Life often traps us in middle school. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, explains that the social struggles that plague girls today linger long after high school is over.
Like maybe even, years later, when they follow us to the park with a newborn.
Fear of acceptance or rejection.
The need to appear indifferent and resilient.
The desire to sit at the best lunch table with the trendy kids. Turns out motherhood can dish up the same drama. Sure, we are older and supposedly wiser, but have you ever found yourself nervous about approaching another mom for conversation? Ever hesitated to host a playdate in your disorganized house or to drive the carpool in your messy van where chicken nuggets have established small villages under the seats?
As women, our culture has us locked into eternal competition at very young ages. From America's Next Top Model to Martha Stewart, underlying mantras of perfection garnish our days. And can we all agree that June Cleaver threw us under the bus?
Motherhood, rather than calming our fears, launches us into an entirely new arena of competition. One of the mentor moms at my MOPS group (in her 50s) once said to me, "I feel sorry for you girls these days—not only do you have all the old baggage of keeping up that we once did, you have to still look hot too."
How do I measure up?
Even though I am a mom, do I look too mom-ish? Is my child keeping up?
Have we met all the designated milestones? Are we in the right preschool or programs?
Have we been doing gymnastics since the womb in order to make the US Olympic team?
Let's pile on a few hoops, shall we?
A good friend, while nursing her newborn, once asked me, "Do I look like I know what I am doing? Like I deserve to be a mom?" We want to look like we can manage. We are wired for relationship and connection and yet are pitted against one another. Our educational systems rank us, our socioeconomic status can cripple us. Our labels precede us.
Labels like "single mom," "working mom," "at-home mom," and "military mom" identify our realities but can also leave us unfairly isolated. Children with special needs or unique situations bring life-changing questions to the table that are often misunderstood or flat-out ignored. Terms like "older mom," "teen mother," "blended family," or "adoptive mom" fly around our social circles, often landing with a sting.
Most of us know the heartache that comes from careless assumptions, judged for what appears as truth rather than the honest reality of our very hearts and souls. And yet we still crave connection. That is good news! The very design of our lives is to be together in life-giving relational circles. To find a daily rhythm that makes space for others is one consistent cry of a mother's heart.
We do not have to compete.
We can rally together with our pile of imperfections. We can celebrate the march of time.
We can bond over messy houses and stretch marks. Together, we can mock Snooki and the lack of any reality on TV.
Never Alone Yet Lonely
Motherhood, while marketed as a life stage of peppy bliss, can produce tremendous anxiety and isolation all, interestingly enough, while a woman is not physically alone. As moms we have little people literally hanging on us all day. We sleep with kids, nurse kids, strap kids to our chests in kangaroo-like carriers. We cannot leave the house, the car, the restroom without them. We are never physically alone and yet our souls starve for connection.
Often our best efforts at connection can be hijacked. Perhaps we finally make plans to connect with a new friend, only to wake up to a toddler with a fever of 102.9. Your poor pediatrician has just become the conversational high point of your day.
Competition. Labels. Cultural barriers. Physical limitations. Life-stage obstacles. These prevent us from engaging with meaningful friendship circles every day. Is it any wonder that many sociologists and psychologists have declared an epidemic of loneliness in our culture? In 2008 the Today Show reported some 96 percent of moms today felt more stressed than their own mothers were. According to research by the YMCA of the USA and the Abundant Assets Alliance, 53 percent of parents say they do not regularly seek support or parenting advice from friends, family, or the community. Umm … that's over half of all parents going it alone! Fears of appearing weak or needy prevent parents from reaching out for help, so they make major decisions and often parent in isolation.
Hearing the Cry of a Mother's Heart
Back to the graceful, natural mothers … no amount of balance, wisdom, or insight can shape a perfect mother. Everyone struggles. We should find this tremendously freeing because it helps to know we do not struggle alone. The old cliché "misery loves company" applies.
At this life stage where emotions feel crisp and near crumbling, even a simple invitation can shape our days and weeks. Author Adele Calhoun says, "Invitations challenge and remake us. They can erode and devastate. And they can heal and restore us. Being wanted, welcomed, invited and included are some of the most mending experiences on the planet."
So it appears there is no woman at the park who is perfectly beyond the reaches of friendship, no woman who could not use a warm, genuine invitation. Opportunities to connect and encourage one another abound, for there is no label that is permanently affixed. We are on the same botched, imperfect, sometimes losing team. And the joy here is that the bench is filled with women like us. From the seemingly elegant to the obviously clunky, our shared yearnings and basic needs as mothers connect us.
Just like Christine (working mom of two who struggled to have children) said, "So many, many years I wanted a baby, and a daughter at that, and when I got her I was so certain I was going to be the mom who got it right—I would have motherhood down. And when it didn't go that way, I didn't know what to do!" She went on to say that because of the friendship and support of other moms, she is finally finding her way.
We are not on that park bench alone. Dare to believe this.
You are not alone.
Five Mom-Tested Tips
1. Read Dorothy C. Bass. She edited a great book called Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, and in it you will find a great discussion about life and the rhythms we live. Consider picking up a copy and reading it with a few other moms or a small group. Bass will have you rethinking the sense of urgency we feel in our culture today and will help you dwell well where it matters.
2. Stalk someone. Well, not really, but scope out another mom who looks a little lonely on that park bench and consider plopping down next to her. Or, if you are that lonely mom, keep your eye on a woman you might consider approaching, say hello to her. Think about whether or not you might take a risk and engage her in conversation. Remember that her house is not perfect, her children are messy, and there is a pretty good chance she's had a few lonely moments along the way too. She probably does not know you are struggling either.
3. Be present. Next time you find yourself frustrated by a mom who appears distracted, uncaring, or simply oblivious, stop for a moment and remember that she is in the thick of it just like you. Maybe her grocery cart is in your way because she hasn't slept in three weeks. Maybe they just moved and her kid pushed yours and did not apologize because the stress of setting up shop someplace new has them all exhausted. Give an abundant measure of grace and try to be present to the deeper realities behind another mom's actions, because there is always more to the story. It takes less than a minute to pause, breathe deep, and say to yourself, "Extend a little grace here."
4. Pray. Consider one of two prayers. Ask God simply and humbly to make you, as St. Francis once said, "an instrument of peace." Pray that you would be a blessing to others, pray for eyes to see the needs of women around you. Or pray for connection and friendship, for someone to extend the gift of companionship to you. Ask God to keep your heart open to this gift of others.
5. Journal. Recall a moment when you received love not because of your accomplishments or appearances but simply because someone noticed the good heart beating in your chest. Perhaps an old childhood friend, an encouraging teacher, parent, spouse, or your own child pointed out something simple yet poignant that nudged your soul. Like the time my daughter told me the lines (a.k.a. wrinkles) around my eyes made me look pretty. Or the fact that my own father still grins from ear to ear whenever I walk into the room. Journal a few thoughts on this acceptance. Fall asleep one night thinking about it. Recall the depths of that joy for a while and camp out there in your mind.
Excerpted from Mom Connection: Creating Vibrant Relationships in the Midst of Motherhood by Tracey Bianchi. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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