Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mothers Telling the Truth

“I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even--no, especially—when the truth is difficult. “
                                                                                                                                Ayelet Waldman

Telling the truth about motherhood and encouraging others to do the same has been a theme in my writing and in my conversations with other women since I became a mom 21 years ago.  Because I firmly believe that if we do not, we are doing ourselves and our children a huge disservice.  

Believing that we are perfect sets us up for huge downfalls, for the universe never lets us get away with that kind of self-deception forever.  Pretending that we are perfect, making others feel small and inadequate as mothers by only letting them see what we want them to see--the shiny side of our mothering without the dark side--hurts everyone ultimately. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes and unrealistic parenting expectations, and it prevents us from getting help when we need it—whether that is in the form of actual assistance or simple compassion.  
First, some truth-telling from this writer mom—I suffered from post-partum depression (PPD).  To be more accurate, it began as pre-natal depression and it just kept on going.  At some future point I’ll share more about what PPD is like, but in short, it is an abyss from which you don’t have the resources to believe you will ever climb out.  When I had it, the medical profession barely recognized it, and obstetricians and pediatricians had little response to a numbed mother’s attempts to let them know something was very wrong. 

I was, I suppose, a high-functioning post-partum depressive.  I took very good care of my baby, and no one could tell that I was dying inside. And I had just enough gumption in me to reach out, first to find an organization called Depression After Delivery (a rare source of information which also put moms suffering in touch with moms who’d come through PPD), second to call a pioneering therapist who ran an ad in a local parenting newsletter in the Dallas area for a new mom’s support group and third, upon finding that the therapist herself was on maternity leave, to call up one of the moms in the group.  

Bless that therapist, Ann L. Dunnewold, Ph.D.  And bless that mom, Cathy, who picked up the phone, heard a stranger in despair, immediately put her infant in her mini-van and drove to my house and picked me and my son up and took us out to meet with her informal PPD playgroup.  They brought me into the fold of that group and to the compassion, professional support and medication I needed, all of which brought me back to life.  Quite simply, they rescued me.

Years after the post-partum depression was gone I continued to muddle along as an imperfect parent, though, and continue to be one to this day.  I have made mistakes.  I have made lots of mistakes. I could have done so many things better.  I cringe at some of the stupid or impatient or less than compassionate things I may have said or done over the years not only in direct interaction with my son, but in interactions with others in his presence.  I wish I had pushed on some things I didn’t, and that I hadn’t on some things I did.  But my son had a great childhood and has grown up to be a wonderful young man.  And I was a good-enough mother.  We are, most of us, good-enough moms.  And that is not a put down.  It is life, in all its glorious imperfection.
I call out the moms who only share with one another the stuff about being a mom that feels safe, and feels politically correct.  I call out the self-righteous moms who want to tell other moms that their way is the only way to mother, whether it’s a grandmother who thinks the way she parented her child is the way that child should parent her own children, or a breast-feeding fanatic who doesn’t allow for the fact that in some cases a woman has to make the choice to bottle-feed and THAT’S OK.  Because what’s right for us isn’t always right for someone else.   And while it may take a village to raise a child, that doesn’t mean the village can run roughshod over a woman who is doing her best—her imperfect best, which, truth be told, is all any of us do as parents.

I am not, obviously, talking about cases of physical or psychological abuse, about criminals.  I am talking about the rest of us—who sometimes snap and yell at our kids, who only after a botched talk with a child acting out remember the training or advice on how that could have gone down better.  Whose houses are full of dust bunnies, sometimes or always.  Who find ourselves in an argument reduced to their level, whining and cajoling, where we’ve totally lost control of the conversation or lost sight of the fact that we are the parent and they are the child.  Who forget it’s our turn to bring snacks to t-ball and have to run to the closest convenience store and grab something last minute.  Who have never been room mother because we can barely keep it together working a full time job and taking care of the kids and maintaining some bare minimum level of housework. Who have locked ourselves in a closet alone in a house with our baby when we were at our wit's end with exhaustion and our spouse was working late again and screamed so the baby wouldn't hear us and be traumatized and the neighbors wouldn't report us to child services. For whom the best Mother’s Day present, some years, might just be, if we admitted it, to have our partner take our beloved child out for the day and leave Mom alone for the whole day.  Who don’t shop only the advised perimeter of the grocery store, where the produce and other healthiest foods are, but steer our carts through aisle after aisle of prepared foods, tossing “helper” this and “mac” that into the basket with wild abandon.  Who have let loose a string of curses a trucker would be proud of when our computers have gone on the fritz, or the dog crapped on the carpet or the bottle of orange juice slipped from our hands.  Who have fought with their father in front of them even though we swore we’d never fight in front of the kids. 

For about five years I wrote annual articles in Washington Parent magazine called “New Year’s Resolutions for Not-So-Perfect Parents,” some of which were picked up by other parenting publications around the country. Since then I have continued to remind mom readers that there’s no such thing as supermom, that they have to take care of themselves in order to take care of their kids, that they should trust their own instincts and that there are other moms out there floundering and learning on the job just like them.  Because that’s the truth. 


  1. THanks, Karen, for this very important and thought-provoking post.

  2. Nicely said! I was all of the moms you described at one point or another--the self-righteous one who never raised her voice(that was before my son!) to the "oh well, so I forgot again" mom buying bags of cookies for my snack contribution (and I'm a wholistic nutritionist!). Thank God we learn adn grow along the way. Can't forget my mistakes, but that enables me to give others the grace and unerstanding they may be needing. Can't wait to hear more from you!!