn’t do all of it. No one could. The culture around us tells us that to be successful even if we can’t reach the unattainable standards set by society and culture we should at least be trying to reach them. That the act of trying to be perfect is better than just not being despite the damage this does to ourselves, our families and those around us.
So what changed? I realised that I was working out of a place that was setting myself up to fail. I realised that if I viewed myself as not being good enough before having children and based my worth on my ability of reaching an unattainable goal or at least trying to reach it, I not only was going to fail, but would continue to do so. I realised that this didn’t just have an impact on how I felt but on my kids, family and friends. I had to realise that I was good enough before I became a mum. I also realised that I am a role model. Whether I like it or not, I influence others. I would never lay these expectations on other friends who are mum, yet I placed them upon myself. This was a double standard. How I live my life and view myself says so much to those around me. What message was I giving others without realising? You are only as good as what you do or how great your house looks? How successful your work is? How skinny you are? These were all things I was not willing to inadvertently say so I had to change what I was saying to myself. It has taken some hard work to undo these perceptions which being honest have had a far bigger hold in my life than I would like to admit. My childhood, like most people, has had a negative and positive impact on me. The lie of achieving being the basis of my worth was developed from a young age. I had to begin to learn to accept myself with my flaws, taking ownership for them and learning to be mum…as me.
The God I have a strong faith in tells me I am precious, important and good enough despite what I believed I was. The problem was my perceptions and what they were based on. Becoming a parent has taught me many things; one of which is that my unresolved issues in my life prior to parenthood don’t go away with the birth of your child. They in fact rise to the surface and raise their ugly heads. I had to learn that the issues weren’t the biggest problems, but how I chose to respond to them. That bit is in my control. I found this challenging because like most of us I didn’t want to admit that the pressure I was putting on myself wasn’t producing the fruit I hoped for such as ‘perfection’ and being ‘good enough’, but in fact the opposite. It is easier to pretend that striving for unattainable goals is somehow honorable then accepting that we don’t feel good enough and are broken.
This view I had of myself was not honouring to God. It’s like me saying that he hasn’t done a good enough job in who he created me to be and that I think his work is rubbish. I would never say that out loud of course, but the reality of believing the very person I am is not good enough is like telling God that his ‘perfect work’ is not good. Learning to be a good mum has started with learning to value myself as important, good enough and valuable just as God sees me and just as I am. These are not just nice words to tell myself but deep truths that I have had to relearn. Parenting has taught me to love myself the way I love my kids. Unconditionally, just as God does.