Why do we sell ourselves short as mothers?

In a recent social outing, one of my friends – who is also a mother – was chatting about how messy her life is. The way she was talking, you’d think she really didn’t have it together. Well, let me tell you, she does!

Sure, there may be dishes in the sink, and hair cuts may be overdue, and the schedule may not always (ever) quite work out the intended way, but her home is a haven for her family, the kids receive a wonderful mix of enriching activities and easeful downtime, and they are cared for beyond any reasonable threshold of “good enough.”

And that realization made me wonder just how many other moms have it “more together” than they give themselves credit for.

In looking for it, I noticed a consistent negative self-talk among my mother friends. I rarely heard a mother show up and say, “Oh, totally, I’m rocking this. I’m a great mom, & I really have my home life handled.” When I spoke to my husband about this, he explained he could relate to the feeling of overwhelm; he experiences it daily at work. I asked, “But do you overall have a sense that you’re doing a great job and have it handled?”

“Yes, of course,” he said definitively. “I have the skills and abilities to handle it, even when it feels like a lot.”

So, what was the difference between my mom friends and my husband that caused them to experience overwhelm in two very different ways?

I started asking friends, questioning whether this was an issue with the patriarchy convincing us we aren’t good enough, whether we were just venting as a way to connect, whether there was some deeper resentments going on.

The answer that resonated most was, “I think I just want to feel acknowledged and validated for how hard I’m working.”

Man, that hit home. I don’t typically self-deprecate as a mother. But, I do slip into complaining about my home balance. As I thought back on these conversations, I realized they came from the same basic need my friends were expressing. I wanted someone to see how hard I was working at home while my husband was working somewhere else. I wanted my friends to know that I was on my own with the kids multiple nights this week, or multiple weeks this month, and I wanted them to validate just how impressive it all was!

After this initial amateur research, I started poring over some deeper research on the need for maternal validation and why moms may talk about how hard it all is. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Most people talk about how hard we work to prove our importance.
    • In our society, importance is often measured by financial value. It is nearly impossible to place a monetary value on the work mothers do. As a result, we are often left in limbo wondering how much we “matter.” We get nods to doing, “the most important job,” but I often hear from moms that little is being done to help us feel that way.
    • Could we find a way to celebrate the importance of our work more regularly?
  2. Most people have an underlying belief that effort should equal achievement.
    • Gosh, how many days have you put in all the effort as a mother only to see piss-poor results? The gorgeous meal that goes uneaten? The extra stories and songs at bedtime that only lead to a meltdown rather than the peaceful snuggly child from books and commercials?
    • A mother of grown children once told me, “How successful you feel as a mother depends on how far out you zoom.” When you have a 6-month old, you can’t zoom out a whole lot!
    • What type of metric we could use to evaluate our achievements as mothers and feel the results of our efforts in a more immediate way?
  3. Most people talk about their effort as a form of competition.
    • Like it or not, all living things need to compete. There are healthy outlets for competition in most work places: performance reviews, promotions, winning big deals, art recognition, publication, saving lives, obtaining patents.
    • What is a healthy way for a mother to compete? How can we find better outlets for ourselves in this area?
  4. Mothers in particular experience a general lack of validation for their work.
    • Validation doesn’t mean hearing, “Wow, you’re doing a great job!” Validation actually means feeling someone is taking the time to understand your emotions, thoughts and experiences. When is the last time you saw a movie about the day-to-day monotony of domestic life and thought, “Ah, I’m being seen here.”
    • Our society is rife with images and stories of the exceptional human beings living out big dreams. We rarely see the domestic space reflected in our popular culture in a way that feels significant, weighty, and authentic. I’ve been continually disappointed by websites, podcasts and “mothers’ spaces” whose guest speakers and celebrated folks are those that have lives looking nothing like the average mom I see. They’re on tour talking about books they’ve written. I don’t know these moms.
    • How could we create more spaces for women to feel they’re understood and validated? How can we elevate the every day domestic experience to a place of worthiness through representation?
  5. Mothers tend to have a fear of being overlooked in their efforts
    • One research article described becoming as mother as “putting my individuality on hold.” When we don’t get to have a strong sense of self, when our time is used up in service of other’s needs and development, it can be hard to feel like we – ourselves – matter a whole lot.
    • How can we give ourselves permission to have an individual identity? To show up loud into a room? To own who we are and continue to feel like women?
  6. Mothers tend to have low self esteem.
    • Of all the research, this was the most upsetting to me. Mothers experience a significant drop in self esteem in the first 6 months of a baby’s life, and it continues to depreciate from there until the child reaches 3 years old. The good news is it rebounds – but shit – one, not for everyone; and, two, what a massive hole to dig ourselves out of!
    • The three elements that went into a reduced self esteem for women came down to body image, perceived competence on the “new job,” and birth memories.
    • I was particularly surprised by the last one on this list: birth memories. Women who described their births as “traumatic” or gave them a lower sense of overall satisfaction tended to have ongoing intrusive memories of their births, contributing to depression and lower self-esteem.
    • How can we rebuild our body image after babies? How can we promote a sense of competence within ourselves and fellow mothers? And, how can we counter the damaging effects of a birth that didn’t go as we’d planned?

Over the next month, I’ll be diving into these bullet points a little more. There’s so much work left to do, and we may not arrive at any great solutions. But, as yoga tells us, there is no there there! If we do the work of inquiring, if we explore the possibilities and hold them in our expanded presence, we are healing.