How to Love the Bad Mother in You

By Amy Pearson, Guest Contributor

After eight rounds of Artificial Insemination and two rounds of In Vitro, there they were at last.

Home from the hospital, sleep deprived and surrounded by breast pump equipment, bottles, feeding schedules, diapers, formula, nursing pads, pacifiers and books titled things like What to Expect the First Year, I sat there staring at my two perfect babies. I didn’t feel joy, I didn’t feel happiness, I didn’t even feel gratitude.

I felt shame. A shame so big, it filled the room.

I hated this new life. I hated the sound of crying. I hated being awake at all hours of the night. I hated being responsible for another person’s survival. But most of all, I hated myself for hating it all so much.

Shame.

The dictionary defines it as a painful feeling that comes about from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper, done by oneself or another. The root of the word can be traced back to an older word meaning “to cover.”

And this is what we do. We hide our shame. We cover it up so nobody finds out. We keep it out of sight, which makes us blind to how it fuels our decisions and our actions.

I expected to fall into motherhood gracefully, to be entertained and delighted by my babies; to be a radiant new mother. I couldn’t admit to the shame I felt for not living up to my own expectations, especially after all I’d been through to get them.

So I hid my shame, from myself and from the rest of the world.

I compared myself to the “good” mothers out there and threw myself into the role. But it didn’t make me happy and it didn’t make me a better mother. I became more and more exhausted trying to prove to myself and to the world I was a good mother. The harder I worked, the more exhausted I got and the less I enjoyed my children.

The turning point came on Mothers’ Day. I lost my mom six months into my pregnancy. There I was with no mother and two babies of my own when I stumbled upon an article entitled, “Mother Yourself.” It was like fireworks exploding in my head.

I needed to mother myself.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “You get your confidence back… by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.”

A mother, after all, stands militantly on the side of her children.

My children taught me I could hate my life, the lack of sleep, the sound of crying, the endless second-guessing and the intimidating amount of responsibility that comes with being a mother, and also be deliriously in love.

So, in the same way I still love my son after he uses my arm to wipe his nose and I still love my daughter after she throws a fit in Costco and won’t get off the floor, I can love myself for being human.

I admit, sometimes after wiping applesauce off the wall for the third time in a day, I still yearn for life without kids. But then my daughter says to me in her precious three-year-old voice, “Thank you Mama for making me food” and I realize I’d wipe up an eternity of applesauce for my kids.

I’ve learned how to have a life of my own and be my own kind of mom in a way that feels good to me.

You can too. Here’s how.

Step 1. Acknowledge your feelings

Unexamined shame will motivate you to do things that will make you even more miserable. End the cycle. Be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling.

Before I realized the shame I felt for being such a miserable mother, I drove myself to prove how good I was. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t shower. I didn’t ask for help. It left me exhausted. As a result, I was less able to be the mom I wanted to be.

Step 2. Expose Your PERFECT MOTHER

You no doubt have an image of “the perfect mother” in your mind. Describe her in as much detail as possible.

Even though I consider myself a “modern woman,” my perfect mother is very 1950’s. I can see her now… perfect hair and makeup as she gracefully removes fresh baked cookies from the oven.

Step 3: IDENTIFY BLACK OR WHITE THINKING

Look at your description of the perfect mother and think about how you’re different. Are you buying into black or white thinking? You may not be like your version of the perfect mother in a lot of ways but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good mother YOUR way.

Back when I was hiding my shame, I would take my kids to Story Hour at the local library and compare myself to a certain mom who always showed up looking great, her little girl dressed to perfection with braids in her hair. My kids still sported remnants of breakfast on their clothes and face. Instead of being proud of myself for getting them out of the house, I’d compare myself to her and conclude I was a bad mom.

Step 4: DISCREDIT THE PERFECT MOTHER

When you believe there’s only one way to be a good mom, it’s hard to think of how to be a mother in your own way.

Consider these questions:

  1. Can you think of anyone who did NOT match your image of the perfect mother who was wildly successful at it?
  2. What’s funny about your image of the perfect mother?
  3. What surprises you about your image of the perfect mother?

There are so many amazing moms out there who do not match my 1950’s cliché: Martha Beck, Hillary Clinton, Marian Wright Edelman, Harriet Tubman, my own mother! The funny and surprising thing about my stereotype is that it’s very Leave it to Beaver. When I think about all the amazing moms on my list above I realize that they did so much more than just devote every waking moment to their children. The work they did in the world and the example they set enriched the lives of their children in ways that June Cleaver never could.

 

Step 5: IDENTIFY YOUR ASSETS

Recognize how being different than your perfect mother actually serves as an asset.

My mother used to break out into spontaneous dance at the grocery store. It used to embarrass me. Now I laugh out loud when I think about it. That’s the kind of mom I want to be. I may not be well groomed but I love to laugh and that’s an asset in my book.

Step 6: BE NICE

Being militantly on your own side means loving yourself unconditionally. So…Be nice! Notice how you talk to yourself. Forgive yourself for being human and treat yourself with compassion, understanding and encouragement.

Some mornings, when the twins hit each other over the head with kitchen utensils, and the baby cries because she wants to be held, and I find myself wiping apple sauce off the wall again, I don’t make it mean I’m a bad mother for thinking I’d like to jump a train to the next state and start anew. I find the funny in the situation, I think of what I’m grateful for, or I think of how best I can mother myself in that moment.

Step 7: REPEAT AFTER ME “I DON’T HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN I AM.”

When you wish you were different, more mothering or more patient, for example, you’re essentially telling yourself you’re not good enough just as you are. Accept yourself exactly as you are in this moment and repeat, “I don’t have to be better than I am.” My guess is you’ll be a much better mother when you let yourself of the hook.

When I lose my cool I scream. I used to feel so terrible about it, wishing I could just keep it together. But now, I forgive myself. I’m passionate after all. And you know what? I find myself screaming a lot less.

Step 8: GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO JUDGE YOU

This is a tough one. We all want other people to think of us as good mothers. But letting the opinions of others dictate your self worth is a losing battle. There’s a great deal of freedom that comes when you can allow others to have negative opinions about you, your actions, or choices, without needing to explain yourself or feel defensive.

This morning I took my kids to the park. One mom didn’t seem very friendly. I found myself annoyed. “Is she judging me?,” I thought. “What the hell did I do? Why wouldn’t she like me?!” Then I stopped. I remembered that what she thinks about me is her business. It’s what I think about me that really matters. And that was that.

Bryon Katie writes “You can’t be free if you’re hiding. And in the end, the things we’re ashamed of turn out to be the greatest gifts we have to give.”

My shame has been a gift.

I can see myself now… under the spell of unexamined shame. My hands sore from endless futile attempts at a decent French Braid, charred cookies strewn about the kitchen, well groomed children wandering aimlessly through the house as I iron my dress and apply my lipstick. Instead I faced the shame – it taught me how to mother myself and to be my own unique brand of mother, and a happy one too.


Amy Pearson is a Martha Beck Master Certified Life Coach who helps women lead their lives from a place of self-love and confidence so they can play big in the world. Click here to learn more about Amy and sign up for her free e-course called “I Don’t Need Your Approval! How to Overcome Your Inner Approval Addict”.

0 replies
  1. rebecca @ altared spaces
    rebecca @ altared spaces says:

    “So, in the same way I still love my son after he uses my arm to wipe his nose and I still love my daughter after she throws a fit in Costco and won’t get off the floor, I can love myself for being human.” This resonates with me deeply.

    I remember being grossed out by moms who licked ice cream cones after their children. Then I had a kid. I called it “drip patrol” and, while it wasn’t my favorite, I didn’t hate it. I think it’s because I adored the look of those toddlers eating up that ice cream and loving it so thoroughly.

    So, when I’m doing something new that I’m not particularly good at and I’m dripping and messy I have this image you’ve loaned me. And I can mother myself. I can see myself with those lovely mother eyes that soften everything at the edges.

    Reply
  2. Gina Clowes
    Gina Clowes says:

    “My kids still sported remnants of breakfast on their clothes and face. Instead of being proud of myself for getting them out of the house, I’d compare myself to her and conclude I was a bad mom.”

    Thank you for being authentic Amy and sharing your story so honestly. You are beautiful inside and out and I’d love to hang out with you and your applesauce laden gang anytime!

    Reply
  3. Sarah Seidelmann
    Sarah Seidelmann says:

    Wowza wowness!!!! YES! Being a a former infertility queen extrordinaire and (now) momma of advanced maternal age with 4 delightful and ferocious honey adhere in my den I can say that motherhood is the “initiation” that kicks most ass. Challenges our belief about who our own mothers should have been and what we are to be. Gorgeous, breathtakingly honest post. Sarah

    Reply
  4. Tracy Morris
    Tracy Morris says:

    This is the one that jumped out and grabbed me: “My children taught me I could hate my life, the lack of sleep, the sound of crying, the endless second-guessing and the intimidating amount of responsibility that comes with being a mother, and also be deliriously in love.”

    Just imagine how that lesson can be extrapolated to our other relationships with people and the world!

    Reply
  5. Sherrie Phillips
    Sherrie Phillips says:

    Great article. My son is grown but I went through the same things. Then I happened on some interesting info that helped me. Those TV mom’s of the 1950’s – were working mothers! They “portrayed” stay at home mom’s. It was actually part of a propaganda campaign to encourage women to “go home” and leave the jobs for men who were had returned from the war. Just like the models and actresses on the magazine covers who are airbrushed and retouched – even they don’t look like themselves. In both cases we are holding ourselves to standards that don’t exist. Not even by the people who portray them. That always helps me keep things in perspective when I start to shame myself for not being perfect. There is no such thing and variety is what makes the world go round – as you pointed out in your role models for mothers. There is no one perfect version!

    Reply
  6. Amy
    Amy says:

    Thanks everybody for your comments and feedback! I worked so hard on this article and I am beyond grateful to be able to share it here.

    @Rebecca I just love what you said about seeing yourself with the eyes of a mother. Gives me goosebumps. As a mom, I try to keep a sense of humor when my son wipes his nose on my arm. Along those lines, I try to keep a sense of humor when I make mistakes. And sometimes I just wipe nose on his arm. Payback.

    @Gina You are an inspiration to me. Your work and all that you have done for your family. I love you.

    @Lin And you Lin as well. What you write in Her Worst Mother helps us moms do exactly what I was talking about – keep a sense of humor about it all!!

    @Sarah 4 honey badgers! Holy @#@$! We need to talk 😉 Seriously you and I… we could exchange some stories. I feel like three small kids is bootcamp for me and if can keep it together under this chaos, I can do anything!

    @Tracy It is so true. My kids taught me that love is not black or white. And with kids it’s very messy, sticky, sometimes stinky, often loud, very silly, at times challenging but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

    @Sherrie It’s funny how that image of the 1950s housewife still sticks. And how we create these prototypes in our minds and compare ourselves to a standard that doesn’t even exist. No wonder motherhood can be so stressful.

    Reply
  7. Amy
    Amy says:

    @Jennifer Perfect does not equal happy is a great way to sum up this article! Love it.
    @Lori Thank you Lori. You were a huge source of support and encouragement while writing this piece and I am so grateful for it. xoxo

    Reply
  8. Gretchen Pisano
    Gretchen Pisano says:

    Amy,

    I agree with Sarah, GORGEOUS HONEST portrayal that welcomes readers to consider not only the inside-out of mothering but where in their lives they’ve been unwilling to admit that they are not thoroughly enjoying what others see as a blessing!

    With an 18-year old heading off to college in a few days time, and my twins just rounding the corner on 5 (and me on 45) I can tell you that there are many a day I have found myself brought to my knees by my mothering responsibilities, absolutely certain that THE NANNY herself was heading up my walk with her camera crew to document the debacle of my life AND I am never more at peace than when I am observing my children.

    Well done and congratulations!

    As a P.S. don’t give the twins Jell-O and leave the room. Not a good plan, even for a second….

    Reply
  9. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Like you, I just lost my mom in Apr while I was pregnant with my second child. I have been working with a therapist and trying to let go of ‘perfection’. I was raised Catholic as well, and while I love my faith and find it a great source of strength, I am trying to shed the automatic guilt that comes along with it. All we can ask of ourselves is that we try our best every day and leave it at that. Each day gives a chance to begin anew without regretting what we have done in the past (even if it was just 10 minutes ago).

    Reply
  10. sarah
    sarah says:

    I’m not a mother but this was amazing to read – it actually made me think about how i compare myself to others in terms of my creativity/work as well as being vulnerable to the judgements of others. I love that you are embracing your unique individuality as a mother – and there’s no one rulebook or archetype that’s the ‘right’ one – have to do what works for you! much love xoxo

    Reply
  11. Amy
    Amy says:

    So much wisdom and truth here! I can SO relate. My twins are 8 and have more than the usual assortment of challenges because they started out as tiny preemies (24 weeks). My mother is still alive, but we have been estranged for more than a year. I love your idea of mothering myself. Gradually over the past year I’ve been working on moving myself up my priority list — asking for and accepting help, taking time to exercise and eat right, etc. The difference shows up like this: the other night my son was STILL awake at 11:15 pm, scream-singing TA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY while doing somersaults in the bedroom (it’s a good thing his sister is profoundly deaf without her cochlear implant processor on). Instead of screaming with frustration myself, I had enough energy reserves to be able to find the humor in the moment – I just laughed and hugged him, loving the unique, quirky person he is. Then I changed his pull-up, gave him another dose of melatonin and he was asleep in 20 minutes.

    Reply
  12. Janet
    Janet says:

    Oh, what a beautiful piece!! Parenting was the first thing to bring me to my knees in my life, even after years of working as a nurse in the ER and ICU. At work, I had the backup, protocols, and means to control situations. At home with a colicky new baby, I felt the world caving in on me because I was FAR from being the “perfect” mother and I had to deal with a LOT of negative thinking. BUT, the journey out of fitting into our cultures depiction of motherhood was long and hard, but oh, so beautiful in the long run. Thanks for the reminder of how far I’ve come and how much more amazing life is living on my terms!

    Reply

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