Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Motherhood: Battling who you are vs. who you want to be

I think about motherhood all of the time.  I am in the thick of raising small children and so I suppose that doesn't come as a surprise to anyone but I often feel like I think about it more than most people.  I have a history of being hard on myself, being a perfectionist, striving for excellence in all that I do, setting high standards, goals, etc.  None of these things are particularly bad, but throughout my life I have come to learn that all character traits can be considered strengths and weaknesses depending on how they are used.  This is an every day struggle for me, striving to keep the good parts which make me a strong, confident, reliable, kind, hard-working person and working to decrease the negative side where I am self-deprecating, setting unrealistic expectations, not being able to move forward for fear of failure or not doing things right the first time.  I'm certain I'm not the only one who has made this discovery but it's one that is incredibly important for me as I strive to become the person I want to be and the person my Heavenly Father needs me to be.

One of the biggest struggles for me as a mother is coming to the realization that I am not naturally the kind of mother I always wanted to be or at least thought that I would be.  I had a very clear idea of how I thought things would go, what the struggles might be for me and how I would work through them.  I had spent many years working with children either baby-sitting, in a preschool setting or with my own siblings and felt very confident in my ability to care for and have a positive influence on my own children some day.  I didn't become a mother for the first time until I was almost 32 and during the time leading up to that I spent a lot of time observing and admiring different types of parenting styles and making mental notes about what I liked and didn't like and how I would do things when it was my turn.  But the reality is that nothing can truly prepare you for motherhood.  No matter how many observations you make, books you read, mental notes you make and how much advice you get, being in the thick of it is the only way to discover what kind of mother you are.  This doesn't mean that you can't change, grow or learn skills to help you become a better mother but because of our life experiences we are the way we are. We each come to the table with a different set of skills, personalities, characteristics, strengths and talents as well as weaknesses, and for some emotional, spiritual, mental and physical scars.  All of these things not only affect what kind of person you are but what kind of mother you will be.  Who you are when you become a mother is where you have to start from.  I knew, or at least thought I did at the time, what kind of mom I wanted to be but have been surprised time and time again as I have been raising my own children to discover that living up to that ideal has proved to be a much more difficult task than it seemed it would be initially.

There are several lessons that I have learned so far.  First, desire or the intent of your heart and mind are generally not enough to help you become the person that you want to be but it is a fantastic place to start. It gives you a goal to work towards as well as the drive to figure out what changes that you need to make to reach that goal. 

Second, you have to be willing to change or do the work.  If you don't like what you are doing, the kind of person that you are or how you feel then you and only you can make those changes happen.  That's not to say that others will not be instrumental in helping you make those changes along the way but you have to be willing to ask for help, pray, read, ponder and experiment to see what works for you.  Depending on your situation you may need something as simple as a good self-help parenting book to give you a few new ideas, a prayer for inspiration or it might be a more lengthy process such as meeting with a therapist to work through past or present addictions, thoughts, destructive patterns or behaviors.  Whatever your weaknesses are however it is important to remember that no matter how large or small they might be that you can overcome them and you will be stronger because of them.  This second lesson has probably been the hardest for me.  Not so much because I'm not willing to try or work hard at something but because it is really hard for me to ask for help.  I am very independent and I like to think that I can handle things all on my own.  For the most part I can but the fact is after doing that for too long I start to break down and get worn out.  I have to rely on my husband, my family and friends and most importantly my Heavenly Father and my Savior Jesus Christ.  It is only with the Help of Heavenly Father through our Savior and his infinite atonement that weak things can truly be made strong.  "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27, The Book of Mormon).

The third thing that I have learned is that you have to embrace who you are right now and you need to be gentle with yourself.  This has also been very hard for me.  I get so frustrated sometimes because I feel like I know the potential I have but I am incredibly hard on myself a lot of the time because I am not that person right now.  Hence my issue with perfectionism.  I am not a perfectionist in every aspect of my life but in the things that are very close to my heart I often don't give myself any margin for error thus setting myself up for disappointment way to often.  A wise person once said to me, "Think of the things that you often say to yourself when you make a mistake or you don't live up to your own expectations.  Would you ever say those things to a dear friend or family member?"  The truth is no, I wouldn't.  I think that most of us would be loving, kind, forgiving and encouraging. When we are hard on ourselves or speak unkindly about ourselves it only makes us feel worse instead of helping us to move forward.  This obviously brings Satan an incredible amount of joy.  His main desire is to destroy families and he knows that if he can get at the mothers that the whole unit will start to suffer and begin to breakdown. 

So how do we stop this destructive behavior?  First we have to allow emotions.  What do I mean by that?  We live in a society that views some emotions as positive and some as negative.  I feel however that it's not so much the emotions themselves that are negative or positive but the result or actions of the emotions.  If more people could accept the idea that emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, jealousy, embarrassment are valid, healthy emotions we'd be a lot more healthy as a society.  People generally deal with these emotions by doing things such as yelling or hitting or by stuffing the emotions and trying to desensitize themselves so they don't feel anything.  The problem with this is that we are generally making the situation worse by either hurting someone else or hurting ourselves.  My advice, and what has seemed to work for me has been to step away from the situation if possible to a quiet place (room, bathroom, car, outside, etc.).  This immediately makes everything seem less threatening.  Then I try to identify the emotions without a reason attached to them and say either out loud or in my head, "I am angry, upset, disappointed, frustrated, jealous, etc.  Sometimes I think I'm feeling angry but really I am feeling sad or disappointed and the anger is masking it.  Once I identify the emotion(s) then I just sit with them and let them wash over me and tell myself that it is OK to feel these emotions and that I can't help the way I feel.  This part is often the most scary for people because they don't like how they feel.  But the longer you try to fight those "negative" emotions the harder that it will be to move past them.  At least that has been the case for me.  Generally once I allow the emotion(s) to wash over me I am much more calm and can think more clearly.  At this point I can think more logically about the situation and more often than not I am more gentle with myself, forgiving of others and can figure out a solution repair any damage that was done.  More importantly I am humble enough to pray and ask for forgiveness and help.

 Second we have to be able to separate truth from lies.  For example, my internal dialogue often goes something like this, "I can't believe I did [insert something]. I am the worst mother ever!  My kids deserve so much better and so does my husband.  It seems like I can never do anything right."  Obviously I am not any of those things.  But in the moment the feelings seem so justified.  The same wise person that I spoke of above told me that I needed to counter those thoughts and do it out loud if necessary.  So when I would think, "I am the worst mother in the world" I would then say to myself, "No, that is a lie.  I am a good mother who is imperfect and learning to do a very difficult job."  Then I try to think of what I could do differently the next time to avoid making the mistake again.  After that, if another person was involved, I pull them aside and apologize and tell them how much I care for them.  In the case of my children this has proven to be an incredibly rewarding and effective experience. 

One day I was having a particularly bad day and right before dinner I let my temper get the better of me and yelled at my oldest (she is two and a half) and picked her up and plopped her on her bed and shut the door.  I immediately went to my room, still feeling angry but also feeling sad and frustrated that I had allowed myself to get so worked up by typical two year old behavior.  I knelt down and just stayed there allowing the emotions to wash over me.  I was too angry to pray but I didn't know what else to do so I just sat there going through emotions and finally realized that I was tired a bit stressed about my husband's new, busier schedule and I was also sad that I had acted the way I did toward my daughter.  As normally happens the internal dialogue began similar to the one above.  But this time it was different.  Once I recognized what was happening I started to counter out loud and my mood changed almost immediately.  My heart was softened not only about the incident but I could feel that I was forgiving myself for the mistake I made.  It was at that time that I was able to pray, ask for forgiveness and also for help.  Afterward I went into my daughter's room where she was sitting on her bed still visibly upset.  I sat next to her and I said, "Abigail, I am so sorry that I yelled at you and put you on your bed.  It's never OK to yell at someone, even when you are angry.  I know that you were very hungry and that you were frustrated that I was asking you to wait.  I love you so much and I promise to keep trying not to yell when I get frustrated."  And you know what she did?  She looked up at me and said (without any prompting), "Mommy, I'm sorry I yelled at you.  I love you.".  It was a very special moment and one that I will always remember.  I think that it taught us both a few things.  Abby learned that I am human and imperfect and therefore make mistakes and that it is OK for her to make mistakes.  And she learned what to do to reconcile the situation.  I learned that negative thoughts and inner dialogue are destructive to the  mind, heart and spirit but that there is a way to combat them thus avoiding further damage and beginning to make a weak thing become strong.

I hope that my experience might be helpful to you.  I feel very strongly about sharing my struggles with other people, especially women.  Often we feel as though others might reject us if we share our weaknesses because we too often only see their strengths.  But the truth is sharing our heart, our strengths and our weaknesses is what ultimately knits us together as friends, sisters, mothers and daughters.  When someone shares their struggles with me I immediately feel a wall come down and feel less pressure to be or act different just so that someone will accept me.  So I offer you two challenges today.

CHALLENGE #1:  Stop negative thoughts and inner dialogue in their tracks.  The next time  you start to attack yourself internally stop, allow the emotions you are feeling to wash over you and tell yourself that it is OK to feel mad, sad, embarrassed  angry, etc.  Once you are a little more calm begin to separate the truth from the lies, pray for forgiveness and/or help and finally if another person was involved ask for their forgiveness or accept their apology depending on the situation.  I promise that if you do this you will begin to feel better about yourself and your capabilities as a wife, mother, friend and daughter.

Challenge #2: Allow yourself to share one of your struggles or weaknesses with someone else.  I guarantee that if you will do this that the other person will respect you more and your relationship will become more genuine and fulfilling.

You are wonderful!  Remember that you are not alone on this journey.  Around the world there are millions of mothers just like you striving each day to be the best that they can be for their children.  I'm fighting every day to be the mother I want to be and some days are just harder than others.  Be gentle with yourself.  And most importantly remember that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are on your side.

Have a fantastic day!

My Abigail                                      My Charlotte
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