I really, really wanted to enjoy motherhood.
So let’s just say it was less-then-ideal when my husband found me wailing in the kitchen one morning at 4 am.
He ran in, his eyes burning with the intensity of someone just woken from dead sleep to an emergency. “Is Lucy okay?” he asked, meaning our six-month-old daughter.
I jumped, startled. “She’s fine,” I said. “She’s fine. I’m sorry—she’s in the living room.”
He stared at me, wild-eyed. “So why are you crying?”
I stared back. I didn’t even know where to begin.
It was that I was now up for the fifth time that night, never having really slept, which had happened most nights for six months. It was that my social life and passions had dried up and blown away like arid topsoil. It was that I felt so profoundly unnerved by Lucy’s need and shamed by my astonishingly low capacity for love.
It was also, I’d come to believe in hindsight, post-partum depression and un-mourned trauma from my childhood.
But how do you put the weight of all those things into words before dawn?
Looking back on that morning—the worst morning of my parenting journey—I wish I could have held my husband’s and my hands. I wish I could have told us that we were simply doing the best we could. I wish I could have helped us connect in that moment to help each other, instead of feeling alone.
But I can’t time-travel. So instead, I’m hoping to help you, instead. What I wish I had known for myself that achingly-early morning was this:
My experience of motherhood was difficult because motherhood is hard, and not because I was doing something wrong.
I wish I had known that I would grow as a mother with time and help, and that the life I felt I’d lost would return with time.
I wish I had not been so hard on myself, so sure I was screwing everything up.
Looking back, I think there were three pieces of advice I would give the old me—and you.
1. Forgive Yourself for Being Human
Here’s the lie I told myself that morning: a better mother would not be losing it right now.
I felt sure that my struggle was due to ME. My flaws, my incompetence, my fault.
One afternoon, a few months after that dawn disaster, my sister called. I sobbed, telling her how terrible I was at parenting.
She said, “Heather, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s just hard.” Her grace stopped me short. What if I blaming myself, I thought. A weight lifted.
I read recently about an eye-opening study about anxiety that’s relevant to parenting, too. Researchers found that among those with anxiety disorders, there was ONE factor that made the biggest difference in how badly their mental illness affected their daily life.
Here’s the shocker: it wasn’t the severity of symptoms. Instead, how the participants felt about their anxiety changed everything.
Those that didn’t judge themselves harshly found their disease easier to live with. In other words, they accepted that they weren’t doing anything wrong, but that anxiety was just hard.
Those that blamed themselves for their suffering found it hard to manage. In other words, they shamed themselves for struggling, and suffered more, even though their symptoms were no worse than those who gave themselves grace.
Gracious acceptance of our shortcomings, limitations, and struggles changes everything.
Like my sister said, motherhood is hard, even in the best-case scenario. If you’re struggling, you’re normal. Can you give yourself grace, and stop shaming yourself?
2. Accept Help
Three years after my oldest was born, we had a second girl. Armed with better information about post-partum depression, my husband and I did better with those hard early months.
But then we decided to move right after a trip that took my husband out of town for a few days, and while my baby wasn’t sleeping at all.
The day before he got home, I happened to run into my neighbor while I was nearly in tears with exhaustion. I didn’t know her well, but she’d been around my kids before, and was kind and trustworthy.
Seeing my face, she asked what was wrong. When she heard how tired I was, she immediately offered to babysit while I took a nap.
Here’s the weird thing is. I desperately wanted to say no. I hated the feeling of my need being so exposed.
But I was so tired I swallowed my pride and accepted. The break helped me tremendously.
Sometimes, asking for help feels exhausting. But at the very least, can we agree to accept it when it’s offered, even if it goes deep against the grain to do so?
3. Take a Break from Your Passions—for a Time
A writing buddy of mine had a second child not that long before I did. Talking about the upcoming birth, she mentioned that she wouldn’t write at all for a year postpartum.
The idea struck me. I love writing, and feel out-of-sorts when I don’t spend time typing or putting pen to paper. Yet with my first baby, the discipline felt like a heavy burden, leaving me frustrated and demoralized.
I decided to follow her lead.
Giving myself permission to put my passion on hold for that year helped me in several ways.
It changed my expectations for myself to something more reasonable, avoiding a lot of shame.
It allowed me stop spending energy on a pursuit I truly didn’t have bandwidth for.
It made an implicit promise that I would make the time for writing after a year. When my sabbatical ended, I started writing for fifteen minutes, twice a week. A miniscule effort. But I started.
It’s a mistake to overlook parenthood’s brutal limits. Most of us must make peace with setting down dreams. But we can’t neglect picking them back up.
Your gifts, hobbies, passions and callings need to be used; and you will use them again. It’s okay to wait until you can reliably take showers to do so. But if we assume that motherhood disqualifies us from creativity or influence, we’ve robbed God’s Kingdom of needed, necessary voices.
What made you feel fully alive, stretched, excited, and useful before you had kids? Make graceful promises to yourself that you’ll learn to make room for the cooking, gardening, travel, work, and creativity that sparked joy before kids.
The Long Game of Parenthood
This morning my kids did the laundry. Let me say that again: my kids did the laundry. It seems like yesterday that I was struggling to clean the toilet, and now they can do big chores all by themselves.
I’m not going to tell you to love every moment of early childhood—because I certainly did not. What I will say is this: there’s a huge payoff in granting yourself grace in those hard times of parenting.
First, you’ll find your struggles easier to live with. And just as importantly, your kids will learn to do the same. Modeling grace and kindness will influence your family life. Living full, rich lives, accepting help, and living without shame will model that joy to your children.
Grace is contagious and powerful. It’s from deep, forgiving grace with ourselves that the true power of parenthood emerges.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.