When my oldest kids were young, I used to tell myself through the sleep deprivation fog, the potty training and power struggle meltdowns (mine and theirs) that motherhood will get easier as my kids get older.
Well...21 years and four children later, I found that parenting does not necessarily get any easier as the kids (and the parents) get older; but it does change. The most important lesson I learned throughout my parenting journey, and one I still try to remind myself of every day is this:
Allowing yourself to embrace the beauty and joy in motherhood can only happen when you let go of the notion that motherhood is supposed to be easy or that you are supposed to know what you are doing. The real magic happens when you can truly believe that you have what it takes to mother your child, and that no matter the challenges that arise (and there will be many), trust that you are capable of handling them, trust that you are indeed a good mother.
In addition to raising my own four children (ranging in age from 12 to 21), I have spent countless hours researching, interviewing hundreds of moms and professionals, and writing about motherhood. In sorting through my research and looking at my own successes and failures as a mom, I identified the top three essential parenting tools that every mother can utilize throughout her parenting journey. (For optimal results, keep these accessible at all times--especially when you are really at your wits end.)
1. Lead with love.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it is and it isn't. Love is about sharing your heart with another person. Loving your child is about opening your heart and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and caring toward him or her without the expectation that you will receive this kind of love in return.
Parents who understand this parenting paradigm from the get-go will be happier and more successful parents.
Parents need to love their children unconditionally to create the essential foundation their children need to feel secure in this world and within their relationships. But the love a child feels toward a parent is not unconditional. Kids will sometimes withhold their love towards their parents, say hurtful and sometimes hateful things, blame their parents for their problems (teenagers, anyone?). But parents need to refrain from using those tactics with their children and show them love even when they lash out and act unloveable.
Strong parents understand that while they can expect their children to be respectful, compassionate, and caring towards them, it is not their children's job to fill them up with love. But it is our job to continually love and nurture our children. Parents, as adults, need to understand that they need to look to their partner, friends, and other family members for the love, support, and nurturing we all need. And most importantly, we need to continue to nurture and love ourselves so we can freely and authentically nurture and love our children.
2. Maintain your own identify, secure your boundaries, and go toe-to-toe with feelings of guilt.
Many moms, of the nearly 400 I interviewed for The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother's Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being, admitted to taking on way too many of their children's emotions in an effort to try to save them from feeling sad, disappointed, squelched, or rejected--emotions that all human beings will encounter at some point in their lives and will need to know how to process. Not only is this pattern unhealthy for moms and dads, but if parents continue to try to "make it all better" for their children, how will their children learn to self-soothe and deal with negative emotions in the future? They most likely will not develop these necessary coping skills, and it will become even harder to develop them as they get older. It takes insight, self-awareness, and a keen understanding of healthy boundaries to determine how much to get involved in your children's lives and when to back off.
Knowing where to draw the line between your children's emotions and your own is an essential skill for parents, and it directly impacts the well-being of your children and their ability to individuate.
The most effective way for a mom to keep her boundaries in check is to make sure she has something (or many things) that she is passionate about outside of the care and keeping of children. She needs to address her "mom guilt" and trust that she will be a happier, calmer, more balanced mom if she maintains her sense of self. As a mom continues to secure and maintain her own identity, she is modeling the strength and confidence children need to secure their own identity.
3. Lead by example. Practice on-going physical, emotional, and relationship self-care.
Most parents are hyper-vigilant of their children, making sure they eat well, stay active, formulate and nurture lasting friendships, engage in activities that are mentally stimulating, and fostering emotional intelligence. And this is all wonderful.
However, one of the most tried and true skills ever employed by parents is to lead by example.
Kids are watching us, whether we like it or not. So, if you want to teach your children how to be a good friend, let them see how you nurture your friendships. You expect them to talk about how they feel and not bottle up their feelings? Let them see you be vulnerable (keeping boundaries in mind). You want them to be honest, kind, and compassionate towards themselves and others? How do they see you handling disappointment of yourself? Of others? Of them? Do they see you doing for others even when you think no one is watching you?
You want your children to make good decisions, right? Let them see you making solid, logical, and rational decisions that are healthy for you and for others. Parents want their children to thrive, reach their full potential, steer clear of dangerous paths, and ultimately have all the tools they need to care for themselves.
The very best way to set your child up for success is to set yourself up for success.
And the best way to do that is by looking inward and making sure that you are on a continual path of self-care and self-awareness.