“If I had three kids, I’d shoot myself.”
It was a playground confession of one mom to a friend of mine, who, like myself, has three little ones. Whether half-joking or half-honest, it’s a grim sentiment common about our cultural outlook on parenting. The upcoming summer flick Bad Moms epitomizes the view: the work, the stress—parenting is insane, unreasonable, and no one deserves to be put through it.
On its face, that sentiment seems true. We witness our friends’ postpartum transformation from blissful couples into clinically-exhausted messes. We read parenting blogs full of nightmarish content. When I became a mother, I expected to be miserable. From sympathetic strangers wondering, “How do you manage it all?!” to moms on social media venting about how terrible their lives are, it had often felt like I was supposed to hate mothering.
But this isn’t the reality of parenting. Parenting is hard, for sure; but the difficulties don’t have to be dreaded. The point of parenting is to teach other, smaller, people how to live well and be happy. We cannot teach what we, ourselves, don’t know—so if we aren’t happy doing it, then we’ve got it all wrong.
I’m pregnant with my fourth child now, and I’m only mildly afraid. I understand now that much of the pain and chaos of my early mothering was driven by negative thoughts about it. Inspired by the success of more experienced parents, I’ve learned that raising children can actually be fun and deeply rewarding.
I see now that I had been confusing “survival mode” with “normal living.” Survival mode can be a tempting place for parents just as it is a tempting place for anyone who is feeling overwhelmed, whether it be navigating workplace drama, juggling kids, or writing a research paper in French. We start to think of life as something to be endured, braced against, pining for escape. I know parenting survival mode all too well, and Bad Moms nails it—the pent-up anger, the frustration, the lashing back.
But survival mode isn’t a happy place. Survival mode generally means we've already given up—that we’ve resigned ourselves to just making it through. Accepting survival mode isn’t empowering—it’s terrifying and hellish, and the longer I stay there the worse it feels.
Life is hard; we know this to be true. But we can't confuse hard with hopeless. When we confuse “survival mode” with “normal,” we stunt our ability to see beyond it.
So I think we need to reframe things. Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts which condone a world of “bad moms,” how about we restore the dignity and—yes, joy—of good parenting, and subsequently good living?
I believe that ideas are powerful, and can change the way we see situations—for better or for worse. I never liked the well-known metaphor of being stuck in the “trenches of parenthood”— conjuring dreary images of blood-spattered battlefields and boot rot. Since the task of cultivating a happy family is an amazing one, and deserves to be recognized as such, what if, instead, we used more positive metaphors, such as mastering a real-life video game, or getting promoted for a job?
Unlocking secret bonus points in a video game is exactly how I feel when I finally figure out one of those little tricks to good parenting. Whether it’s menu planning or successfully negotiating with a 2-year old, it feels like I just opened a whole new world of possibilities. And as I increase in skill and technique, I can explore higher levels of the game, for which the rewards—sharing special, happy moments with my children—proliferate.
Likewise, when we are promoted at work, even though it often means more work and heavier responsibility, we celebrate because it gives us greater opportunities, more interesting skills to master, higher rewards, and, ultimately, more to be proud of. Parenting ought to be celebrated the same way—and for the exact same reasons. I think that, instead of offering their condolences to me regarding my upcoming bundle, folks ought to pat my back and exclaim, “Way to go!” because—ready or not—I am being promoted from a mom-of-three to a mom-of-four.
For me, changes in perspective like these are essential to developing beyond survival mode.
As long as we keep trying, I’ve found, learning comes naturally. I no longer feel the need to compare myself to experienced moms who can whip up incredible, nutritious meals in 30 minutes flat when I’m, say, still trying to figure out how to go to the bathroom with a newborn. Seven years into motherhood, I’ve watched myself learn enough that I know, whatever the challenge, time will teach me. Yes, it may get hard. But for me, an attitude shift helped me to turn the struggle into an adventure.
Our culture is one that celebrates being young and free—parents being neither. I think back to the freedom of my own childhood in terms of beauty and bliss, surrounded by the deep, wild love of siblings, too young to understand the grief of life. As much as we would love to relive those days, it just isn’t possible anymore—I'm weighed down with adult knowledge and responsibilities.
But what I miss about being young, I have vicariously found by helping my children grow up. The wonder, the fear, the triumphs. This is one of great treasures of parenthood—their first steps, their eyes on Christmas morning, their learning to read, etc.
Despite my fears of not being “motherly” enough, it turns out that the very strengths I honed in non-parenting life—my fierceness, creativity, and mirth—became my greatest assets as a mom. Likewise, the skills I’ve developed in parenting, such as nurturing relationships or being more responsible, translate directly into a better managed, happier life outside of the family as well. In this way, I’ve found that parenting is about mastering life itself.
Ultimately, I have found that raising a child is one of the most meaningful opportunities I have ever had. When I remember that I’m profoundly impacting the life of another human being, and, consequently, the future of our world, it helps me shake myself out of survival mode and back into “champion mode."
The truth is—what survival mode doesn’t see—is that my own personal happiness correlates intimately to the happiness of my children and vice versa—I cannot be happy when they are not, and they cannot be happy when I am not.
I’m still very much in the thick of mothering, and I still have tons to learn. But I was recently watching my children play at a little farmstead we visit, digging in the dirt for worms to feed the chickens, laughing together, all muddy and ruddy-cheeked, and it occurred to me: I’m starting to get the hang of this parenting thing.
Despite all my failures as a mother—despite sometimes falling into survival mode—I’ve somehow managed to give them the experience of wonder.)
And, in their happy laughter—in my growing confidence as provider of such wondrous moments for them, I found something worth far more than all the work and stress of earning it: a source of pure, unending joy.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan