I’ll never forget the moment when I realized the degree to which we’re conditioned as mothers to deny our own humanity.
I was leading my very first retreat and we were having a conversation about the importance of understanding and prioritizing our needs (I’m defining needs here as the things, feelings, and conditions we must have in order to be minimally satisfied with our lives). One woman listened to me describe a need of my own (for time alone with no pre-planned agenda), and responded with a heartfelt, teary-eyed…
“Wow, I didn’t even know I was allowed to need that.”
This was a bright, devoted, intentional mother. An intelligent, wholehearted, grown ass woman. Yet, for all the years she’s been a mom, she’s lived according to an unconscious agreement that she’s not “allowed” to have some of her basic needs and desires met.
Of course, it wouldn’t have hit me so hard if it hadn’t been unconscious conditioning that I, too, have had to work my way out of.
Since then, in nearly every group I facilitate, mothers make similar statements:
“It makes no sense on a logical level, but in some way, it feels like I’m asking too much by wanting time alone in my home or the occasional uninterrupted nap. I used to have so much agency. I don’t know what happened once I became a mom.”
“As a feminist, I hate admitting it, but I often hesitate to ask my husband to do more around the house (or actually PLAN something). Embarrassingly, I feel nervous just thinking about it.”
“Since my second son was born, joy and lightness feel elusive. It’s almost like I’m waiting for permission (from whom, I have no idea). Or like until I earn an ‘A+’ in mothering, I’m not worthy of joy. But I’m a ‘B-’ mom on my best days right now, so…no lightness for me.”
There’s a theme running through these statements. In each case, the mother feels either that she’s not worthy of having her needs met, or that asking for what she wants and needs isn’t safe on some level.
Having heard thousands of stories from hundreds of mothers through the years, and despite how it may seem, I can assure you:
Our needs and longings as mothers are actually quite simple. They’re reasonable. They make sense.
We want to feel safe and secure.
We want to feel seen and heard and valued and supported.
We want space and time to breathe life into identities outside of motherhood and partnership.
We want to be able to rest regularly, knowing that our kids are being well cared for in our absence.
We want to feel light and free and without responsibilities at least occasionally.
Basically, we want our humanity honored and our wellness supported. AND we actually need those things in order to thrive (and not merely survive).
The reason our needs and desires feel so complex and we wonder if we’re asking too much is because…
So it isn’t that we’re asking too much or that we’re not worthy of our needs met, but that the combination of our conditioning, our genetic inheritance, our biological tendencies, and the structure of society all add up to the feeling that it’s not safe or worthwhile to admit to and/or advocate for our needs.
In order for us to eventually change these toxic structures, norms, and narratives and better meet our needs personally and collectively (for the good of us all), we must come to believe our needs truly matter, see our longings as wise and worthy guides, and prioritize the healing work necessary to free ourselves from the burden of lived and inherited trauma.
Dear mother full of longings and desires: You are not asking too much that you need and/or want…
This part is key, however:
We have to learn to separate our worthiness of having our needs met from the challenge of getting them met under our current circumstances. When these two are all jumbled up in our minds and hearts, it’s easy to minimize our needs and longings, get cynical, and/or grow despondent, especially when the culture and people around us aren’t validating our worthiness.
We must learn to recognize the too-small-for-us narratives we’ve internalized, and become skilled at shifting the meaning we’re making about our lives, over and over again.
Initial thought: I really want my partner to acknowledge all the emotional labor I take on for our family. But given that I know almost no mothers whose emotional labor is acknowledged, maybe I’m asking too much. Maybe I ought to quit expecting so much of him and be grateful for the kindness my partner does extend to me. He’s definitely more aware than his own dad was.
Reframe: I really want my partner to acknowledge all the emotional labor I take on for our family. I recognize that he did not have this modeled for him, however, so I will need to be patient with his process. I also know I am worthy of being seen, so I will continue to hold him accountable and not tolerate weaponized incompetence or ignorance. I will get the support I need in order to speak my truth, set healthy boundaries, and better understand my reactions and sensitivities. I can’t know where this will lead me, but staying true to myself is essential no matter the outcome.
Initial thought: I chose to stay home with the kids; I asked for this, so I have no business complaining about my circumstances and unmet needs.
Reframe: I chose to stay home with the kids and I had no idea what all I was agreeing to when I made that choice. Even though it’s common for moms to set their own needs aside in order to center their family’s needs, this isn’t a version of motherhood I’m willing to model for my kids. I am worthy of meeting my own needs regardless of whether or not I’m bringing in income, and unpaid labor is just as important as paid labor. It’s time to create some new agreements based on what I know, see, and need today, and not based on the limited understanding I had going into motherhood.
Initial thought: Other moms seem to have it figured out. Why can’t I seem to get my shit together? I guess I’m just not working hard enough. Maybe I need to be more organized, and clearly I need more self-discipline.
Reframe: In the absence of the village, and given the distorted version of reality being portrayed on social media and in advertising, it’s easy to feel isolated in the experience of motherhood. This isolation, combined with the lies of perfectionism being cranked out by those who profit off of our insecurities, is resulting in millions of mothers struggling with the same lie: that our personal inadequacy is the reason it all feels so hard. The truth is that the more trust, safety, and intimacy I’m able to build with people who share my values, the easier it is to keep these lies at bay. I don’t need more discipline, I need more support.
The work of acknowledging and orienting our lives around our true worthiness can be a messy, painful process, but the rewards are no less impactful (to ourselves and to generations to come) than the traumas we’ve inherited have been. Here are a few tools to help support your process:
If we let them, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy will assume total control of our worthiness narratives. “Generously” they’ll try to convince us that we’re worthy of so many things that we don’t actually need, which distracts us from the longings we have for that which is truly life-giving. The quickest way things are going to improve is for more of us to remember what we’re actually worthy of:
Systems, structures, norms, narratives, and relationships that honor our humanity and support our thriving.
You’re definitely not asking for too much,
I have an exciting new revillaging course about to launch in March that’s self-paced and intended to support mothers in creating the rich communities and life-giving connections they crave and deserve! Enter your details below to be the first to hear about it and sign-up!
*Photo credit goes to the amazing Jote Khalsa.
You are awesome. Like. I’m in Awe. And I’ll take Some of what she’s having. Keep shining your light.
Every time I see an email in my inbox from Beth I know I’m about to receive so much clarity around the ways in which I’ve been struggling. This post did not disappoint. This is the most comprehensive, inteligible and compassionate synthesis of everything that I’ve been feeling about motherhood that I’ve read maybe ever. Thanks you Beth for continually shining your love light on all of the mamas. 💗
Wow, there is so much wisdom here, I just highlighted half of the post! Thank you so much for ALL of it. I feel seen. And angry (but that’s ok)
Beth, thank you so much for your words! Reading them, I feel immediately so much lighter.
Really touching, thank you so much for this article beth, we should think the other way, and get some time out for ourselves.