Early on in my own transition to parenthood, drunk on an odd emotional cocktail of gratitude, fear, guilt, inadequacy, rage, joy, and LOVE (oh, the love!), I quickly realised that the closest many people came to exposing their vulnerabilities as new parents was by talking about how tired they were. Legitimately, of course - let's face it: the level of exhaustion new parents face is truly an altered state of consciousness. Still, discussing sleep deprivation fell short of quenching my thirst to make sense of my experience as a new parent. I desperately wanted to know if other parents felt as overwhelmed and incompetent as I sometimes felt in those early weeks. I searched for honest conversations everywhere - in baby groups, in cafés with strangers, with my oldest friends. When I found them, they were supremely validating. Amongst the tedious (yet strangely compelling) discussions of sleeping arrangements, homemade baby food, and developmental milestones, finding out that others, too, were similarly flummoxed, made me appreciate that we were all slipping our way up a steep learning curve.
Being vulnerable with others is not the same as having a pity party; it's not a rollicking bitch session (although those can be therapeutic, too), nor is it a thinly veiled attempt to be reassured that we are doing a great job. It's nothing more than being candid about your uncertainty, asking for help when you need it, and maybe even letting some emotion show. Vulnerability is what helps us feel close to others, and when our friends and loved ones see us as we truly are, it helps them feel more comfortable showing us their fragility.
It needs to be said that vulnerability is neither comfortable nor is it intuitive. Especially not for mothers. We're meant to be good at this job. We should be able to pull this off, like that other mom is (you know her, right?). When we disappoint ourselves by having an off day, losing our tempers, or letting our children down in the multitude of ways that we can potentially do them wrong, we want our struggles to go away, to be stricken from the record. Sometimes, that's doable. But when we confront the same struggles again and again, and our confidence and self-worth starts to erode, this is a sign that it is time to reach out.
And yet: some (many) of us parents have trouble coming forward when we're flailing. I suspect that this is partially because we already are so quick to beat ourselves up - who wants to risk more judgment or pity? As parenting is being increasingly played out through social media, we compare our bloopers with everyone else's greatest hits. Through the banter and wit and filtered photos, we are left with the impression that people craft, adventure and home school without breaking a sweat. We live in a moment in time in which parenting is the subject of great scrutiny - it is glamourized, politicized, and analyzed.
The world of journalism and the vast blogosphere practically explode with confessions of emotionally overwrought moms and criticisms of the culture of motherhood in which we find ourselves. Judith Warner, in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, opines: "This widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret...is poisoning our motherhood." Ayelet Waldman claims, in her memoir Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, that "one of the darkest, deepest shames so many of us mothers feel nowadays is our fear that we are Bad Mothers, that we are failing our children and falling short of our own ideals."
Not everyone's experience of motherhood is fraught with perfectionism and self-criticism, of course, but even if you possess a spirit of self-compassion and self-acceptance, I guarantee you that there are moms in your network who, at any given moment, are silently struggling.
I know this to be true, because at least half of my psychotherapy practice is with parents. Expectant parents, new parents, and seasoned parents. Fashionable, functioning...and deeply struggling. We all struggle, but most of our self-criticism, resentments, and fears of inadequacy are exiled from everyday parlance. And what a shame, because our truest connections with others occur when we allow ourselves to reach out from a place of vulnerability. And honesty - particularly mutual honesty - is healing.
Here is my call to action:
- we need to have honest conversations with others - especially our fellow parents. Resist the attempt to cloak these in dry wit, to be overly self-deprecating, and to intellectualise your concerns.
- Don't wait to be asked how you are doing. Encourage yourself to reach out when you catch yourself retreating.
- Consider who in your circle might need some extra support. Let them know that you have their back, and show it.
- Surround yourself with caring, open and like-minded people. If you are having trouble finding such people, reach out to a parenting group such as Mothers Unfolding (for new mums - and I speak from personal experience in saying this is a fantastic group), Mama Renew (for more seasoned mums), and Pacific Post Partum Society (for mums struggling with depression, anxiety, or generally overwhelmed).
- If you are finding that you need more in depth support and strategies to help you through your challenges, I'd love to hear from you. Research shows that when parents (that includes dads, too) receive therapy, the whole family benefits.