A Prescription for Living Without Wanting What That Other (Better) Mother Has
When did you last look at another mother and think, “Why can’t I do it as well as she does?” If this hasn’t happened to you yet, I have to assume you aren’t a mother! I’ve never met a mother who hasn’t had a least a brief bout of (what I call) mother-envy, that sense that you want what another mother has (her patience or skill or tidiness or ability to be cheerful without sleep). Most of us get struck with the green-eyed mother-envy monster for very brief periods of time, and it’s particularly acute when we first become mothers and are slowly finding our sleep-deprived way through the vast ocean of baby advice/stuff. In fact, it might even strike during pregnancy, if you have a hard pregnancy and a friend breezes though. And labor! If you labor for forty hours and your friend goes for two candle-lit, Enya playing hours, it’s hard not to skip a beat wondering why you couldn’t have been her.
The folk singer Cheryl Wheeler has a song I love called “I’m Unworthy.” “I’m unworthy, and no matter what I’m doing, I should certainly be doing something else,” she sings. “I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.” Has motherhood ever brought you to that place where whatever you were doing, rocking the baby or feeding the baby or putting the baby in the swing so you could do dishes, you felt you ought to have done it differently? Modern motherhood offers such a dizzying area of choices and viewpoints, it can overwhelm the sturdiest of women, and if someone else looks like she’s taking it all in stride, not for a moment second-guessing, if her mothering looks as effortless as a prima ballerina on point? Well, it’s hard not to envy sometimes.
Of course, if you envy another mother, good can result. You can certainly learn from someone you admire or copy her example. But the deeper problem remains. It’s ubiquitous, this sense that you aren’t quite good enough as a mother, yet few of us talk about it! In truth, envying another mother doesn’t do anything to her; it does something to you, and what it does is this: it makes you feel like you should mother differently which means, in essence, that your own way of mothering is inadequate.
I have a dear, kind, wonderful friend who had a child a year after I gave birth to my first. I had a thirty-two hour home-birth with an emergency transfer to the hospital. She had a four-hour tub labor. Her son slept through the night by four weeks. Mine by twelve months. She ended up with an easy-going baby, I got a lawyer in a cloth diaper. She only used organic baby food, organic cotton clothing, organic diapers and, perhaps hardest of all, she rarely complained! It was hard not to compare myself with her or judge myself in relation to her. In the end, we had a good, hilarious conversation about this which ended with her complaining to me—and I was grateful to her it.
Mother envy is a perfectly normal condition to have for a minute, a day, or a month. If you find that you compare yourself all the time or on an on-going basis to other mothers and it makes you feel like (here’s the big word) a failure, it’s good to have a little prescription for getting back to feeling your own success as a mother. It all begins with the way we think. Here are a few ideas:
- You only get to be one person in this life: you. As a mother, you can constantly improve, learn, grow and change, but you want to change into the best version of yourself as a mother—not someone else’s best version.
- Practice loving yourself (yes, it’s cheesy, but the good kind of cheese). It can take a lot of self-love to learn to listen to your own intuition and trust it. Try treating yourself with the same kindness you want to show your child!
- Remind yourself often that each mother has unique mothering gifts and, very importantly, that children can be mothered in so many different ways. There is no one right way to mother!
- Give it time. What does a baby learning how to walk do so well? Fall down and get back up! Imitate your children. No baby gives up when they fall down the first or the hundredth time. Nor do they create some mental idea, like “I’m just not a good walker.” Let your mothering have a sense of experimentation, curiosity and forgiveness.
- Raise your mother self up from infancy. I like the theme in my new novel, I’ll Take What She Has, where the stay-at-home character, Annie, goes to therapy to try and get in touch with her inner child because, ultimately, when we parent our children, we have to grow up along with them. When you are a new mother, or the mother of a new baby, your own way of mothering is also young and it will develop over time if you nurture it with compassion, patience, and the keen eye of love that sees not just what is but what is becoming.