It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been a mother for 29 years. Back in 1991 around this time I was pregnant with my twins, getting ready to move into our new house in June, looking ahead with excitement and nervousness to this new stage of life for Bob and me. We didn’t know in May that we’d have to jump through some scary hoops first, since I went into pre-term labor at 25 weeks three weeks after we’d moved in. We feared the babies would be born dangerously way too soon, so I spent 6 weeks in the hospital on bedrest (it was a miserable summer for me that year). Gennie and Leo still made us parents sooner than we thought, being born at 31 weeks, tiny but mostly healthy. My adventures in motherhood began with a bang, and I’m so grateful and happy for the highs and lows and work and fun that those twins and their younger brother Dante have brought us through.
I was thinking more about motherhood this week after reading a social media post by someone who is pregnant with her first child. She was thinking about what kind of mother she’d be, and hoping she’d raise a good person. My mind circled around on Nature vs. Nurture (I think it takes some of both), and then I started thinking about what makes a good mother. What does it take?
I realize the term “a good mother” is pretty broad and also subjective. And really, what’s the definition of a good mother? For my purposes with this thought experiment, I chose to go with more of a gut-feeling of the concept than a definition. I was more interested in what follows.
As I ruminated on my experiences of being a mother and being mothered. I came up with four characteristics of what I think it takes to be a good mother.
Moms gotta love. For most of us it comes pretty naturally, and our biology even helps us out by releasing more of the “love hormone” oxytocin in women throughout pregnancy, birth and nursing. Love is so essential to our tender human psyches that “babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die” (Psychology Today). If we do grow up without adequate love, it can warp us so seriously that it will make our lives miserable, and affect our abilities to connect with others.
I went into motherhood with intentions, and also clueless (as all non-mothers are, about what it will actually be like). I’d grown up with very poor self-esteem, felt bad about myself a lot, was critical and judgmental and apologetic about myself. It has taken a long time and a lot of therapy and work for me to change that. It has been a slow process. I won’t get into why I had poor self-esteem, but suffice it to say that judging and despising myself made life pretty hard.
The one thing I wanted above all else was for my kids to have good self-esteem, and to know that they are adored by me. I thought that even if I made other mistakes, that would give them a solid foundation in their lives. It’s what I wished I would have had.
To do this, I was going to have to go outside my comfort zone, to do things differently than what I’d known growing up. Be physically and verbally affectionate. Try to be interested in their unique interests over the years, and if I wasn’t that interested in the topic, I could be curious and a good listener. For instance, all the kids have become sci-fi nerds like their dad, and it’s not really my particular interests. The joke is that I’m the Marilyn of the Munsters. However, I’ve really tried to be actively interested in them and so I’ve gone along and done lots of sci-fi stuff with them, including movies, conventions and events. I’ve found some things that do interest me in the sci-fi world, and it keeps me connected with my family. And I’ve had some fun that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
So Love… it may seem like a “duh” thing for talking about mothers, but trust me, not everyone experiences it, has it, or is able to to do it. Mother’s Day is a painful time for so many people because of this.
I believe that self-examination is essential for all people, and it is especially an important part of being a good mother. But why? I know some of us grew up being taught to always respect our parents, not question them, mother is always right. But what happens when a mother claims or demands this power and status, it makes for a diminished relationship with her children. I have a yearning for relationships that are real and vulnerable and emotional and strong. Respect of course is important, but it’s also a two-way street.
I circle back to the 12 Steps of the “anonymous” programs. Step 4 is: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Self-examination isn’t comfortable or easy. Looking for our behaviors and how they impact others will push your buttons and bring up all kinds of feelings and limiting beliefs we may have.
Self-examination opens up the possibility of change, and we may not want to change. The question is: is what we are currently doing really working for us and our relationships? Is it giving us what we really want?
I have found humility to be such an important aspect for my attempts at being a good mother. And it’s really really hard! Humility calls us to look at where we’ve messed up, to “admit to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” (Step 5 of AA). Mother is not always right. Pretending that we are or dismissing our mistakes will just create distance and separation in our relationships with our kids.
One example from my life was when my kids kept pointing out to me my annoying habit of saying “SEE!” For instance, when I pushed or nagged them to do something they didn’t want to do and then they liked it after all, I’d say “SEE! You went and had a good time!” The SEE meant “I was right! You should listen to me!” The SEE made them feel belittled and they didn’t like it.
When they first pointed this out to me, I was like, “oh come on, this isn’t a big deal. They should listen to me because I usually am right!” But I started listening to myself when I said SEE. It felt smarmy. I didn’t like that distance that happened between me and my kids when I said it. So I decided to change it.
The habit was really ingrained though, and so I would just blurt it out, over and over again. But my kids would remind me when I did (oh, more humility!), and eventually I’d start saying after I blurted “oh, I said SEE again.” It took a long time for this to change in me, but it did. It is just one step in making my relationship with my kids better.
Humility means asking for forgiveness when you do mess up. Humility means forgiving yourself when you mess up. None of us are perfect. When I apologize to my kids, it creates healing between us. I have all sorts of regrets about how I parented my kids over the years, lots of changes I wished I’d made. I can’t change any of that, but forgiving myself creates healing within me too, and helps me going forward.
Fourth: Willingness to Grow
All the three previous aspects of being a good mother work in conjunction with being willing to keep growing and bettering ourselves, as moms and humans. For me, willingness to grow encompasses learning to deal with my feelings, learning to handle and process conflict, and being open to change. None of these are comfortable. I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to deal with feelings (so we all coped with them in unhealthy ways) and conflict was to be avoided at all costs.
If I don’t know how to feel my feelings, then how will I be able to fully love my children or myself? How will I be able to examine myself without incredible judgment and shame? How will I be able to apologize and repair relationships if I’m not able to handle conflict? If I stay rooted in the past and continue to do things the way I’ve always done them, then change and growth won’t be possible.
For whatever reason, my personality leads me to yearn for change and growth, even when I’m afraid of it. I have seen the damage that not feeling, not facing conflict, not growing brings about, in my own development and my relationships. I haven’t interacted with or spoken to my family of origin hardly at all in 11 years because of it. The family patterns of ignoring feelings, not dealing with conflict, of shying away from self-examination and humility— all these are stubbornly still gripping our family system and have been so toxic for my relationship with them. I certainly haven’t been perfect in this situation, and I know I can’t change anyone else but myself. I just keep working on myself, though it’s frustrating to not be able to change these relationships.
Learning how to feel and express my feelings, learning to face conflict have been painful struggles for me but the rewards have been worth it. I know they have made me a better mother. I tell my kids, “I would rather that we talk about the things we don’t like in our relationship and work through them. I have seen what happens when we aren’t willing to.” And I so want to have strong and loving relationships with my kids. I’m willing to do the work.
Mother’s Day in Quarantine
This year’s Mother’s Day will be a strange one indeed. For those of us who have always celebrated with our moms or kids, we won’t have the usual bells and whistles, no brunches or up-close visit or hugs. Hopefully this strange time we are living in gives us pause, helps us slow down and think about what is really important to us. The bells and whistles are nice, but the relationships themselves are the real treasure. I am so grateful for what I have with my own kids. Motherhood has been such a joyous rewarding and difficult adventure, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere, and peace to all those who struggle with it for any reason. I’ve struggled too, and even when it seems like the whole world is living in a Hallmark card, there are so many who aren’t. Be gentle with your heart today.
So, all of the above is my own opinion about what it takes to be a good mother. Have you thought about this before? What are your definitions or criteria? I’d love to hear your ideas.
[Photos by Bob Alberti (family photos), and Liv Bruce and Simon Rae, courtesy of Unsplash]