Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, and yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward, not tarries with yesterday.
I was raised to believe that my sole purpose, my divine reason for being, was to be a mother. I was to marry, and have babies. Stay home, and raise them right. Advance the kingdom of heaven. Motherhood was my reason for existing. It was how I must serve the Lord. And I wanted children, so much. It was my mission, to grow up, and have babies of my own.
I have been actively trying to untangle these ideas about womanhood and motherhood and expand the definition of what my life can be. I am discovering the shadow side of making motherhood my whole sense of identity, and tying all of my self worth to this role. I have three beautiful girls. Girls that I hope will grow up knowing they are loved and respected and safe in being exactly who they are. They do not need to earn their worthiness. To earn their femaleness. They are worthy inherently. Worthy of love, of happiness, of joy, of belonging. I want them to grow up and not seek a man or motherhood to make them whole.
They are whole.
So just as I am talking to them as they grow about healthy romantic relationships, I also want to talk to them about motherhood. In our society there is a lack of honest, open discussion about what parenting is really like. How it changes you. People love to talk about it being hard… but not about the real reasons why. I want to open that door with my girls. Talk to them about motherhood and parenting with more detail and depth. I am in the thick of it right now, and I am sure this list will grow and change as I evolve as a mother. But here is what I know, one decade in.
Nine things I want to teach my daughters about motherhood:
1. Every single person in the world used to be a screaming baby. A mother carried them in their womb. A mother labored and gave birth to that person. Every person. But do not let the ordinariness of motherhood fool you. There will be many, many moments as a mother when you will marvel at the idea that so many women have accomplished this seemingly impossible task, of bearing and raising children. While motherhood historically is commonplace and unremarkable, it will feel anything but ordinary inside of your life. It will be the greatest challenge, the most consequential undertaking of your life. Do not underestimate it’s enormity.
2. Once that baby comes into the world, and into your arms, you will lose complete control of the most precious pieces of your soul. Parenting is coming to terms with that loss of control. Living in it. Swimming in uncertainty. And wading in the knowledge that all the pieces you truly love, truly need, truly value, are packaged in independent people who don’t belong to you. We declare ourselves as parents. We claim our children. We take responsibility. But they are not OURS. They come through us, and become.
3. You will love so deeply, it will scare you. You will feel so vulnerable in that love, it can make you crazy. You will feel wild with the need to make things safe. Control what happens. There is no place to hide from this love. So be in it. Embrace the vulnerability, and in that embrace will come the recognition of just how much I love you. Let the recognition that you are loved as completely as you love your own child carry you on the days you feel too vulnerable to move through the day.
4. With the first breath that baby takes, you are not suddenly filled with knowledge and light and glorious understanding on how to be a mother. Or an adult. When you walk out of the hospital with that baby, it will shock you. The hospital staff will just let you leave! And people you used to rely on for the answers will suddenly be asking the questions and expect you to know what the next step should be.
There is no gentle transition into this enormous responsibility.
One moment, you will be working to bring the baby into your arms. And the next, you will be a mommy. Forever. There will be millions and millions of questions to be answered, decisions to be made about the best thing to do. It can be paralyzing, the amount of choices that will bombard you. There will be moments and days and weeks and maybe years of time in which you feel like you have no idea what you are doing. How to proceed. Which way is best. Just when you get the hang of things, and you feel like you have hit your stride, your child will enter a different stage of development, and you will have to begin again.
Remember this: no one knows what they are doing. You are not alone in these feelings. Even the most confident looking mothers out there: the ones that have a designer bag over their shoulder, a smile on their face, a perfectly styled baby on their hip… they are harboring the same fears, crying the same tears. Holding the same insecurities. When people say parenting is the hardest thing you will ever do… this is what they are talking about. The secret insecurities and the fears of falling short. No one wants to name it for you, so they list the dirty diapers, the sleepless nights, the public tantrums. Because it’s too scary to talk about vulnerability and self-doubt. There is no magic to make this less uncomfortable. So learn to carry your insecurities lightly, and every time you have an opportunity, set them down.
5. If you want to know how real karma works, make a list of all the things you will vow to never do or say as a parent. Tape it to your fridge next to your ultrasound pics. You know, things like “my kid will never watch hours of t.v. at a time,” or “I will not let my kids become picky eaters” or “I would never send my kid to school with banana in their hair” or “I will never lock my kids in their room just to get another 20 minutes of sleep,” or “I would never let my kid wear the same dress to school for three months in a row!”
And then see what happens.
6. Motherhood is staring into a mirror, inspecting the truest reflection of yourself. One true difficulty in parenting is the requirement to face your darkest demons. The inadequacies and flaws and dangerous parts of you can be hidden from friends and family. You can hide them from your spouse. And even from yourself. But becoming a mother will crack you open. Your children will see you. They will look into your eyes, before they can form words, and their spirit will know you. They force you to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to deal with, you never wanted to admit to. The intensity of your emotions and the enormity of control you will need is going to shock you. No one in the world but your own child will have you swing from the deepest rage to the brightest joy in one afternoon.
You will have to sit in profound disquiet, sometimes for long periods of time, as you struggle to control your shadows.
During this intense personal unveiling, there is no place to hide. Motherhood does not pause, it will not give you a rest while you find a way to heal. You must do this personal healing and searching and while remaining constantly available for your children. Because of the extreme intensity this situation creates, it is very, very important that you prepare. Before you bring another life into this world, know yourself. Know where your strengths lie, and your weaknesses too. Own the light and the dark parts of yourself, and understand them…do not be afraid to look at these flaws. They will boil to the surface in surprising moments. Be prepared to look into your child’s eyes, and see yourself.
They are the mirror.
7. Guilt. The guilt will destroy you if you let it. Because motherhood will highlight your dark demons and deep insecurities, there will be guilt. When you feel guilty, it is easy to leave it unexamined, to fester. Sometimes, the guilt is thick and syrupy and leaves a sticky film over every experience. Sometimes the guilt is heavy, and holding it requires every muscle, tendon, and bone. And sometimes, the guilt takes on a life of it’s own, and will chase you right out the door. You must address these guilty feelings. Guilt is simply a course-correction tool. The GPS system. When you feel guilt, sometimes it is for valid reasons. You lost your temper. You gave an inappropriate consequence. You reacted without listening. Recognize the problem, resolve to try again, and then…
Let it go.
This purposeful act of self-forgiveness will be crucial in moving forward, unburdened. Many times, you may find that the guilt is not helping you stay the course… you are marinating in it. Assigning guilt and feelings of failure to every move you make as a mother. It is important to recognize this too. Because unaddressed guilt turns to shame… a dark and debilitating poison that can eat away your joy. It is an easy trap to fall into, the ritual of self-criticism that turns to guilt and then to shame. Work to release this pattern at every opportunity. Recognize the difference between a learning moment and a toxic burden. You will be actively teaching your child to learn from their mistakes, forgive others and forgive themselves. You must be actively practicing this in your mothering.
If you want to hold the joy, you must put down the shame.
8. Refuse to believe and affirm
“My children are my life.”
“I am nothing without my kids.”
“I live for my kids.”
Unfortunately, these declarations are often revered as the most powerful kind of love, owned by the real mothers that love more. My sweet girls, your life as a woman is meaningful. It matters. Your choices and passions and pursuits are important and worthwhile. You can be a complete, whole human being. Filled with love and joy and warmth and ambition and creativity and spirit and service.
Sacrifice is inherent in motherhood. We sacrifice our bodies, our freedoms, our finances, our time… we give over our hearts to our children. But it is so easy to pour out too much, and lose our Selves. Empty our vessels, and leave nothing but a shell behind. My dear daughters, you should not sacrifice your self. Children do not want that sacrifice. You get to still exist, outside your role as mommy. You get to pursue other things that matter to you. You must be a top priority in your own life. And this is the healthy way to parent. Because your child is not YOU.
They want to carry your love in their hearts.
They want to know that they will always belong in your inner circle.
They want to know you truly see them for who they are.
They want to breathe in your strength, and see you stand tall in your own body.
They are individual people, and do not wish to carry your life upon their shoulders. That kind of love is a burden, not a gift.
9. Cling to one single truth: Love.
The one thing you can do absolutely right, is love. Love that child with a wholeness that requires you to stay open to that vulnerable place. Love them so they know that nothing is required of them to earn that love. They will feel that love from you the most when you practice loving yourself.