Seeking Happiness in Motherhood
By: Yaffi Lvova, RDN
I hate mommying.
I love my children, but I hate being a mother.
But I’m determined to seek happiness. Like one seeking the perfect watermelon. Like one seeking a needle in a haystack. Like one seeking a golden ticket amidst thousands of chocolate bars.
Like I said, I love my kids. But it’s this JOB that just does me in.
The endless dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, planning, shopping, balancing relationships and work, cancelling plans due to sickness or exhaustion. Being on the other end of cancelled plans. Carefully considering my fashion choices so they accommodate my little suckerfish demanding access to my body.
It’s a huge mental load; a constant emotional strain that doesn’t let up.
With any other job, you go for an interview and maybe get a job offer. Perhaps there are salary negotiations. And then you have a trial period, some on-the-job training. There is always the potential that the job isn’t a good fit.
You may say to a friend, “I really don’t like this job.” She might reply, “So quit.”
But here is how that conversation goes as a mother:
“I really don’t like this job.”
1) It gets better.
2) It doesn’t get better. (Seriously, we need to stop saying this to each other.)
3) Remember these moments—you’ll miss them later. (So much pressure!)
4) Maybe you need to take some medication for that.
Now, let’s say my accountant comes to me and says, “I really don’t like my job.” Can I reply, “Maybe you need to be on medication?” Probably not (although it is perfectly acceptable to direct someone to speak to their doctor/therapist if you suspect Postpartum depression—*please see the note at the end of this article).
We, as moms, are expected to work all day, every day. For little recognition. And sometimes, very little support. And we are expected to love it.
A doctor puts a squirmy and goop-covered baby in your hands…and you’re a mom.
No trial period.
No on-the-job training.
No opportunity to consider that it might not be a good fit.
Even if that baby was the result of many years of longing.
Now you are a mother. For the rest of your life. And you will love it. Because you have to. Because there is no other road to take.
Is this an article on how awful motherhood is? No. OK, maybe. But so many times motherhood is depicted through rosy glasses, and I feel that I need to give voice to those women who don’t have Postpartum depression or other clinical depression, but just don’t like all that comes with mommying.
We mothers are expected to be vulnerable but firm, like an egg shell. Hard enough to protect what’s inside, but vulnerable enough to adequately nurture our young. We are needed, but not wanted, expected, but not respected. We mother our children, even as all the little parts of us want to split apart and hide. We fear not loving them enough. Or too much. But never the right amount. We battle our desire for personal space and the resentment of that space when it translates to feelings of un-love.
Many women stay home and resent their loss of freedom. Other women work and resent that someone else is caring for their children. To compound the confusion, our biological drive may override our mental capacity as we long for more children. There is societal pressure to work or not work. To have more kids or fewer. To ignore a previously intellect-filled life in favor of mindless laundry piles, and to ignore the necessity of validation. To see the things you hate about yourself reflected in miniature versions of you.
After describing how there is no way that men could handle being mothers, Rebecca Rose explains that given the loss of freedom, career, and professional prospects, along with feelings of guilt and being stretched too thin—and with no breaks or validation—“It’s a mystery how the human race has survived.”
Now that I’ve painted this delightful picture, I’ll turn it around. For you, as much as for myself. Esther Goldstein, LCSW writes, “You are the doorway to how your children see and experience the world.” So with that, let’s talk about practical ways to seek happiness in motherhood.
I’m going to separate this section into two parts:
Seeking Joy: You recognize that there is joy in your life, but have trouble experiencing or internalizing it.
Creating Joy: You’re not sure where to find the existing joy, so your best move is to be proactive and create it yourself.
There is value in each path, and to maximize your newfound joy, you’ll probably take something from both lists.
Seeking Joy—this is all about bringing the focus back to your experience, aka Mindfulness.
- Notice the beautiful weather. It can be sunny out or overcast. Notice the joy. Or maybe it’s terrible weather out and you should move on to the next step.
- Make or buy something delicious. Enjoy it.
- Pick up and read a great book. Listen to a stimulating podcast. You may want to reach for a fluffy magazine or a mindless comedy show on TV (and there is space for that too), but Perl Abramowitz, parenting educator, says that you can move your energy from the survival brain at the base of your head up to other, higher-functioning levels by doing something intellectual. Learn something new. It will change the shape of your day.
- Notice the texture of your child’s hair. Run your fingers through it. Braid it (if he will sit still).
- Look through pictures of family vacations and actively remember fun times spent with your children. Include your kids in the fun.
- Journal. Everything from bullet journaling where you write one line about each day to full-on novel-style journal writing.
- Gratitude. Each day, write down five things that made you smile over the course of the day. You’ll notice that you will start looking for opportunities to smile just to write them down (this idea was from the book My Name is Mahtob). It’s important to know that you can’t find happiness through relative gratitude, the same way you can’t stimulate a child’s appetite by telling them about the starving children in Africa—trying to seek happiness by observing another’s misfortune isn’t sustainable. In order for gratitude to become happiness, it has to be gratitude from an internal perspective, i.e., thankfulness for the blessings within your own life.
- Be honest. Big feelings are ok—for both children and parents (Esther Goldstein, LCSW).
- Self-care. This goes beyond the cliché millennial buzzword. Ms. Goldstein describes self-care as a means of survival. Think about it this way: eating, hydrating, and getting adequate sleep are luxuries to moms, but in truth, they are necessary for mere survival. Take some time to sit and eat. Drink enough water. Take a nap, if at all possible.
- Take a break. I’ll clarify. Hiding in the bathroom scrolling through your Facebook feed, while little fingers poke through the bottom of the door, Is Not A Break. Catching up with a friend while hearing, “Mommy Mommy Mommy” in the background Is Not A Break. This is distracted mommying, and you’re more likely to feel stretched thin and impatient than to feel the relaxation you’re going for. Take an actual break. Use naptime to choose one or more of the other activities in these lists, rather than starting, changing, folding, and putting away laundry. If you were at a full-time job, you would be entitled to a break. You are entitled to a real break.
- Do a series of “I am” with your children. Yael Meisels, comedian and public figure, advises spending a moment each morning reminding yourself and your children, “I am loved. I am loving. I am happy. I am blessed. I am a blessing. I am smart. I am sane…” no matter how you feel in that moment.
- Take your day in 10 minute chunks rather than living for bedtime. You can make it for the next 10 minutes. Remember that your success rate for making it through difficult days is 100%. Much like trying times in the past, this will soon be in your rearview mirror.
Creating Joy—this is all about making space for joy to occur. It’s more contrived, but who cares?
- Change a broken light bulb; replace a cracked outlet wall plate; spray some cooking oil on a squeaky hinge; try out a new recipe. Author Mark Manson says that happiness doesn’t come from lack of problems, but from the act of solving problems. Start small, and notice what a big change it makes in your day.
- Write something. Like an article about something that ignites your passion. And then send it to email@example.com!
- Do something nice for someone else. This takes your focus off of yourself. If you see a woman struggling with her own kids, buy her chocolate bar or an iced coffee. Even if she passes it on to someone else, you’ll both feel great.
- Sing something. It doesn’t matter if you think your voice is terrible.
- Have a dance party with the kids. Just put on some music and shake! Each child leads for a few moments and everyone else copies their awesome moves.
- Start a bubble party. Get a few containers of bubbles and blow them with your kids—probably outside while you’re appreciating the weather (see Seeking Joy).
- Take the family out for ice cream.
- Exercise! Find your Joyful Movement (see Sara Kupfer’s article on this topic). Exercise causes a wonderful cascade of happy hormones that will help get your day back on track. I love Zumba. And kettle bell moves. Find out what kind of movement makes you smile.
- Meditation. Yoga and Tai Chi (which also double as Joyful Movement), prayer, and deep breathing help bring everything into perspective. There are many free resources online to help you start.
- Rochel Lazar, editor extraordinaire, says, “My husband and I carve out times for ourselves when someone else is watching the kids, so we get time together and time alone.”
And some self-reflection never hurts either. Blimie Heller of Unconditional Parenting says, “A lot of mainstream parenting advice seems to be based on the assumption that a parent’s (and society’s) expectations, perspective and behavior is never faulty. It doesn’t challenge the parent to take a hard, honest look at themself.” Maybe your expectations can be adjusted—your expectations of yourself and your family members.
You have a front row seat to your own mistakes, but kids are inherently selfish—they aren't paying attention to the million little things about yourself that make you crazy. They notice the good things; the big things. If you think back on your own childhood, beyond the adult arguments you may have had with your own mother, back to the time when she still packed your lunch and maybe cut the crusts off the bread, you probably remember her smile. How she took you out for ice cream. How she kissed your booboos. Your children see you in that same, innocent light. Take a moment and try to see yourself in the same way.
Our children see the world through our eyes before they see it through their own. When they are young, they are still learning how to view it. Give them the rose-colored glasses of your own happiness. They deserve it. But you deserve it even more.
*A note on postpartum depression and anxiety—what it is and what it’s not. And I’m taking off my mom-hat here and being a healthcare practitioner for a moment:
Postpartum depression (PPD) is a condition occurring within 12 months of the birth of a child, although if left untreated, symptoms can last far longer. PPD is characterized by intense anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, and isolation, among other signs and symptoms. PPD is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition to depression, fluctuating hormones post-birth, lack of social support, as well as other possible factors.
But 12 months? Plenty of women experience symptoms of depression beyond that. While that depression or anxiety would not necessarily be classified as true PPD, it is meaningful and deserving of treatment. This extended depression could be related to unregulated hormones, a change in identity, lack of sleep, and many other considerations. There is also the theory of Postnatal Depletion (by Dr. Oscar Serrallach) where depressive symptoms continue as long as 10 years (or longer!) and are related mainly to nutritional deficiencies that appear as depression and/or anxiety.
Postpartum depression and anxiety is a serious condition, whether symptoms are mild or more severe. Anyone experiencing PPD deserves treatment and support—this can take the shape of therapy, nutrition support, pharmaceutical management, or a combination of all three. Click here for my infographic on nutritional management of PPD and anxiety.
YAFFI LVOVA, RDN
is an experienced Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (follow this link to read why nutrition credentials are essential) and a proud mom of twins plus one. She created Toddler Test Kitchen as a way to introduce children to unfamiliar foods in a safe way—a way that builds confidence and self-reliance, while spending quality time with parents. As the owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition, she works with pregnant women and new parents to increase their nutritional confidence and help smooth the transition into parenthood. Yaffi is available for public speaking and workshops, both virtual and in person. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.