Recently I’ve been reminded of the young mother I was 20 years ago: living in a three-story walk-up apartment with dingy peach-beige carpeting and a living room so small that even our tiny Pier 1 loveseat barely fit in it—a young mother who was starved in her soul and trying so hard to do what was right.
Do you ever feel like that – starved in your soul and all the while you’re trying so hard to be good?
Well, I’ve been thinking about the soul-starved-young-momma-me a lot lately because I’ve been worried that I won’t be able to provide my son with the resources he needs/wants to follow his dreams this fall—my young adult son who was the little baby in that apartment with me 20 years ago.
And when I think of failing him, I am washed all over with shame. Because he was the baby that I failed as a new momma. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself over and over again for years.
Do you have any stories like that? Stories that fill you with shame about how horribly you failed when it mattered most?
Mine starts with dreams and expectations of who I thought I would, could, and should be. Does yours?
You see, my son, my firstborn child, was not unwanted or unplanned. In fact, his birth followed the loss of my first child through miscarriage, so had an almost desperate longing for him. On top of that I worked professionally in early childhood education and I'd been raised by a stay-at-home mom in a religion that highly values motherhood. I expected to love full-time dedication to motherhood - and to be very good at it!
All this made the shock of motherhood that much more of a blow to me than it might have been for some. And, let me tell you, I was SHOCKED by motherhood. And not in a good way.
If you look in my son's baby book, you’ll see a hint of the shock I felt in the lines I wrote soon after his birth. Something to the effect of “Damn that was hard!” (although at that time in my life I wouldn’t have cursed.) No, "you are amazing and beautiful and I love you." Nope.
Other people have sparkly-eyed lovefests with their newborns, I know. If you are a parent, I hope you are one of them. Seems like it would be fun! But I felt drained from almost the first moment that I became a mother by this being who—according to all the lore of my culture and religion and profession—I was supposed to love and serve unconditionally, seemingly without limit, without resentment, and without needs of my own.
And I did love him, but honestly, I’m just not that GOOD.
Do you ever feel like that? Like you're just not good enough to be who you’re supposed to be?
The thing is that up until that time I was the queen of getting things right. A good girl, a good student, a good Christian, a very good teacher and a very good white person (because I worked for poverty wages teaching the in the "inner city," not like those low-life money-grubbing suburban teachers.) My whole identity was tied up in being GOOD. It was my go-to tactic for addressing the unknown. Find out what the rules are and follow them. Then go a step farther.
And that’s just what I was doing when I let my newborn baby cry for 45 minutes pretty much every time he cried at all from the minute that I brought him home from the hospital. I kid you not, I was trying to be GOOD. I was trying to do what was RIGHT. I had read BOOKS about it, about how I needed to teach him not to be selfish – right from the start. I was trying to do parenting RIGHT. Really, I was.
Now you may very rightly realize that my belief was crazy-pants. I’m sure my own mother did as she watched me follow its cruel dictates. It must have broken her heart.
But new-momma-me didn’t know.
She did not know that she could trust her momma’s heart, the one that sobbed in another room as her baby cried and she did not go to him.
She did not know that her new-momma heart was probably about as trustworthy as any heart could be, having forged a connection by blood and love and breath.
She did not know that she didn’t have to follow anyone’s rules to be good.
And she did not know that she could feed her soul, and meet her baby’s needs, by following her longings, not by ignoring them.
And I have judged her harshly for her ignorance, for her misunderstanding, her not knowing.
Do you ever do that, dear reader—good momma, change-the-world-educator, hardworking student that you are? Do you ever judge yourself for not knowing any better?
Today, I look back on that new momma and finally, finally, feel hints of compassion FOR HER—not only for her crying baby.
Nourishment was all around her, but she didn’t know that she was allowed to take it in. Goodness was already in her, but she thought she had to find it on the outside. And that’s what was eating her up from the inside out. Not the little baby and his needs.
But she didn't know that.
The thing is that her failure and her baby's suffering are only part of the story. And to tell only those parts doesn't do that young momma justice. It's not very kind.
The whole story includes her suffering too. And her successes. She was weary and drained and depressed and yet still she still did feed that baby. She did comfort him. Not perfectly, but she did the best she could. She loved him and she played with him and sometimes she did look at him with sparkly-eyed love and joy. She's not the villain in this story.
It was the never-ending drive for goodness that starved her soul. It was the distrust of her own longings and her own wisdom that kept her from finding soul-nourishment, and from providing it for her child when he felt longings of his own. They are the villains. I'm just starting to see that now.
So as of this moment I'm not letting the villains tell the mean version of that new momma's story, of MY story. I'm going tell the story of the new momma and the new baby both crying together and figuring out life as best they can. And I think in the end it will turn out all right. Not perfect, but good, good enough.
What new story do you want to tell? I'd love to hear it.
Much love and here’s to thriving,