The commercialized hearts and flowers version of Mother’s Day seemed less noticeable this year, perhaps a result of sheltering-in-place. No rushing to the store for last minute gifts, or dinner out in a restaurant so mom doesn’t cook. Thank goodness for ecards!
Noticeable was the range of sentiments about motherhood expressed in various articles that appeared in print. The collective impression was that of both the diversity and similarity of feelings about being a mother experienced by mothers themselves. The result was to convey a more accurate picture of reality than the idealistic portrait in the Hallmark card version.
Capturing the feelings portrayed reveals several themes that seem to embody a universality of emotional experience. Twin themes that emerge are the need to be perfect and the fear of failure - the fear that you have failed or will fail as a mother.
Of course, if the expectation one sets is that of perfection, a feeling of failure is inevitable. One definition of perfection seems to be not making a mistake. But what would constitute a mistake in raising a child? That would seem to imply having a specific goal in mind. The fear of failure appears to transcend the differences in goals that mothers may have.
Mothers’ worries that they may not be doing a good enough job come also, from the children themselves. Children want you to be perfect (that is, to do whatever they want you to do and to make them happy all the time), but that doesn’t mean you should be or that it would be good for them if you could be.
Perhaps, deep down inside we all wish life could have been perfect for us as children, and so we are too ready to agree with our children that we should be able to make life perfect for them. But we can’t - and that makes us feel guilty. Feeling guilty seems to be a normal condition of motherhood, but feeling guilty does not mean you are guilty. Those feelings do not mean you are not doing a good enough job. Feelings often do not reflect reality.
A related theme that emerges is the need to say “yes,” and the difficulty learning to say “no.” This, too, is a product of striving to be perfect ourselves by making life perfect for our children. Saying no to children makes them unhappy and even angry, either reaction often translated by mothers as meaning they themselves have done something wrong. We are part of a culture that puts a great premium on happiness and views unhappiness as something wrong that must be fixed.
These days of the pandemic that have meant a closeness in living together way beyond what had been normal, have also brought an increase in the typical stresses of everyday life including the opportunity for conflict. Perhaps an unexpected positive can emerge from the stresses of closeness without enough degrees of separation.
A mom wrote about having learned to see the child in everyone. By that she seemed to mean having come to understand that not everything someone does is a reaction to what you do - something she had come to realize about her children.
The ability to see our children as separate from ourselves, as different people, is a challenge in being a parent. Part of growing up means learning to consider others as well as ourselves. We help children grow by respecting the ways they are different from us and knowing that not everything they do is determined by us.
Perhaps there is more than one benefit of distancing.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.