Motherhood for Amateurs

I wrote this last year for the San Mateo Mothers’ Club for their Mother’s Day issue, and still very much stand by it:

I had to ease into motherhood. It did not come naturally to me. I did not have the mothering instinct I was supposed to have to know how to breastfeed my son or take care of an infant. In any other type of circumstance being a newbie and learning the ropes would be expected, but I had somehow adopted this pervasive idea that I would know how to mother and that I would be good at it. Of course for me this was completely ridiculous. I had never been around infants or children much prior to this.

So, I turned to the experts, the parenting books, and the articles for the answers. I followed the rules. I read all those articles that began with “Studies show…” and tried to adopt all the various findings all at once (much to my confusion). I tried out various methods but most of them made me feel like an automaton robot, like I wasn’t behaving in a way that was natural to me and that I was expecting the same from my son. And yet I would think, well, these are the experts, they must know more what they’re doing than I am.

I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning after a friend mentioned him. Frankl was a Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who lived through Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In his book he talks about what of life mattered to him after having so much stripped away and living so close to death in places like Auschwitz. Unlike a parenting book that focused so much on the rules and controlling behavior of children, this focused on the big picture.

A large part of my struggle as a mom came from my decision to stay at home with my son. I felt guilt about this all the time. Did I not Lean In enough? Was I letting down the feminists? Was I setting myself up for a bad future if something were to happen to my husband? The big looming question that was always on my mind was, Did I make the right decision? There was first and foremost the loss of identity as I moved into this role, also the loneliness and isolation that often comes with being a new mom, but I had the hardest time with the lack of respect I felt from some people in my life. And this surprised me. I was still essentially the same person, why did this decision to stay at home make me somehow suddenly less-than in some people’s eyes? Was their judgment of me some kind of essential truth because at times my day-to-day life felt so small and like I wasn’t doing something big or important to change the world?

 One of the things Frankl talked about was about how we rob others of their dignity when we measure them by their “usefulness.” He writes, “But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful…It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”

I’ve thought more about this idea of “useful,” how arbitrary it is and how whether someone falls into this or not can sometimes have to do with what society currently values, how a useful person does not necessarily mean that he or she is a decent person, and how most of us, no matter our job, will struggle with how useful our contributions are to society. Frankl believed that we should focus on measuring people by how they conduct themselves in their day-to-day lives and how we use our dignity and grace to get through the hardships that will inevitably follow. I agree too that this is what should give the shape to our lives.

The truth is that I must learn to exist with the questions and the doubt. The truth is that I won’t always make the right decisions. But if I am able to focus on what matters to me and my family, for example, if I am able to focus on the relationship I have with my son, cultivating and teaching him to love and respect others and himself, I may make a few missteps, I may miss out on a few things, I may regret things, but I’ll know that on the whole I moved in the right direction.

I hope that you too on Mother’s Day love the work you are doing with your family, for your personal and intellectual development, and that you honor yourself and the hard work that you do in all aspects of your life.