I have been working with moms of babies and young toddlers for many years now through the class I teach at our church preschool. By and large, the women I have met through the class have been a lot like me: we are moms in the trenches, trying our best, but often worrying that its not enough.
What is enough, anyway? And who gets to decide?
We're not sure, so we scroll through our facebook feeds and fret about whether or not to enroll our 3 year old in a music class, and wonder if we should be putting kale chips in our kindergartner's lunches. It's exhausting.
We know the golden rule, "Thou shalt not compare thyself to other moms," but we all break it all the time, because we're afraid we might have forgotten something critical, something other moms know but we don't. After all, our kids deserve every opportunity... right?
But what if they don't? What if the facebook memes and P&G commercials and grandmotherly cliches in the supermarket aisle are largely missing the point of what our kids actually need from their mothers?
I'm beginning to wonder.
We all know that mothering matters, but we also know that there are many different ways to do it well. So exactly what parts matter most? They can't be tied to culture, or socioeconomic status, or personality, or staying home vs working, because I refuse to believe that money or extroversion or accessibility to play groups are strong enough factors to allow or deny a woman the opportunity to meet her child's needs (except in the most extreme cases of poverty). They can't be piano lessons, or an uninterrupted hour of daily interactive playtime with mom, or traditional two-parent homes.
So what are the essential pieces of motherhood that cannot be outsourced, the non-negotiable things that all children need which their mothers uniquely offer?
I humbly present my amateur, from-the-trenches, work-in-progress list. In my opinion, we'd do well to focus more on the essentials below, and less on how we measure up to one another on all the peripheral details.
1. Safety*. Our children need to be safe and feel safe. Safety comes before love on the list, because a child who does not feel safe cannot experience or receive love. Neurological research reveals that our brains cannot learn if they feel threatened or endangered. Does your child feel safe in their home? Did you vet their daycare provider? Did you buckle them in a car seat and hold their hand when you crossed the parking lot? Did you listen when they shared their fears or struggles, offering them safe emotional space? Give yourself a high five, mama. You're awesome!
2. Love. I know, I know, DUH. But it's essential, isn't it? And only a mother can give a mother's love. Let's make it our goal to learn our child's favorite way to receive love. Some kids need to hear it all day long and see it on the bathroom mirror and read it on a note in their lunch box. Others might brush away your words and hugs, but flash you a huge smile when you bring home their favorite take-out dinner. Get to know them, and love them how they love to be loved. Did you say "I love you" today? Did you kiss a cheek or tickle a belly or feign interest in a long-winded story about recess games? Pat yourself on the back, lady. You're nailing it!
3. Values. This is the tough one, and maybe the most overlooked. Our children need their mothers to teach them what matters in life, and there is only one way they will learn it: by example. As their mom, we are showing them in a million tiny ways all day long what it means to be a human being, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a spouse, friend, neighbor, or co-worker. We can't just teach our values, we have to live them. No one else can do this for your child like you can. Do you want to teach your child to make healthy choices? Let them see you exercise, or go to counseling, or meet a friend for a drink after dinner (Yes, I really just listed that as a healthy choice. Deal with it.). Do you want your child to have a fulfilling spiritual life? Live yours in front of them. Do you want them to be generous? Make giving and serving part of your family culture.
Living as an example for your children will mean making mistakes in front of them too. I hate that part. But they need it. They need to see us fail, and try again. Fight, but make up. Snap, and then seek forgiveness. To me, this is the heart of what it means to be a good mom: to be your authentic self and to let them see.
Maybe the first step for some of us is to honestly examine our values, and how those values line up with our lifestyle, habits, and routines.Sounds fun, sign me up, right? But truly, more than a college fund, more than organic veggies, more than select soccer camp, our kids need and deserve this from us.
So, mom-in-the-trenches, be good to yourself. Be as kind to yourself as you are to your child. Value your own health and well-being, and they will learn to value theirs as well.
Did you do something good for your mental health today? Did you lose it with your kid, but then apologize and seek forgiveness? Did you make a choice today that was in line with the values you hope to impart to your children? Give yourself a gold star, woman. You are doing good work.
Mothering is not a world of one-to-one correspondence. We cannot follow a recipe and get the desired result guaranteed. But we all still need some reassurance that we are enough, and we won't find it on Pinterest. So let's try not to worry about, well, whatever nonsense we've been worrying about. Put them in ballet or don't, feed them fries or spinach frittatas or whatever's on sale at Grocery Outlet -- it's all good. Just keep them safe, show them love, and be yourself. You got this, mama.
*A caveat about safety: I am not talking about shielding our kids from the world at large or trying to keep them from experiencing any pain or difficulty in life. I am talking about the most basic level of safety, like protection from abuse and neglect. The kind of safety I believe that kids need is the kind that makes it safe for them to fall, fail, and get in a little trouble. I think our culture worships a different kind of smothering safety for children, but that's another post for another time.