I have a problem with the typical motherhood narrative. The one that tells you everything is supposed to come so effortlessly and naturally, and that suffering is just a part of it, too. It’s the same one that, when you struggle with any of it, makes you feel alone in the journey. When I think about teaching my own daughter what it means to be a mother, I want to prepare her with the realities, not some fantasy. What does that mean? To me, it means letting her know that she’s not alone if she finds a part (or several parts) of motherhood challenging. Something like breastfeeding may come easy to some, others might struggle through it, and some may not be able to do it at all—and that’s okay.
But most importantly, I want my daughter to know that if she does stumble through any part of motherhood, it doesn’t make her any less of a loving, capable, and extraordinary mother.
We see this tired narrative in the media all the time—the bumbling father is adorable but heaven forbid we make one wrong move as a mother. It’s as though we’re supposed to know how to do it all like it was taught in school. I mean look at the “Framing Brittany Expose,” and how quickly (myself included) we were ready to burn her at the stake for being an unfit mom. Heaven forbid you trip while holding your child as you make your way through a packed crowd of flashing paparazzi lights. Brittany Spears was a young mom clearly struggling with the pressures of fame, but also postpartum. Okay, okay I’m ranting now… let’s get back to the point.
My own questions around this narrative got me thinking about how to better show the reality of motherhood without making it look unappealing. Because despite all the struggles, the rewards of motherhood are tenfold. So, to find out, I reached out to my own village of incredible mothers at Hey Mama to pose this simple question: “What parts of motherhood have you struggled with?” Once again this beautiful community of women showed up. And let me tell you, they showed up in a way that moved me more than I ever imagined.
Email after email flooded my inbox from women who openly and honestly shared their struggles through motherhood. With each email, I was reminded of the strength and vulnerability of women. How they dig deep and show up as mothers, mentors, and friends; how they suffer in silence but will be the first to shout loud in unity if it means helping to ease another woman’s suffering. To be completely honest, I cried after reading every email. Maybe because it all feels too raw still, or maybe because I see hope in being able to better prepare future mothers.
Or maybe I cried because I was so sad to read how much shame each mother felt as they simultaneously tried to love their children and live up to some unrealistic expectation of how “natural” mothering is supposed to be.
So, with the consent of each of these women, I want to share some of their stories. I hope this article reminds you to give mothers (and people in general) a moment of grace, including yourself! Remember that we are all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
Sometimes that smile or nod of “I’ve been there!” is all you need to reduce the amount of shame that comes with riding the bus with a screaming baby, or sending a little one to school with a spill on their shirt (which happened in the car, thank you very much.)
Brandy Joy Smith, @brandyjoysmith
A simple gesture can be so uplifting, which reminds me of one of the first outings I had with my son, Liam. I was a brand new mommy meeting another mommy I’d met through the app Peanut for coffee. Liam was one of those babies that cried through his first nine months of life. So needless to say I was a nervous wreck about meeting in a public place. After only 10 minutes of being there, I realized I had forgotten Liam’s pacifier chain and only had one. Of course, he dropped it on the floor. Oh, the sheer panic. I needed to use that pacifier if I wanted to make it through the rest of my much-needed coffee date. “What do I do?!” I didn’t want her to judge me for rinsing it off and giving it back to my son, but I had no other choice.
Right as I was on the verge of tears (yes, I know this sounds dramatic but I hadn’t been out of my house in six weeks and my postpartum hormones were all over the place,) she looked me dead in the eye with the biggest smile and said: “do whatever you need to do, it’s okay.” It wasn’t about the permission it was about her letting me know I see you, I’ve been there, and I’m not judging you. She was a seasoned mom of three and I knew right then that was the kind of support I would remember and try and show other mothers. Thank you, @lauriemla.
Eileen of @loved_as_you_are:
When my son was born, I didn’t realize I was only partially living within myself. Being a sexual assault survivor and feeling the effects of loved ones struggling with their own mental health, I could have sworn I didn’t exist. He woke something in me that I’d pushed down for so many years; my life, my heart, who I was. He struck something so profound that I didn’t even know I was lost, to begin with. I’ve had to forgive myself for not being whole at the start and accept that it’s ok to build along the way.
I’m not perfect now, but I’m doing what I need. I’m also working to help my kids see they are amazing and special and shouldn’t hide that. That has taken shape in collaborative kids and parents journal series in the brand, Loved As You Are with the first, “The Us Journal” to be released this fall for kids in their early years!
Sehreen of hellosleuth.com:
I am the mother of a child with special needs. In going online for help/advice, I often feel triggered with guilt that maybe I’ve over-sharing about her and her journey when it really is her story. I also founded a startup based on what I went through so I often talk about our experiences. Handling the potential oversharing and knowing where her story ends and mine begins is tough and I always second guess myself. There’s the pressure to ‘represent’. On one hand, I want to normalize ‘special needs’ (everyone has different needs, why does it have to be pejorative?) and on the other, I wonder if I’m risking sharing parts of her that others will judge.
Emily of MyNestwell:
I’m a pretty confident mom, but I’ve felt tinges of shame here and there. No one thing, but the accumulation of micro-shaming kind of rubs on you, like a little pebble in your shoe. It started with the fact that I had a c-section and I didn’t give birth “naturally.” Let me tell you. All birth is natural. Later on, it was how long I breastfed my baby, how I feed her, how I don’t mind if she walks through mud or plays in the dirt, how I have allowed my husband to be excused from certain baby chores (like waking in the middle of the night when she was an infant… why should both of us be tired?)
Kristjana Hillberg @kristjana_hillberg:
The heaviest shame I have felt as a mother was the moment I decided to move across the state to be with my new husband and let my daughter stay behind with her father. I remember the moment so vividly. This decision had been on my mind for a few months. We’d been married for five months and had just found out we were expecting. We had been living apart for over a year and now that we were going to have a baby, it was time to live together. Lily was five and had grown up in the same town, made close friends, and was surrounded by family on her dad’s side and a huge family on her new stepmother’s side as well. As I sat and watched her Christmas program from the back row, alone… and peered up at the second row, completely full of family-grandparents, her dad, Lisa, cousins… I knew.
Fighting to bring her with me wasn’t in her best interest. She was happy here. Thriving. Settled. Just because I am her mother, doesn’t mean I am necessarily more equipped to raise her or that she belongs with me (even though I’d like to think so).
I made the decision to move across the state and she stayed with her dad. It’s been three years since that transition and it’s still extremely hard on me. I wonder what long-term effects this will cause. Will she feel like I abandoned her? Would she have thrived here? So many questions, but nothing can change the past. I’d make the same choice today… but that doesn’t erase the shame that comes with “leaving” a child with the other parent to be close to your spouse.
Whitney Poma, Founder & CEO of Momful:
This (shame) was something I felt when I was struggling to breastfeed and is one of the primary reasons I decided to launch my company, Momful—a nutrition brand helping moms meet their breastfeeding goals. This is a wide-reaching cause of guilt and shame for a lot of moms—60% of women don’t breastfeed as long as they intend to and there’s a significant clinical overlap in women who struggle with breastfeeding and those that have postpartum depression. As someone who’s walked this journey, is preparing for another BF journey when baby number two arrives this summer, and now as a founder working in the space for the last three years, breastfeeding is the ultimate catch 22. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
“Shame on you, Natalie, for caring about how you look. How dare you go to a SoulCycle class and leave my son to watch the baby… you’re a mother now.” These weren’t the exact words that were said but the sentiment was the same. Can you imagine? I was being told that the entire point of motherhood was to lose myself completely. “I did nothing for myself when I was a new mom” echoes through the walls to me to this day. What do we do to each other? Why do women still do this? It was as if my accomplishments and personhood were now wiped away. Oh, you graduated college in two years? Full scholarship to law school? Your own firm on Park Avenue in NYC by the time you are 24? Bestselling author? You’re a mother now, how dare you not want to breastfeed and leave your child for even a moment.
It’s taken me time to get over that. Am I really even over it? It’s time to share. When one life begins, another does NOT end. Breastfeeding or bottle? Cry it out or co-sleep? None of it really matters. In the end, this is the golden rule: happy mommy, happy baby, happy family!
Katie Caruth-Whitfield, Marketing Director @k.whitfield_:
Ummm where do I start?! Breastfeeding, not feeling an “over the moon connection” the days after birth, forgetting to bring something for show and tell, being shamed when I sent Rett to school in shorts when it was 50 degrees one morning, but I knew it would be 70 that afternoon (a parent said, “Rett! You must be freezing!”) I mean pick a day! It’s constant.
Lauren of BEHR HAUS:
I felt shame about not going back to work and starting my own business in a pandemic.
In reading through these emails, I even had to check my societal programming at the door. So often, these choices and decisions we make as mothers, men make all of the time and are allowed the freedom without judgment to make them. I think it’s important to untangle this narrative because we want better for our daughters, we want realistic expectations for our daughters, to have resources, to be empowered, and above all, ready for motherhood. Mothering is hard AF and we all struggle along the way. I’m on a mission to normalize that struggle by acknowledging it, naming it, and helping women through it.
As women, it’s up to us to rewrite this piece and share our truths so others don’t feel as alone. To reaffirm and normalize sharing our wins as mothers, but also sharing our challenges. This journey isn’t easy, and as Emily says “It takes a village to raise a mother.” I want to help build that village; one that offers support, understanding, and encouragement. One that will celebrate with you and cry with you because that’s the beautiful twisted experience of being a mother, and personally I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m stronger for all the struggles I’ve experienced but I would have surely loved to know I wasn’t alone in the experience either.
Again, I want to thank every woman who participated in sharing their stories. This won’t be the last that I write on this topic. If you are interested in speaking more about motherhood, I am hosting a 10-week group coaching series starting on Mother’s Day. We will discuss changing family dynamics, prioritizing your new values, ambivalence, and the push-pull of a child (wanting them close but needing space), expectations, and the ideas of motherhood, guilt, shame, and are we good enough (identity work). If this sounds like something you’re interested in, get on the waitlist!
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