When you’re traveling for work, do you tell yourself that you’re abandoning your children and dodging your responsibilities as a wife and mom? When you’re working from home, and you let your child play by themselves, do you tell yourself that you’re a neglectful mom? Do you tell yourself that you can’t do any of it right—neither the parenting nor the working?
Do you tell yourself that you should be cooking from scratch, keeping a cleaner home and taking your kids on regular adventures—which is everything you’re not doing? Do you tell yourself that you should be attending every game and every performance and every field trip, and by not being there, you’re not supporting your kids the way a real mother does? Do you swim in shoulds most minutes of the day?
When you’re dropping your daughter off at daycare, do you tell yourself that good moms stay home? When you’re leaving your son with a sitter, do you tell yourself that it’s unnatural for anyone else to be caring for him?
According to Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, in her book Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, “Consciously and unconsciously, we’re telling ourselves stories all day long. Are the stories you tell yourself helping you weave together your work and home lives into a seamless and striking tapestry…or are they tearing you apart into shreds of guilt and anxiety?”
Mihalich-Levin used to tell herself the story about travel and motherhood. She ended up rewriting that story to say that she’s strong enough to let someone else grow a special bond with her baby; set an example that women travel for work; and use that time to refresh and recharge. (Which, of course, is key for all parents.) Today, she helps new moms return to work at MindfulReturn.com.
Because that’s the great news about any story we tell ourselves: Like Mihalich-Levin did, we can revise our personal stories. We can create new stories that actually support and encourage us.
You might be thinking that by revising your stories you’re somehow deceiving yourself—that you’re in denial or letting yourself off the hook. But stories like the above only spark shame, which surpasses guilt. Shame says there is something inherently, terribly wrong with you. These kinds of stories only stop us from savoring the sweet moments that we do have with our kids. They only keep us stuck in a cycle of anxiety and agitation.
When revising your own stories, look to supportive resources or role models. Gather your favorite quotes for ideas. Write your new narratives in a notebook or type them on your computer. Reread them regularly. Because so often we get down on ourselves, and we forget.
Mihalich-Levin found it liberating to learn about the concept of “alloparents,” which appears in Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. (We featured tips on effectively managing overwhelm from the book in this piece.)
According to Schulte, alloparents are dads, older siblings, grandparents and other trusted, nurturing adults who care for a child. As American anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy told Schulte, “It’s natural for mothers to work. It’s natural for mothers to take care of children. What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.” Which includes both working moms and stay-at-home moms. Hrdy said, “Moms who stay at home still need and deserve a lot of help.” (Hrdy gives more detail on alloparenting in this piece.)
In this Forbes piece author and speaker Margie Warrell makes many excellent points about moms not feeling guilty for working. For instance, she writes, mother’s guilt “became a constant companion until one day I realized that I didn’t have children in order to spend my life feeling forever inadequate. I wanted children to enrich my life, not enslave my conscience.”
Warrell also stresses the importance of freeing ourselves from shoulds:
“I enjoy being involved in my children’s activities and in their lives. But I also know that they don’t need me cheering at every game, creating scrapbooks for every milestone, or welcoming them home from school with fresh baked muffins in order to feel loved and to grow into secure and well-rounded adults. While they are central in my life, my world does not revolve around them. Nor, do I believe, would it serve them any better if it did. So when I find myself using the word should, I replace it with could – and add an alternative option. Doing so takes the judgment out, and allows me give myself permission to do what actually works best for me and my family – minus the should-inflicted guilt.”
When you notice that you’re comparing yourself to other moms, return to these other words from Warrell: “The fact is, there is no one ‘right way’ when it comes to raising children. Just as we all differ in our personalities, preferences and circumstances, the choices that make us feel whole, healthy and happy differ as well.”
The stories we tell ourselves can make motherhood needlessly harder. They can sap our energy, and take the joy out of both parenting and working. They can induce guilt and shame and spike our stress.
Consider instead how you can tell more positive, encouraging stories. Stories that remind you that you are indeed good enough. Stories that help you savor the beautiful moments you do have with your kids. Stories that remind you that there’s no right way to parent or to live a fulfilling, meaningful life.