I work with mothers for a living. Every week, I hear dozens of stories from creative, motivated, educated, and relatively well-resourced women who love their children deeply. These mothers are intentional, committed to the health of their relationships, and willing to make tremendous sacrifices to ensure the well-being of their families.
Yet, for all their good intentions and hard work, the degree of frustration felt by most of these mothers is astounding. Though their life circumstances and personalities vary greatly, frustration is, undoubtedly, one of the brightest, thickest threads woven throughout the tapestry of their collective narrative, which I believe to be a microcosm of the larger narrative shared by most mothers in our culture. I’m even going to be so bold as to proclaim the following:
For all our many differences, frustration unites modern-day mothers. What, aside from the love we feel for our children, do we feel more frequently than this?
If it were mere frustration we were feeling, I wouldn’t be so concerned. There’s an inherent amount of frustration that seems quite natural when it comes to managing chaos, after all, and kids are, by nature, chaotic.
But we’re not merely frustrated. As a whole, we’re also incredibly stressed, drowning in self-doubt, and filled with anxiety. No matter our demographic, many of us also feel ashamed of our messy lives and inability to “keep up,” isolated and unsure of who we can trust, and guilty that we can’t give our children more of what they deserve.
The irony is that we’re more intentional, better resourced, and more informed than any generation of mothers in the history of the world, yet we still feel inadequate, burned out, defeated, and unfulfilled much of the time.
I hear variations on the following questions nearly every day:
What else do I need to do/learn/buy/add to my plate, in order to alleviate some of this stress and discontentment I feel?
What am I doing wrong?
And most heartbreaking of all:
What is wrong with me?
This last question not only pains me, but more and more, it infuriates me. From my vantage point, the question, “What is wrong with ME?” from an overwhelmed, hardworking mother, sounds like the brainwashed confusion of an abuse survivor who’s trying to figure out what they did wrong to bring on the mistreatment.
“What’s wrong with ME?” is simply the wrong question.
Or, in the language of poet David Whyte:
It’s a question that’s keeping us trapped in a conversation that’s too small for us.
Here’s what I think we need to be asking ourselves (and each other) instead:
What circumstances are contributing to the epidemic of frustrated, self-doubting, overwhelmed, anxiety-filled mothers in our culture?
Or, more simply stated:
Why does modern-day motherhood feel so frustrating?
So, I decided to start a list of all the contributing factors that I’ve observed in my work, my personal relationships, and my own experience as a mother. My desire in doing so is three-fold:
- To begin a conversation worthy of today’s amazing mothers (and our very legitimate and too-often minimized concerns).
- To have a resource to share with every mother I encounter who feels like she’s failing.
- To reach more mothers with this message: The frustration, stress, anxiety, self-doubt and overwhelmedness you feel are not reflections of your inadequacy. They are reflections of a confused, patriarchal culture that hasn’t yet figured out how essential the health and well-being of mothers is to the thriving of us all.
Clearly, we’re not going to solve all these problems overnight, nor even in our lifetime. But each of us can take the first and most important step toward making things better. We can begin to dismantle the “What’s wrong with me?” narrative that has us keeping ourselves trapped, confused, isolated, and disempowered.
Without further ado…
Why Modern-Day Motherhood Feels So Frustrating
(The Beginnings of a Master List)
- Parenting standards and expectations have risen, while support has dropped. Just a generation or two ago, it was considered perfectly acceptable to beat, shame, embarrass, scare, or threaten children in order to “make them” behave. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way toward healthier and more loving parenting practices, BUT, simultaneously, our culture has shifted farther and farther away from a collaborative child rearing model (think grandparents, neighbors, and cousins), which means that the pressure to meet these higher standards is often now on one primary parent (who is also expected to wear many other hats). Mothers feel this pressure most.
- Motherhood is all-consuming, yet often inadequate for the job of cultivating a whole sense of self. Motherhood heavily engages some aspects of who we are, while leaving almost no room for the growth of other, equally essential parts. Unless we’re aware of the need to balance this out outside of motherhood (and can manage to find the time and support to pull that off), wholeness and thriving can feel quite elusive.
- We’re bombarded with unrealistic images of what motherhood and womanhood are supposed to look and feel like. Marketing and image crafting are everywhere, and mess with our sense of self more than we even realize.
- Our instincts are being minimized. We live in a culture that teaches us to look to experts and Google for answers, which means that our intuition receives very little of the validation and engagement that it needs in order to be strengthened. Those of us who are able to hear the voice of wisdom within, often feel that we have to justify it to the many rule followers and skeptics around us (and within us).
- The 1950s wasn’t that long ago. Though things are shifting quickly, we’re still parenting right on the heels of generation upon generation that expected certain things of mothers and other things of fathers. Even if we see such expectations as antiquated, most of us did not have what we’re now wanting modeled for us growing up, which means we’re having to figure out healthier and more equitable versions of family and relationships for ourselves.
- We’re being spread thinner than ever. Today, in addition to being homemakers, we are expected to simultaneously build careers, be exceptional parents, stay fit, practice self-care, and hold the awareness of so many things that our mothers never even thought about, such as food sensitivities, school options, internet safety, emotional wellness, and sustainability, to name a few. Never before have we expected so many different things of mothers (or of ourselves).
- We know more, and feel the need to do more with that knowledge. Though the information age has clearly led to amazing advancements, it’s also overwhelming us with more information than we can possibly make sense of or put to good use.
- We have no villages or tribes to support us, which means we either go it alone, or attempt to create a tribe during seasons of our life when we have the least time and energy to do so. It’s quite unnatural for mothers and children to go about their daily lives without other mothers and children around. We’re meant to be sharing in the joys, sorrows, workload, and celebrations. (My most popular post was about this topic.)
- Postpartum care is entirely inadequate in our culture, which sets us up to feel like failures right from the start. This tender, vulnerable, overwhelming, sacred and often scary season of a mother’s life is a time when she needs her tribe most. In the absence of a village, and with such short maternity and paternity leave at most workplaces, many women begin their journey into motherhood in survival mode, which all too often becomes their norm from that point on.
- Our energy is already limited. Sleepless nights, constant kid chaos, infrequent breaks, and the mental load we carry exacerbate already frustrating circumstances.
- Grandma doesn’t live next door. And neither do the aunts, cousins, or sisters who used to help share the load. Even if we do live near our extended family, our value systems and parenting practices are often misaligned. Without the necessity of interdependence for survival, these differences in values are often enough to keep us from investing in these relationships. Whether this is ultimately healthier for us or not, it’s decreasing our sense that we’re well supported.
- We don’t have much interaction with our elders. Though they need us as much as we need them, we’re more disconnected, intergenerationally, than ever.
- Car culture is especially hard on children, and mothers as a result. I don’t need to describe this to those of you strapping flailing kids into carseats day in and day out. It’s extremely draining, and for most of us, inescapable.
- We’re wired to care deeply. We are biologically wired to care about the needs of those around us, but given all the extra pressure to fill so many roles, we’re often as emotionally exhausted by caring as we are physically exhausted by doing.
- It’s us against marketers backed by millions. We’re the ones in the trenches, observing the effects of so much stuff, screen addiction, excessive sugar, etc., on our children, yet we’re up against marketers and social trends WAY bigger and wealthier than us, which often makes protecting our kids from these realities feel like a losing battle.
- Part-time jobs with benefits are few and far between. Finding a full-time job that provides affordable healthcare for the whole family is challenging already. But part-time jobs with benefits–which is what so many mothers need in order to strike a healthy work/life balance–are nearly impossible to find. The stress that comes from having to choose between going uninsured or putting babies and young children in full-time childcare is immense and widespread.
- We’re accustomed to survival mode. I have a theory (based on my observations and personal experience) that mothers are so evolutionarily accustomed to survival mode that we actually gravitate toward it, and unconsciously keep ourselves stuck, even when thriving becomes possible. (After all, if we’re in survival mode, we have a built-in sense of purpose.) Rewiring our minds for thriving takes patience, support, and self-awareness, but it is possible.
- Neighborhood kids are nowhere to be found. Thanks to technological temptations, extra-protective parents, and climate control (to name a few factors), neighborhoods that once served as giant playgrounds to roaming packs of kids, are now seemingly childless. This means that the pressure is on us to keep them engaged in healthy ways (lest they become even more addicted to their screens than they already are).
- Mothers’ needs are not often honored within workplaces. Though there are exceptions, many mothers are forced to act as if they are not mothers, or risk losing their jobs. This means constantly choosing between the sick kid or the disgruntled boss, etc., which keeps us stressed and feeling like there’s no winning.
- Fathers’ roles are shifting, too. Thankfully, more and more fathers are playing an active role in child rearing and housework. Because men and women are wired differently, however, this is creating a whole new terrain to navigate that we don’t have much support for, which is stressing many couples and families.
- We’ve been fed unhealthy messages about independence. Our culture celebrates and rewards independence, rather than interdependence, which has led many of us to believe that asking for help and needing support makes us weak.
- Our souls are starving. We have more stuff than ever, but less of what our souls hunger for most, such as inner peace, nourishing connections, quiet, easy access to nature, and harmony within our homes.
- Marriages and partnerships are severely stressed. We’re looking to our partners for things our communities are meant to give us. We’re meant to spread our needs for connection and support around many people, but this is easier said than done without vibrant local communities around us.
- Our needs are rarely considered. The needs of mothers are often the last to be considered, even by us, as mothers. The story that good mothers are self-sacrificial and self-denying is one that was modeled for many of us by our own mothers, which makes it that much more challenging to break free from.
- We’re trying to make up for so much that’s missing. For example, most of us want wholesome, inspiring, nature-filled lives for our children, but we can no longer simply send them out to play in the woods or down the road to the neighbor’s farm. We now have to create such experiences for them, as our neighborhoods become less wild and children more accustomed to playing indoors.
- We’re drowning in our stuff. Consumer culture has set up a model of living that keeps us shopping, organizing, feeling overwhelmed, purging, and shopping again. This cycle may satisfy us to some degree (we’re cyclical beings, after all), but it doesn’t satiate the deeper longings of the soul.
- We’re starved for deeper connection. We try to connect with one another in the ways most readily available to us, but many of the more surface level, virtual connections feel inadequate. We hunger for deeper, more authentic, more soulful connections, but again, it’s hard to find them, and we’re too busy to create them ourselves.
- We’re taught that we’re supposed to bounce back after having babies, which disrespects and dishonors the incredible transformation that occurs when we become mothers. I wrote a whole post about this.
- Sacred ceremonies and rituals are few and far between. As a whole, we aren’t properly honoring the power and beauty of womanhood. Menarche (first menstruation) rituals, blessingways, and new moon gatherings, etc., are gaining some popularity in more openminded, progressive communities, but they’re still far from commonplace. Unfortunately, the women who need them most are those in vulnerable phases of their lives, which means they’re in no position to create them.
- We rarely feel successful by conventional measures. Our culture defines success in ways that conflict with what’s possible or even desirable for most mothers. I wrote a post about this, too.
- We’re a pain and discomfort-avoidant culture. Because so many of us have been taught to numb, minimize, and deny uncomfortable emotions instead of seeing them as a natural, healthy part of being human, we tend to think we’re weak when we feel the many big emotions that motherhood brings up in us. We’re meant to feel deeply. We simply need more spaces within which to be honored and respected while we feel what we feel.
- We’re disconnected from women’s stories, myths and traditions. As a culture, we’re almost entirely disconnected from oral traditions, story and song circles, and myths that honor a woman’s journey and help us make sense of our lives, growth, and struggles. (Notice how most old, powerful women in classic children’s stories are portrayed as ugly and mean?) Many ancient, sacred texts and traditions that honored and revered women were lost as native and pagan traditions were systematically destroyed. This means that most of us don’t even know what we don’t know. (Ready to reclaim what’s been taken from you? Start here.)
- We’re taught to resist aging. We’re conditioned to think that in order to be beautiful and desirable and powerful, we must be youthful and sexy (by unachievable, Photoshopped standards, nonetheless). Couple this with the fact that our elders are no longer revered and held in the highest place of honor, and it’s no wonder we’re afraid of getting older. But by resisting the aging process, we’re also resisting the trail of wisdom and fulfillment that lies ahead of us. We must be willing to let go of our maiden bodies and minds in order to fully embody the mother archetype, the wild and wise woman, and eventually, the crone. Our culture is desperate for the fruits of this natural progression.
Of course, each of us is human, which means that none of us is perfect. We all mother imperfectly, all the time. But this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. As Tara Brach says, “Imperfection is not our personal problem—it is a natural part of existing. We all get caught in wants and fears, we all act unconsciously, we all get diseased and deteriorate. Yet, when we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.”
Abuse survivors are imperfect, too. But that does not mean they are responsible for the choices of their abuser. We did not create the aforementioned circumstances. But we can choose more empowered reactions to them.
Naturally, we all want to reduce the feeling of frustration in our lives, but I think it’s essential that we not do so too quickly. Frustration–as well as all the other challenging emotions we feel day in and day out–is there to show us something. When we mask or minimize these emotions with quick fixes, and without first recognizing the gift of illumination they offer us, we miss out on opportunities for growth and healing.
Our everyday lives are given more purpose and meaning when we begin see our frustrations as lamp posts along the trail of transformation. There is always light being shone on the path to wisdom and thriving.
Have points to add to the list? Please add your voice and perspective via the comment section. My one request of you, should you feel inspired to join the conversation, is that you do so from a spirit of service rather than victimhood. Collective illumination is the goal, not blaming or shaming.
We’re worthy of a better, bigger conversation, mamas. A conversation created by us, for us, and in service to us all.
In it right alongside you,
P.S. I was recently interviewed on the Honest Mamas podcast on this same subject. If you’d like, you can have a listen here.
Announcements and Offerings
- It feels good to be back after a months-long break from blogging and a year of intense growth and healing. I’ve missed you!
- I currently have a handful of openings for 1:1 clients. If you feel you could use support as you explore your own frustrations and create a more empowered, live-giving reality for yourself, I’d be honored to talk with you. For more information about the work I do, or to sign up for a free session to explore our connection, click here. It really can be better, mama, and you don’t have to go it alone.
*Photo credit goes to the incredible Jote Khalsa, who captures the beauty and power of motherhood like no one else.