Ahhh, the “I’m Not Good Enough” Syndrome. Welcome to motherhood.
Every mother feels this strongly at some point, especially when their children are young. I would say that mothers with two or three young children under the age of five LIVE there. Seriously, if you have a baby and a 2-yr old, or a toddler and a preschooler, you have permission to feel wilted and Zombie-ish for a year or two.
I really think this point gets lost on young mothers. Having been one myself with four children four and under, I was really hard on myself, always feeling like a failure. I couldn’t get this one to nurse enough, this one to take a nap, this one to stop playing with the remote, and this one to stop whining. There was always this “under water” feeling, as I tried to cope with the daily foibles of little children. But it wasn’t my fault. And It wasn’t because I wasn’t taking action. It was just the way it was.
If I could convince every mother with little children of this point, I would. If I could bottle up and sell this message, so each mom could open it and take a deep whiff whenever they were stressed, I would. I have so many friends going through this phase of life, and I have just left it, so I know how often you need to hear, “It’s ok to just survive today. It will get better. Hang in there.”
I think that moms with young children feel a lot of pressure. I used to feel that I had to keep these kids in line so I wouldn’t be like that family who is losing it in the library, or the grocery store, or the playground. I felt I could (or should) be different. I felt that I had to find answers, had to fix problems. I read books about motherhood, I listened to cultural messages about it, and I felt guilty that I didn’t have the romantic experience I was supposed to be having. Some of my moments with my newborns were lovely and precious, but many of them were difficult and trying. Sometimes I relished my toddler blowing a dandelion puff, but sometimes I was ready to strangle him. Sometimes I was enthralled by a cute thing my preschooler said, but most of the time I was worried that he wasn’t developing enough on time. Big black clouds threatened to cut off my joy a lot. Plus I was tired, depleted, and annoyed with my extra pounds. Recipe for disaster.
There is good news, though. And the answer is not to check out. I’m not going to tell you that structure isn’t necessary–it is. I’m not going to tell you that training isn’t necessary– it is. I’m not going to tell you that discipline and education aren’t necessary– they are. When you abandon those things, your children’s morality, your family life, and your emotional vibrancy suffer. You’re close to authentic depression.
What I’m going to tell you is that expectations are everything. Have high standards but do not EXPECT them. Sounds hypocritical, but it’s not. It is a pathway to joy.
Keeping your standards high–for structure, training, discipline, education, whatever–is important. It provides hope, a direction, a mission. You want to know where you’re going and what you believe in. Remember how easy it was to idealize during your first pregnancy? You thought clearly, then, about what you wanted for this baby. You imagined how you would run your family differently. You believed in special Sassy toys and Brainy Baby stuff. Or maybe not, but you still idealized the baby experience and probably how each thing from pacifier to baby food was important. It’s ok to have all that in mind as an ideal.
But keeping your expectations low means that you have permission to fail or fall behind. You have permission to be a human being with human limits. And the child does too. They have permission to be a baby, to be difficult, to be behind. You have permission to buy inorganic diapers or whatever other thing you swore you’d never do. You want to know where you’re going to get out of all that, but you want to feel no pressure to be something you’re not. Or in a place that you can’t reach. Being in survival mode for awhile is ok. Getting that blissful reading time in is a goal but not a reason to feel you’re falling short. Getting your two year old to stop climbing on the table is a goal but not a litmus test of your childraising techniques. You need training tips and magic moments, but you don’t need more of them to prove you’re a good parent (especially to yourself). Progress is the eventual result, but not something you will see every day.
In other words, Childhood is a MARATHON. Your kids are going to be navigating a very difficult obstacle course their whole life, for cleanliness, responsibility, intellectual ability, etc. At least, they will if your standards are high. But daily expectations are low. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong if your routine isn’t getting your baby to sleep. Or that routines don’t work. They do, they are right, keep going. It doesn’t mean your discipline is all wrong if your three year old still badgers the baby. Or that discipline doesn’t work. Or that your goal is futile. It does, it’s right, keep going. Doing the right thing will eventually breed results, but not all results are fast. In fact, most are very, very, VERY slow. Especially in that special season of 0-5 yrs.
Now I’m not saying that you should keep doing something blindly. If evidence is coming in that a discipline technique you’re using is bringing BAD results, change it. Or if the standard you have is putting the child in distress, toss it out. Ignoring bad evidence can be abusive. But changing what you’re doing becuase you don’t see enough GOOD evidence (or fast enough) is premature. Keep the standards and ideals for the long haul in place, and trust your conscience for what techniques you believe in, and prepare for the long, slow march towards progress.
Because it’s so easy to judge before you have children, or to judge children of a different age group than your own. But there are reasons why the common struggles *are* the common struggles. Chances are, your children will have at least a handful of the same ones. Sometimes you can kind of cherry-pick which ones you are firmly against by applying more training and discipline in a particular area (i.e. my child will NOT get away with backtalk in MY house!). But keep your expectations low because you probably will experience it at least a little before your efforts kick in. Not ALL mother have trouble getting their toddlers to nap, but many do. Not ALL mothers have a challenging personality in their house, but many do. Somewhere around you, a “good” mother is still struggling with what you’re struggling with.
And survival IS difficult. Most mothers in my demographic grew up with a pretty nice, easy life. We were raised in the suburbs with good parents who sent us to good schools. There was money to take vacations and have pets, maybe even a pool in the backyard. Teachers cared about whether we went to college, and which ones, and neighbors were safe and friendly. We weren’t spoiled, but we didn’t know what we had and how hard it was to get it. We assumed that we would go to college, get married, have a couple kids, and have the same standard of living as our parents did. It looked so easy, so natural.
Then we got married and we realized, WHOA! Marriage is TOUGH! Then we bought a house and realized, WHOA! Owning a house is HUGE! Then we had kids and realized, WHOA! This is HARD!! Everything was much harder that we were prepared for it to be, and we started thinking something was wrong with us. What didn’t we know? Why did everyone else seem to have such an easier time with this? Why were we feeling “under water”? No one told us that this is normal. No one told us that they went through survival mode too, and that it was tough to even do that. No one told us that relationships with spouses and kids were probably the hardest thing we would ever work at, and that they would be challenging, frustrating, even heart-breaking at times. We just weren’t prepared for this level of responsibility and emotional hardship. At least, I wasn’t.
Survival is hard, and it’s ok to feel like you are one step away from walking out the door. That is absolutely normal. What isn’t normal is to actually take the step out. Only a small percentage do that, and you don’t want to be one of the ones. The grass isn’t any greener once you’ve left a marriage or children. You want to be one of the ones for whom what didn’t kill you, made you stronger. You want to make it look easy for your kids when you’re forty or fifty. You want to rise up and conquer the enemies rather than have them conquer you. You can do this if you’re committed in ideals and action. But you don’t have to get the results overnight. Do you see the difference yet? Work your butt off, for the right things, but don’t watch the pot boil.
This will give you hope and joy while you parent.
Lastly, moms feel pressure because they are stressed about things they think they need–instead of what the child needs. You think you need your child to have some experience they’re not having, and that it is your responsibility to get them that. But that’s often not what they need. Does a baby need a new nursery? No. Does a toddler need more playdates? No. Does a preschooler need to feel happy all the time? No. Does any child need to be performing the same as other kids his age? Or be compared to a checkbox on a chart? No. When you start making psychological standards for your child, and then trying to meet them, you will always feel pressure. Get rid of any pressure that is coming from something you’re putting on yourself (or allowing society to put on you). Ask yourself what things your child really needs to become a good person, and to feel loved in your house. Put all your effort into that, and don’t settle for “sounds right” or “looks good” answers.