Navigating Through Fog: Managing Maternal Self-Doubt
By Alexis Gantsoudes
Most of the beautiful, choir-resounding moments of parenting seem to fall into two categories.
In the first, we sense the need of a child that we can meet comfortably, we step up to the plate, fulfill that need with ease, and watch the resulting relief or satisfaction in our child. YES! The warmth that spreads across our chests adds an extra layer of assurance that we have done the right thing.
In the second category, we are mere witnesses as one (or more) of our children embodies our values, demonstrating right before our eyes that they are really and truly absorbing one of the tenets that we are working so hard to instill: a boy hugs his little sister, creating a moment of mutual delight between two of your favorite people! A little girl rushes ahead to hold the door for a stranger! A little gentleman accepts responsibility for a mistake and offers a sincere apology! A son comforts his sister in a way only he can when his sibling has had a rough day!
In the moments that delightfully and simply fall into either of the above categories, parenting is aligned with what many of us likely imagined before we became parents. If we work hard, feel pretty good about our values, and we care so very much about our kids and their well-being, we should get to feel pretty good about ourselves on the daily, no?
In what might seem like a cruel joke for the sleep-deprived attendants to an endless vacuum of needs, parenting really appears to be anything but linear. If only it came with an annual report card that acknowledged the seventy-two miniature acts of heroism performed each day and then highlighted in the “comments” section that all of these daily hard-won miracles are in fact keeping you on track to nurture a healthy, well-adjusted, self-supporting, compassionate and hard-working person.
In reality, parenthood doesn’t come with a black and white rubric of reassurance but rather often presents itself as a series of shape-shifting riddles. We know where we want our children to end up, but the question is: are our daily decisions guiding us towards--or derailing us from--our desired destination, and how in the world can we tell in the moment?
For example, a parent might wonder when her first grader comes home deflated by her peers’ rough behavior--was her decision to prioritize kindness and manners in her household during the preschool years a misguided effort? When we sense between the lines that a teacher is missing part of the picture in managing our child’s emotional or academic needs, is it an opportunity for building resilience or time to be an advocate? Do we embrace a child to make her feel safe through whatever today’s bump may be or are we supposed to gently nudge her forward, indicating that we have faith in her ability to manage it herself? If you dare go hunting for an answer to these riddles on the internet or in a book, you will find such an array of conflicting answers that your confusion will likely blossom into bewilderment.
When so many of our strengths as adults are accumulated triumphs over adversities and struggles, how do we create strength and resilience in our children without betraying our instinct to protect them or infringing on their developing autonomy? We all want to support, shape, and guide our children so they will one day make the “right” decisions when we are not standing next to them, but whether that means stepping in or stepping back from today’s particular problem can sometimes seem a hazy query at best. The self-doubt that can creep in at these moments further undermines our ability to make a choice with confidence.
In my mind, each of these pending decisions has a range of possible answers that falls on a spectrum. I think we are all willing to engage with any of the options on that spectrum--mothers are not short on will or determination when it comes to their children--but that determination is not helping us choose which approach is most helpful for whatever is today’s particular parenting conundrum. After years of encounters with these moments, I am no closer to a salient answer or a full-proof solution, but I have noticed one peculiarity in the vacillation between confusion and clarity: my internal compass can be easier to read in periods of relatively significant stress.
When I was moving my kids across the country for the second time in thirteen months, I felt much more secure in my daily parenting decisions and much more in-tune with my children’s true needs. Of course this security was against a backdrop of raw exhaustion, poor self-care and an otherwise unsettled mind, but the clarity was tangible--and frankly, a much-needed slice of relief in a long string of challenging events. My best attempt at understanding this fog-clearing period (and others like it) is that all the layers of noise that we live under on a regular basis are cleared by a bigger, priority-shifting event.
When I was visibly in the middle of a scenario that required most of my resources, I felt I had “permission” to put my blinders on, put my head down, and put parenting and my children’s adjustment first. While in this posture, I simply did not have the resources to fret about so many things that swirl around in my mind in more settled times: am I doing my part in my community, in my extended family, for my friends? Should my kids be enrolled in certain activities? Am I feeding them as well as I should? The way I measured myself was kinder and more aligned with my children’s absolute needs, not those that are manufactured by our culture or by our minds when we compare ourselves to others. The very idea that there was a “correct” way I should be doing things didn’t have room to take root in my mind.
But how do we give ourselves occasional space from the ever-present rabbit hole of needs and expectations beyond those of our children without having to go through significantly stressful life transitions? Speaking as someone who hasn’t achieved this maternal nirvana but is always seeking it as a source of relief from periodically stifling self-doubt, I have a hunch that a constructive step forward is to set a personal bar of “enough”--to focus on the effort rather than the product, just as we are taught to do for our kids, especially when that feeling of “right” or “enough” feels the most elusive. When I hear the familiar refrain of “I’m getting this wrong” in my own mind or from the lips of a fellow mama-soldier, I am trying to engage my “enough” mantra: “Just seeing my kids as they are right now, as individuals separate from myself, and trying to meet them there as best I can, is a win.”
Fog is disorienting and renders otherwise accurate navigational tools useless. But if sailors don’t view themselves as failures when clouds settle around them, why are mothers so quick to fault themselves for the parenting equivalent? The fog just is. It comes with the territory of earnest parenting. Recalibrating our expectations of ourselves in these moments is no different than following the beacon of a lighthouse--both function as anchoring life-lines in bewildering moments. To be sure, it is easier to spot a light on the horizon than within the churning sea of thoughts in our own minds, but if we value our effort and our dedication first and foremost--and maybe even have an “enough” mantra at the ready--we are modeling the kind of self-care that we hope our children will practice one day.