Let me begin by introducing you to a woman I call “Laid-Back Mom.”
Laid-Back Mom finds motherhood easy, breezy, and fun. She exudes confidence and authority; she greets tantrums, potty training, and ear infections with stoic calm. She isn’t the slightest bit stressed about navigating the grocery store with little ones in tow (and she’d never let said groceries rot in the fridge at a later date). She is, above all, a natural at the whole motherhood gig. She’s got this, and she’s even enjoying it.
I am, on the other hand, what I’ll call “Anxious Mom.” I worry about what my kids are or aren’t eating; I imagine worst-case scenarios that I’d be unprepared to meet; I stress-google minor problems at night. At my best, I figure out how to have fun in spite of my doubts and fears. At my worst, I feel like I’m not qualified for the job.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Where was my trusty mother’s intuition the other night when my toddler woke up screaming for no discernible reason? Why do little errands often feel so insurmountable when there’s a baby in the shopping cart? Why is this all so hard? Why am I not Laid-Back Mom?!
Early motherhood is often fraught with self-doubt and stress, no doubt helped along by the accompanying exhaustion. And while those first years are genuinely difficult, perhaps part of the problem is our own expectations—of ourselves and of our circumstances.
Maybe we’d be happier, more relaxed, and more confident if we changed our mindset about motherhood.
Surviving an intense, emotional transition
Perhaps you have your own version of Laid-Back Mom—if so, you (and I) are far from the only ones. Many women compare themselves to a fictional ideal, explains reproductive psychiatrist and author Alexandra Sacks.
“She’s always cheerful and happy, and always puts her child’s needs first. She has few needs of her own. She doesn’t make decisions that she regrets,” writes Sacks. “Most women compare themselves to that mother, but they never measure up because she’s a fantasy.”
Okay, so it’s not much of a spoiler that Laid-Back Mom doesn’t actually exist. And yet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking she does, especially as we observe the other young mothers in our lives from a distance (or from our social media feeds), seemingly finding this whole thing easy and endlessly fulfilling.
Worse still, many of us pictured our future selves in this idealized way before we had children.
“I think primarily I anticipated that I would be a different kind of mom,” said Stephanie Wilcox, a Pittsburgh mother of two, when I raised the topic in an online community of moms I belong to. “More patient, more willing to engage 100 percent 24/7, more naturally selfless.” For my part, it was as if those early days with my newborn were a quirky BuzzFeed quiz: “Which type of mom are you?” The natural, or the one who finds everything difficult and stressful? (You can guess how I scored.)
Sacks struggled to articulate the transition she saw many of her postpartum clients experience: it wasn’t postpartum depression, but it wasn’t nothing, and it certainly wasn’t living up to these new moms’ expectations.
“In an out-of-print essay written in 1973 by Dana Raphael, I finally found a helpful way to frame this conversation: matrescence,” Sacks says in her 2018 TED talk. “It’s not a coincidence that ‘matrescence’ sounds like ‘adolescence.’ Both are times when body morphing and hormone shifting lead to an upheaval in how a person feels emotionally and how they fit into the world.”
Matrescence. It captures something that perhaps many of us didn’t see coming: that becoming a mom is not, in fact, the dramatic unveiling of an exquisite work of art, but rather simply taking a paintbrush to a new canvas. It’s a process, a beginning. And if becoming a mother is comparable to the throes of teenage angst, maybe we ought to cut ourselves some slack.
Falling into pessimism
Once we fall short of our own expectations, it’s easy to believe that motherhood is just a decades-long struggle punctuated by rewarding, but fleeting, moments of joy.
Much of the mom culture on Instagram reinforces this idea. While there’s no shortage of mom-influencers who project perfection, fulfillment, and impeccable taste in nursery decor, the resultant backlash offers a more down-to-earth window into motherhood. Reflections on stretch marks and C-section scars abound; intimate photos of mothers breastfeeding are celebrated. Beyond the postpartum phase, everything from toddler tantrums to marriage dynamics post-kids is up for discussion. To some extent, these types of posts have successfully defused the Mommy Wars—think bottle vs. breastfeeding or stay-at-home vs. working—by simply admitting, “This is all really hard, no matter how you do it.”
For a new mom, it can be tremendously helpful. Body positivity, particularly for postpartum women, is a welcome change from the pressures of other influences to “bounce back” or otherwise conform to specific beauty standards. Finding voices that tell you you’re doing your best, and that’s good enough, can be a lifeline on a tough day. Knowing that other moms find this whole endeavor difficult, too, is comforting.
But there’s a flip side. Taken the wrong way, this culture leaves us solidly with our half-empty cup, validated in our burdens but hoping only for the endurance to get through this interminably difficult season.
“Normalizing how hard parenting is doesn’t make people want to be better parents—it makes them feel like it’s fine—normal!—to struggle,” writes Nat Kendall-Taylor, a father and psychological anthropologist, for Quartz. “Therefore, there is nothing to be done about the sometimes significant difficulties they face. This negative framework doesn’t make people think that parenting is something that one can get better at.”
Kendall-Taylor points out that systemic issues—for example, insufficient (or nonexistent) family leave policies—can go unquestioned under the assumption, “Parenting is hard.” If we believe that this is just the way it’s supposed to be, we’re less likely to address these society-wide problems—or indeed even consider them a collective, rather than individual, responsibility. This is particularly catastrophic for mothers who face extraordinary obstacles like postpartum depression, financial strain, or a health issue concerning one of their children.
On an individual level, the subtle negativity of this culture expresses the same mistaken view that many of us did as new moms: seeing motherhood as a fixed state. Just as it’s easy to expect that the birth of a child will reveal the fully formed, perfect mom who had been hidden inside us all along, it’s easy to believe that motherhood—particularly of young children—never changes, and certainly never gets any easier.
But what if you could get better at motherhood? What if, in fact, you are getting better at it—even if you haven’t yet noticed? What if the whole transition is not a revelation of what kind of mom you are, but rather a journey to what kind of mom you want to be?
What if we viewed motherhood as a giant learning curve, rather than a Sisyphean hill?
Adopting a growth mindset
In other words, many of us have been operating with what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.”
With a fixed mindset, challenges are a reflection of you and your immutable abilities. If you found yourself coming up short in the first year of your child’s life, you might have thought, “I’m not the mother I thought I would be,” or “I’m not cut out for this.” Similarly, the “it’s-so-hard” culture assumes that even as our children grow, the difficulty of raising them remains the same, and we must simply endure it like a passing thunderstorm.
A “growth mindset,” per Dweck, sees challenges as opportunities for learning and, of course, growing. If you struggled the first time you tried to defuse a tantrum in a public place, then you’ll do better the next time (and especially with any subsequent children). Instead of asking, “What kind of mom am I?” we might instead say, “How will I get more comfortable with that?”
A growth mindset casts a hopeful glow on the future. It says that even when the path gets harder, we’ll rise to the challenge. It says that just as our children are hitting new milestones, so are we. It calls our attention to the areas of our day-to-day lives that feel unmanageable: does something need to change? Do we need to adjust, or do our circumstances need to adjust?
In short, if we “normalize” growth, writes Kendall-Taylor, “we are actually motivated to improve rather than wallow in difficulty and duress.”
We’ll probably never be finished growing. That’s okay. The act of growing itself makes us happy, says happiness researcher and writer Gretchen Rubin.
“To feel happy,” she writes, “it’s not enough to have fun with your friends, and not feel guilty about yelling all the time, and feel like you’re working in the right job; you also need to feel growth—a sense of learning, of betterment, of advancement, of contributing to the growth of others.”
Perhaps our trajectory matters just as much as how equipped we feel to handle today’s concerns.
Fortunately, getting “better” at motherhood doesn’t have to mean turning into your own fictional version of Laid-Back Mom. It can mean asking for help from family, friends, and neighbors, or figuring out whether you can adjust your budget to pay for extra childcare, a cleaning service, or some other task that would give you back some precious time.
It can also mean lowering your standards and being more strategic about where you spend your energy. Bryan Caplan, an economist and father of three, explains in his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids that most parents make everything too hard for themselves. Citing studies of twins adopted by separate families (whose lives end up looking quite similar in adulthood), he explains that we vastly overestimate the effect our parenting techniques have on our children in the long run. (Perhaps we don’t usually equate “lowering your standards” with “growth,” but in this case, I think we should.)
Growth can mean making more confident decisions for you and your family—for example, how much screen time to deem acceptable or when to introduce childcare—without anxiously deferring to the American Academy of Pediatrics or what the other preschool moms are doing. Emily Oster, another economist and author of parenting books Expecting Better and Cribsheet, advises making parenting decisions using cost-benefit analysis with our kids’ well-being and our own preferences in mind. (She also evaluates the studies that many of the official recommendations are based on, not all of which are as conclusive as they seem.)
As for growth within ourselves: the truth is, we’re already growing. Perhaps we just need to notice.
One sunny Saturday when my firstborn was seven or eight months old, my husband Kevin and I sat outside at one of our favorite little bars in our neighborhood. We each had a drink, the baby had Cheerios, and—other than the truly glorious weather—it felt like an ordinary weekend day. Kevin took a short video for posterity.
Later that evening, I watched the video he took. I was shocked: I didn’t see the Anxious Mom I felt like most of the time. I saw a capable woman, deftly moving her drink when the baby reached for it, navigating an adult conversation at the same time she reached in the diaper bag for a board book, alternately making faces at the baby and offering Cheerios from one hand. I saw a confident mom enjoying her afternoon.
Now, when the negative voice in my head tells me I’m failing, I try to remember that even if I’m struggling, I’m growing. It’s a paradigm shift that hasn’t happened all at once—some weeks, it’s even a daily decision. But when we view motherhood through that different lens, it feels less like a thankless burden and more like the privilege of a lifetime. Perhaps Neidy, a mother of three in Council Bluffs, Iowa, put it best:
“Motherhood is the hardest and the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” she told me. “I’m so thankful I have it to grow!”