Becoming a mom wasn’t an easy transition for me.
I was very self-centered – partly because I was young, and partly because I had never had to care very much about what other people needed. I completely bought in to what pop culture and pop psychology were saying then, and still say today; some variation on the “You deserve to be happy, so do whatever makes you happy” theme. Here are a couple of memes I just found online that sum it up fairly well:
“You deserve to be happy. Live a life you’re excited about. Don’t let others make you forget that.” – extramadness.com
“Being happy is a personal thing. And it really has nothing to do with anyone else.” – extramadness.com
“Life only comes around once, so do what makes you happy, and be with whoever makes you smile.” – quoteideas.com
Those are easy maxims to live by when you’re single. Is a friend starting to annoy you with her personal problems? Find a new friend. Boyfriend getting a little needy? Dump him. Feeling under-appreciated at work? Quit. Anything or anyone that isn’t making you feel good is bad for you, and you have the right – no, you have an obligation to yourself and to your dreams – to walk away.
It’s good to walk away when your needs are no longer being met, or even just because you’re feeling inconvenienced, because, “you have to be true to yourself.” How can you help others without first helping yourself? If you aren’t happy first, how can you make others happy? Sound familiar?
Before I started a family, all of that made perfect sense, and it wasn’t apparent to most people – or even to me – how selfish I really was. And then, within the span of 4 months, I unexpectedly became a wife and a mother, and things got a little ugly. First of all “my dreams” did not include a husband or a baby. I was going to get a PhD, teach at a university, and be single forever. My boyfriend could either tag along, or not, and the only dependents I was willing to consider were the kind you can tie out in the yard all afternoon without getting arrested. Then, we got pregnant, and I had to revise my dreams a little bit. But just a little bit. I would get married, have a baby, and then do the amazing career thing.
The first night after my son Isaac and I came home from the hospital, he was up all night, crying, eating, and pooping, and I absolutely could not believe that this was my new life. I couldn’t wait to be done with maternity leave, and I immediately started looking for daycare. Isaac was colicky. He projectile vomited everything I fed him, from breastmilk to formula to soy formula. I could only get him to sleep in his car seat or on my belly. My husband was as clueless as I was, and he wasn’t very helpful around the house.
All of a sudden, every single thing I did felt like it was for someone else.
Change the baby. Do the dishes. Feed the baby. Clean the floors. Rock the baby. Make dinner. Even sex with my husband was no longer about what I wanted, because I never, ever wanted to do it again. My entire life revolved around getting the baby to sleep and, once he finally was, keeping him that way. Didn’t I deserve to be taken care of too? Didn’t I deserve to be happy? I was so disappointed and angry – with myself, my life, and my little family.
According to most of what I’ve read about the working mom/stay-at-home mom debate, including the book Mommy Wars, by Leslie Morgan Steiner, I was just one of those moms who needed to work. I wasn’t wired to stay home and take care of babies. It didn’t fulfill me. It didn’t meet my needs. If I stayed home, I would just be miserable, and I would make my children miserable. It would be better for all of us to put Isaac in daycare, where trained professionals could take much better care of him than I could. I would be doing us all a favor by returning to work, where I could provide for my family in a way that felt good and didn’t demand too much of me. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my job, my identity, my happiness, for my child.
I was glad to go back to work, glad to have people who knew what they were doing caring for Isaac all day, and glad to be back to a familiar routine, among other adults, earning my own money. I had no doubt that I’d made the right decision.
So, did I? Well, here’s what happened, in a nutshell. I didn’t ever end up getting that PhD. I didn’t even become a writer or teacher of any sort, or make any kind of impressive headway in any career. I enjoyed working, though, and never did consider being a stay-at-home mom. My marriage ended after seven years, and I wouldn’t have described any of that time as “happy.” I thought I had followed all of the rules for finding a meaningful, happy life, and all I felt most of the time was sad. Guilty and sad and very, very tired.
This October would have marked my seventeenth wedding anniversary. My baby, Isaac, is sixteen and has been joined by five (soon to be six) siblings. I’ve learned some things about being a wife and mom. Things that I would tell that younger me, if I could. Things I want to tell you, so you can make better, more informed decisions than I did, or to help encourage you in your journey as a stay-at-home mom.
Here’s what I would like to go back and tell myself as a new wife and mom:
- God is the creator of life, and he created you to be a gift to other people. Your purpose is not to pursue a career, money, recognition, success, or even happiness. All of that is fleeting. Your purpose is to love God by loving other people. And you can’t love other people unless you sacrifice for them.
- Sacrifice is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It’s what, ultimately, will bring you joy and peace. What is making you miserable about family life isn’t that you’re having to sacrifice your time, sleep, and energy for other people. It’s that you don’t think you should have to. Get over it. Embrace it. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
- You cannot trust your feelings as a guide to whether or not you’re doing the right thing. There are many, many things that will make you feel good but are actually not good, nor are they good for you. There are many good things that are hard, that will be criticized, that make you feel frustrated and alone.
- Love is not a feeling. Sexual attraction to your spouse will fade. Affection for your spouse and children will come and go. That doesn’t mean that you have failed as a couple, a wife, or a mom. It’s normal; inevitable. Loving them means being there for them, putting their needs before your own, and sticking it out even when you don’t feel like it.
- The more you think about yourself, the more unhappy you’ll become. Stop worrying about how others are treating you, and focus on treating them with the love and kindness you’re longing for. Stop worrying about how you look, how you feel, and what you wish you had. Quit seeking your own desires and focus instead about how you can serve others. It sounds corny, but it is the only way I know to become happy, and the only way to become the kind of person you want to be.
- You don’t have to be holy or crazy or an intellectual superstar to question the status quo and choose to live differently. Our culture doesn’t love you. It doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It has its own agenda, and the messages it’s giving you aren’t necessarily true. You don’t have an unlimited amount of time to figure out the meaning of your life and your purpose on earth, and you can’t rely on TV, politicians, or even your peers to point you in the right direction. Turn to God, who loves you more than any person ever could, and He’ll help you find what you’re looking for.
I do not think that my job made me a worse mom. I don’t think that staying at home, with the attitude I had, would have made me a good mom. What I do think is that I should have approached motherhood completely differently.
Instead of trying to figure out how to fit motherhood into the life I wanted for myself, I should have asked myself this: What can I do for my husband and child(ren) to make this family, this life, the best it can be FOR THEM? If I had taken myself and my desire for independence/money/achievement/appreciation/success/adult conversation/intellectual stimulation out of consideration, going back to work wouldn’t have made any sense. Some of those desires can be fulfilled through motherhood. Some, I just needed to let go. None of them justified my decision to spend the majority of my time and energy on my job, rather than my family. “Having it all” is not only impossible, it’s the wrong goal to be seeking in the first place.
I’m going to end this post with a couple of questions.
First, a question for experienced wives/moms: What would you like to tell your younger self about being a wife and mother? Anything you would add to (or dispute) from my list?
And for new wives/moms: What’s your biggest concern about being a wife or mother?