Dealing with diapers, tantrums, and the terrible twos is nothing compared to the complex inner struggles of being a mother. Here, a look at the top emotional challenges every mom must face.
Motherhood is a major learning curve. One minute you're pregnant and the next you're a feeding, swaddling, diapering, soothing machine, an instant expert in basic infant first aid and the art of latching a five-point harness. At the same time, you're way out of your depth, struggling to navigate a stormy sea of new emotions that are unique to moms — from exhilarating pride to nail-biting frustration. Mastering the bottle is one thing; it's much more complicated to finesse the emotional hurdles of motherhood, especially when they morph and mutate as your baby reaches each new milestone.
"In my 20 years of practice as a psychiatrist, I've noticed that there are certain things that we as moms skin our knees over time and again," says Valerie Davis Raskin, M.D., author of The Making of a Mother: Overcoming the Nine Key Challenges — From Crib to Empty Nest . "The good news is that if you can identify those emotional trials and learn from them," says Raskin, "you can apply that wisdom when they come up again."
That said, there's no one right way to cope with any of the five emotionally charged mom obstacles outlined here. You'll still break down in tears from time to time (we guarantee it), but Raskin's advice will get you started on developing coping strategies that make these tough passages on the journey of motherhood easier to manage.
Mom Challenge #1: When you don't like your kid
When your child misbehaves, or embarrasses or betrays you, it can make you so angry that you might even hate him for it (for about 10 minutes). And then, because you also love him, you immediately feel tremendous guilt. Mom Jodi Lynn, 31, of Pittsburgh, is intimately familiar with this draining cycle. One night she took out a few books for her 5yearold, Alexis, to read before bed. When Lynn asked her to put away the books she'd finished, Alexis said, "You took them out. You put them away." A screaming match ensued, with Lynn denying Alexis the bedtime rituals she loves and even threatening to spank her. "I was so furious at her constant back talk, I just lost my temper," Lynn says. "I must have screamed for half an hour. I hated her the whole time."
How to Cope
You're always going to have what Raskin calls "unloving thoughts" about your child. You may even lose your cool and say not-such-nice things. That's normal! "You're human and you need to have reasonable expectations of yourself," Raskin says. "Always being 100 percent in love with your child is not reasonable." But if you're having an overly emotional reaction to your kid's misstep, try to figure out what your upset is really about. Then, address that fear or anxiety directly, instead of taking it out on your kid. For Lynn, as for many moms, anger often arises around feeling that you've lost control. In that case, Raskin suggests asking yourself if your expectations are realistic. For example, perhaps Lynn shouldn't have expected Alexis to be on her best behavior when she was so tired. Next, ask yourself if this is an isolated event or a pattern. "It's totally normal for kids to test their limits with you from time to time," Raskin says. "But if it's a recurring event, you may need to examine how consistent you are about discipline." Figuring out the root cause of your freak-outs will help you avoid getting to the hate and the guilt in the first place.
Mom Challenge #2: Letting Dad parent, too
It's natural to want everything to be perfect for your kids, and the feeling that they depend on you completely can be downright intoxicating. So how do you share this awesome responsibility with Dad, who in your opinion fastens their diapers too loosely (the pee will drip out!), doesn't feed them enough vegetables (they'll grow to be short!), lets them wear mismatched outfits (they'll be social outcasts!), tosses them in the air (he'll break their little necks!), and plays monster chasing them around (exactly when they should be winding down for sleep!). Who needs this kind of help? The answer: You do.
How to Cope
"In this culture of perfectionism, it's easy to fall into the trap of 'If I don't do it, it won't get done right,'" Raskin says. But as frustrating as you may find Dad's fast-and-loose parenting style, recognize that it's actually a great change of pace for kids. While you may be horrified to see your son wearing a zany, clashing outfit, for example, he may feel proud because he chose his own clothes. "Kids want to be loved in different ways, and to experience different aspects of love," Raskin says. "As long as Dad's ways aren't dangerous, it's a good idea to let it go."
Another motivation for making peace with your husband's parenting: When you refrain from criticizing his every move, you preserve a sense of mutual respect and harmony in your marriage. "Anything you do that strengthens the relationship of Mom and Dad is by definition good for children," says Raskin. It's hard to let go of the heady thrill of being your kid's everything, but when you do, you give him more relationships to rely on — and you give yourself a break.
Mom Challenge #3: Separation anxiety (yours!)
For weeks Kathie Papera, 36, dreaded 4yearold Ella's first day of preschool. "I pictured her crying and holding on to my feet," says the Manhattan Beach, CA, mom. To her surprise, however, Ella, who is usually of the hide-behind-mom's-leg variety of shy, stopped acknowledging her mother's existence after about 10 minutes with her new teachers and friends. "At some point Ella ran up to me and whispered in my ear, 'It's okay, Mommy, you can go now,'" Papera says, so she slowly backed out of the room and cried the entire drive home.
How to Cope
For starters, recognize that your emotions are separate from your child's. "You have to know that what you're feeling is your own anxiety and sadness and not theirs," Raskin says. Even if your child is bawling and freaking out, you must realize two things: (1) He'll probably be fine five minutes after you leave (most kids are), and (2) the challenge of adapting to a new environment is one of those life experiences that will help him grow and develop. "If you block the separation, you end up fostering excessive dependency," Raskin says. "Remind yourself that your goal is to raise a happy, independent child." And when you break down in tears anyway in spite of all the logical reasons not to, go sit in your car and have a good cry. "It's okay to feel sad. You're grieving the loss of your baby on some level, even if that baby is 18," Raskin says. "But by the same token, you get a little piece of your life back!" Maybe you get to take an unhurried trip to the supermarket or read the newspaper — the whole newspaper — for the first time in years. "Your child's independence is a mixed blessing," Raskin says. "Find the gift that's in it for you."
Mom Challenge #4: Accepting your child's failures
You're dying for your son to swim competitively, but he's content to just take lessons; you hope your daughter will star as Annie, but she's cast as orphan number 12; you assumed your children would be popular, or at least outgoing, and yet they're total wallflowers. When kids don't live up to your expectations (or even show interest in trying), you're bound to feel disappointed for them. But make no mistake — the deeper disappointment is the one you feel for yourself.
How to Cope
All parents secretly hope their kids will earn an Olympic gold medal and graduate with top honors from Harvard, but most of us didn't do those things, so why should we expect them of our kids? "Your child is unique, with her own talents, dreams, goals, and, perhaps, problems that aren't as you wished them to be — whether because she has a disability, is quirky, or is just different from you," Raskin says. You'll both feel better if you can learn to express pride in things that are genuinely achievable for your child, emphasizing the effort that she's making. "That's the difference between sitting at your 6yearold's piano recital in agony because she missed a few notes or doesn't play as well as the neighbor's kid," says Raskin, "and taking pride in the fact your child is up there doing her best."
Mom Challenge #5: Learning to let go
We all want to keep our children safe from harm — it's arguably our number one job as parents. But it's easy to go overboard because those precious bundles are so vulnerable. After 9/11, Sue Donas, 37, was convinced that someone was going to pipe bomb her daughter's day care near Hillsdale, NJ, because it was housed in a Jewish community center. She used to circle the building looking for suspicious characters. Once she even had an abandoned car towed away. "I drove to work every day anxious that something terrible was going to happen to Ari," Donas says. In fact, the more ways she thought of to protect her child, the more dangers she saw at every turn. "I drove myself crazy over it," she says.
How to Cope
"You can't raise your child in a bubble," Raskin says, "but you can get reassurance that she's in responsible, protective hands." For example, instead of patrolling the daycare grounds, Donas could inquire about the school's security policy, and it might just set her mind at ease. "Never be embarrassed to get the information you need," says Raskin. There's nothing wrong with asking if all the lifeguards are certified or if the babysitter knows CPR. And if you don't like what you hear, make changes. "That eases your anxiety because it means you've done due diligence," Raskin says. "Once you've done all you possibly can, it's easier to let go."
Mom Challenge #5: Learning to let go continued...
No, you can't safeguard your child from every possible harm, but you can allay your fears and you can also take pride in knowing that you're protecting your child and modeling a rational understanding of the world around you. What's more, you're readying yourself for the day when his safety is truly out of your hands, which also means you're readying yourself to take better care of you when that day comes.