I think it hit me when I was talking to a fellow mom about how she should feel free to take some time off from other commitments while adjusting to her newborn. I was giving her some sage words of wisdom about how fast those days go, how sleep deprivation can make you feel like a crazy person and how we need to push against this social pressure to keep going with our “normal” life as if we haven’t just had a total role change and priority shift thrust upon us.
And then I blushed and started stammering and had a hard time finishing my thought.
Because I knew this same woman had seen me birth and take in foster babies and keep going with my normal life as though nothing had happened. As I was talking to her about our dumb society, I realized I WAS PART OF THE PROBLEM.
I am not a Pinterest mom. Nobody would see the lunches I pack my kids and feel ashamed. Our birthday parties are delightfully lame, their Halloween costumes are whatever hand-me-downs were in the dress-up box, and their bedrooms are a mismatch of whatever they’ve been into over the last few years (Charlie Brown bedding with Pokemon pictures on the wall, and a Transformer nightlight). I am honest about the struggles of being a mom and I am a firm defender of non helicopter parenting, so I had a hard time seeing how I was contributing to the Parenting Olympics that seem to consume moms today.
But as I look back to those pivotal first few months of each baby’s life, I can see how the public face I put on did not match my private reality. I wanted people to think I was fine, or even better than fine. I wanted them to see me in my pre pregnancy clothes, with my hair done and a baby strapped to my chest while I did all the same stuff I did before. I wanted people to know that I was still competent and on top of things. I was terrified that people would think I was overwhelmed with this large family.
Who did I think I was impressing? Why did I feel like I couldn’t take some time to focus on just this child and taking care of myself? Why did it feel so important to jump right back into things? Why did it become an identity issue– that I had to be the kind of woman who just took it all in stride?
This is a picture of me with my two week-old baby. I had my husband snap this picture after we lead music for church that week. This means when I had a two week-old baby I got six kids dressed for church, got myself dressed and ready, fed everybody breakfast, breastfed the baby, got to church early to practice, wore the baby on my chest and supervised the other kids while we practiced, got my kids to the nursery or settled with other families, lead music, breastfed during the sermon, then finished leading music and all on the kind of interrupted sleep schedule typical of moms handling the newborn stage. I had my husband take this picture in the parking lot because I felt proud of myself for making it work, but underneath that pride there was frustration.
I was frustrated that this level of performance was expected of me and angry that I didn’t speak up for myself. And now I have regrets as I imagine the kind of pressure that puts on other mothers in my community who think I was some kind of superwoman to accomplish all that. I wasn’t. I was just somebody who didn’t feel like she could say “no” if there was an expectation she should say “yes.” I was not serving out of an abundance of joy, I was serving out of obligation. And this example of leading music was one small example of a host of areas where I felt like I couldn’t opt out of the expectations around me.
Of course, there is a time for serving out of obligation or duty. There is honor in that and so many times that’s a decision I choose to make and I know it was the right thing. And there are women who could have done the same things I was doing with absolute enjoyment and enthusiasm and it would have been life-giving for them. Our capacities are not all the same and I have no desire to determine what’s healthy for anybody else. But when we sacrifice what’s best for our kids, best for ourselves, when we tell ourselves we don’t have the right to rest or we don’t deserve to be protected, that’s when we’ve taken the good things about those duties and turned them into something unhealthy.
And when you make that choice, there’s a cost. My marriage was not in good shape (for other reasons, but this was part of it). If you pretend you’re capable of doing everything, you just might find you have a spouse who expects you to do everything. I had frustrations about my community because I felt like some people were able to make boundaries that were respected while those burdens fell over and over again to the few who didn’t say “no” even when they should have. I was exhausted and the stories I told myself about why I had to be exhausted were damaging. I had to keep doing all the things or what was my worth? If nobody cared how exhausted I was, why should I care?
And there was a cost to my community, too. I may have created an unhealthy standard for what was expected of moms. I served without joy. I focused on doing the same things I had been doing instead of thinking about what new ways I could serve or be served in this new season of my life. And the saddest reality is that maybe my community didn’t notice at all. I kept doing what I thought was so necessary at great cost, but nobody really noticed or cared.
It’s important for me to say there were women who helped and many more women I know would have been willing to help if I had asked for it. I’m not talking about people actually telling me I’m not doing enough, I’m talking about my own expectations and how I’ve tried to make myself a person of value. I see how I may have contributed to other women reading the unwritten rules I’ve been writing with my public choices and taking on more than they should have, too. And for that, I’m sorry.
At one point my mom (a mother of five) said something like, “Nobody will know what your boundaries are unless you tell them.” She encouraged me to make peace with the fact that people don’t generally know what it’s like to be the mom in a large family, so I can’t hold it against them if they think I’m fine because I’m acting fine. I have to be okay with saying I can’t do something and not worrying about what people think of me. I want to give that wisdom to all the other moms of littles– you have to know your boundaries, you have to be honest about them, you can’t be bitter when other people don’t anticipate your needs or limits.
If we want to see a society who values and protects mothers, then we have to be the mothers who stop pretending like it’s normal or expected for us to be back to pre pregnancy weight, activities, energy level and commitments as soon as we step out of the hospital with our baby (and if you’re one of the moms who WAS ready for all that, I support you, too!). We need to be protecting the new moms around us and offering to help pick up the slack while they adjust. We need to stop bragging about all the things we did when we had new babies and instead own the fact that maybe we wish we wouldn’t have had to. Forsaking the needs of our babies and of our healing bodies isn’t a badge of honor and admitting that may be a step towards freedom for the moms behind us.