Don't "Should" Through Motherhood
A little over 15 years ago, Brad and I entered parenthood; like most -- dare I say all -- new parents, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We knew we wanted to be parents; we were up for the challenge, but parenthood is just one of those things that you don't really understand until you are knee-deep in diapers. Since Mother's Day is just around the corner, I wanted to take a moment to explore one of the aspects of motherhood I never saw coming: the shoulds.
For most moms, this phenomenon starts right out of the gate. As soon as someone learns you are pregnant, you begin getting advice. Once you are visibly pregnant, strangers in the grocery store start offering advice. Now, some of this advice is invaluable. I am all about learning from others -- especially those ahead of me on the great journey. However, all of this incoming feedback tends to land in the spin zone of shoulds. Should I be taking more vitamins? Should I trust my doctor? Should I go to the hospital, or have a home birth? I really should quit eating sweets. I really should be enjoying this magical time, but I can't hold down solids ;).
Next up...birth and breastfeeding. Now, this part of the journey gets really tricky for some of us. Babies tend to make grand entrances (at least mine did), and none of the deliveries went as planned. I really liked the idea of natural birth. I am a biology major with child-bearing hips, so I assumed that would work for me. Three c-sections later, I wonder if I could have managed that plan!
Next came the breastfeeding portion of the evening. Seriously, why didn't my childbirth class cover how difficult it can be? I remember thinking that my baby would just nuzzle into position, and it would be beautiful. Again, I had big plans, but, alas, formula became a staple in our lives. The third time wasn't even the charm for breastfeeding! Because this experience is one of the most significant events in our lifetime, we, again, get a lot of feedback and are left trying to sort it all out.
Once we are holding that new life in our hands, we know that we have been gifted something awesome, and we really don't want to mess that up. However, combine all of the options with our unique circumstances, and we start with the shoulds again. I should be breastfeeding. I should use cloth diapers. I should make my own baby food. Something must be wrong with me, because I should be enjoying this magical time.
Once we move out of adorable baby stage to independent toddler, the shoulds come in extra strong. Now, we start to feel responsible for our child's behavior. We either get the feedback that our children are so cute and well behaved, or the questions on what might be going wrong. I still remember leaving a full cart of groceries in Saveway while walking out, in tears, with two screaming little people on my hips. I still have a little guilt over that moment. This time period is full of awesome wonder as your child makes discoveries and learns new skills daily. However, it is also full of sleep deprivation, messes, diapers, more messes, no sitting down, and sticky surfaces. Should I be sleep training? I should really make the perfect Bumblebee Transformer cake. I should really set up more play dates. I should really make those cute little lunches where the sandwiches are shaped like hearts. I should go back to work. I should stay at home with my kids. I really should be enjoying this magical time, but I just feel overwhelmed.
Next, they start school. School can be awesome for some kids. Some excel, love to socialize, and their teachers think they are awesome. School can also cause a lot of stress if your little person has any struggles academically or socially. Again, cue up those shoulds. Should I put him in speech? Should I talk to the teacher? Should I step in and talk to that girl's mom? I really should be on the PTO. I really should be a room mom.
Another aspect of parenting grade-school kids is the comparison game that we play with other moms. Maybe we start to believe that other moms have it more together, look physically better post-pregnancy, or are clearly better with their kids. We may get caught in the trap of measuring ourselves against someone else without seeing the whole picture. Comparison can definitely lead us down the rabbit hole of shoulds.
As a mom, I have now entered the land of teenagers. There are fewer sticky surfaces (minus the days they make slime), but I wouldn't say the shoulds are easing up. If anything, they are amping up, because the messes they can get into are a more fear-provoking. Should I let her date? Should I stalk her on Find Friends? I should be talking more about drugs. I should be talking less about drugs. Should I buy her a car? Should I step in when a coach shames her, or let her sort that one out? I should be spending more time with them. I should be teaching them how to cook. I should really have a sticker chart or something. On the bright side, there is not a lot of feedback from that outside world that this is a magical time. There does seem to be acceptance that parenting teenagers is tricky, tricky.
I hope moms understand that we are all shoulding ourselves on a daily basis. I work with moms every week, and I am surrounded by mom friends, and I hear and experience the shoulds constantly. The shoulds come from a place of love. We just want the best for our kids. We want to find the balance between protecting them and supporting them in learning their own way. We want them to be the healthiest and happiest versions of themselves, and that, my friends, is admirable. Therefore, we have to accept there is a certain amount of fear that just goes along with loving someone this much.
The piece that we really need to work on is the guilt. The constant evaluation and comparison can lead to guilt and shame, and that can really take the magic out of motherhood. We all have different family systems and supports. We all have different goals and dreams. We all have strengths and weaknesses (clearly, making heart-shaped sandwiches is not one of mine), and we absolutely all have different children. You are the only person that knows the best way to mom your child. You are the only person that knows the best way to spend the minutes of your day. You are the only person that can begin to find a balance that makes sense for you and your family.
I remember when I had those tiny little people in Saveway. I left because I felt like everyone was judging me with shoulds. She should really have more control over those two! She should make them nap before coming to the store! She should be able to keep them from screaming! The funny part is that all of those shoulds were in my head. As women, I think it is time we switch that around a bit. I want you to know that when I see a mom with a newborn, I honor that she is just working to find her new balance. When I see a mom with a toddler, I honor that she is moving mountains. I realize that she probably has days when she just needs chocolate and a friend. When I see a mom with a child with special needs, I honor that her journey is very different, very challenging, and that she has strength beyond words. When I see a mom in a van, I honor that she is juggling soccer, ballet, and dinner within the hour. I hope she has a great playlist! And when I attend events with moms of teens, I honor that they are all just trying to navigate this world between childhood and adulthood.
Moms, take time each day to honor what you are doing. This gig isn't for the faint of heart, and it is arguably the most vital role in this world. Happy Mother's Day!