When my children were very young, I was struggling. I had a demanding job, long daily commute, and I was building a new team at work from the ground up. My oldest was three and the youngest was a baby. They both needed so much from me. I had waited a long time to start a family, and I was in the middle of a wonderful professional opportunity and it seemed everything was happening all at once. Everyday. All day long.
I wanted to be a committed leader at work and a good mom. I wanted to deliver what everyone expected. However, I felt I was not enough at work and I was sorely lacking at home.
I couldn’t quite get it together. Not even close. Or, in the odd moment it did seem to come together and I felt I finally met the imaginary bar, I was unsatisfied and could not see a way of maintaining my effort without driving myself into the ground. (Though, I did try! Boy, did I try.) There was no space where I could feel good about myself. I felt failure in every measure.
Over lunch with a dear friend, I shared how I felt hemmed in. Maybe I should leave my job and focus on home? In my mind, being home was probably the “right” thing to do if I had to pick one thing. Especially since I was failing so badly. She immediately told me, “Well, you can’t buy into the Motherhood Myth. And once you don’t, things get easier.”
Once my friend uttered the word “myth”, the mist and fairy dust enshrouding this concocted story seemed to blow away. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, once I thought about it the story suddenly seemed unplausable (Hmmm, how does he deliver to everyone in one night?"). Perhaps the whole idea of what I thought was a “good mom” was more fiction than fact. And who owns the narrative? Who is deciding what a “good mom” includes?
The Motherhood Myth is a story we each unconsciously buy into (usually before we actually have kids) that good mothers are x, y and z. For me, the toxic piece of the Motherhood Myth was that as a woman, motherhood should be my priority. Always. Everything else always takes a backseat. Always. The Good Mother story is a slippery trap because it looks good when we subscribe. Who WOULDN’T want to be the ever present, ever patient, always lovely mom? Women are held to some insane standards with moms getting a double helping of judgement.
Myth is the stuff Instagram and Pinterest are built on. This is the stuff mom’s groups battle over. These are the rules and expectations we each cling to, whether or not they are actually beneficial or aligned to our own abilities and values. It’s the high bar of being “good enough” which can equal feeling safe and valued. It’s the feeling of being right and righteous.
Good mothers always
Good mothers….always make homecooked meals. After all, remember mom’s amazing ___?
Good mothers….come to all school performances. Because who would miss that?
Good mothers… are there for their kids always. Because...moms.
Good mothers… have thoughtful, fun holidays to bring family together and cherish special moments. The origin story of my most hated hashtag… #makingmemories. Can we really manufacture memories? Do we want to?
Good mothers… are always patient. Are always kind. Are always available. Put family first. Put their needs aside. Sigh.
Some of those may sound ridiculous to you. But if you give it some thought, you probably have unrealistic expectations of moms, too.
As I started unraveling the myth of what was expected, I came up against a few truths.
Firstly, I was the breadwinner for my family. I was going to need to put myself first (cringe!) and ask for help (double cringe!) and keep asking for help until I could catch a breath. I needed to sleep so someone else needed to get up with my son and we needed to start sleep training. I needed to eat so we needed to find favorite food/meals to be picked up or delivered on the regular without uttering or answering “what’s for dinner?”
I needed to hand things off to my team at work. I needed to decline requests that seemed to come in every email and in every meeting. I needed to be more honest with my manager and ask for feedback about what she really expected of me (vs. what I imagined she expected of me).
And I needed time to myself. In fact, I’d often say my reason for wanting to exit my career was “more time with my family”, but I really, really, really was trying to save myself.
TWINGES of Shame
Rewriting this, still I feel the twanges and cringes of shame for needing help. And then being required to ASK for said help since I don’t live or work with psychics. And then as if fixing it once weren’t enough, to KEEP asking for help each week as my needs changed and circumstances developed (ugh! Wasn’t I getting enough help as it was? Other people don’t need THIS MUCH HELP. In fact, needing anything at all seems a shameful position in our society.).
It took courage to make space for myself - since this the opposite of the message we get in the Selfless Mother story. Finally, I needed to learn to be at peace when others were critical of my choices or lived with different ideas. One judgement at a time, I continued to unravel the Myth and dispelled the list of expectations. Today, the only expectations I have of myself as a mother come from me - or from direct feedback from my kids or my partner. Professionally, I have a clear idea of what I’m interested in taking on and what can gets a pass. It takes flexibility to adapt to changing family phases, changing kids’ ages and my own changing needs.
“Getting it all together” feels like a myth that I’ve traded in as I take on surfing the changes in real time. It's freeing. It's authentic. It’s creative and generative and nurturing for everybody in my family - including me - which is much closer to what motherhood is about for me.
What’s your myth?
Maybe you’re dealing with a myth of your own. The Responsible One. The Strong Man. The Perfect Daughter. The Gifted One. The Man Who Should Be Able To Handle Anything. The Child with Opportunity Gained Through Sacrifice of Others.
Any of these sound familiar? The myth is an oversimplified story that incorporates someone else’s morals and expectations. They can get heavy and limiting pretty quickly but unaddressed they can silently drive our lives. What myths drive yours?