Many years ago, when my daughter was about 2 years old, and I was at home during the endless hours of toddlerhood, I remember talking on the phone to my first friend to have children. Not only was she about 4 years ahead of me in the parenthood journey, but she was one very wise mommy. I remember lamenting to her about how much I was struggling through motherhood, and I felt like everyone else around me was having an easier time of it. Through my eyes, everyone else seemed so put together, they were doing thoughtful and enriching activities with their children, meanwhile, I felt like I was just surviving from one day to the next, checking off the boxes and moving on. My wise friend said to me, “You can’t compare your back room to someone else’s front room.” Basically, I shouldn’t compare what I know to be happening in my life and in my mind to what I outwardly see of others. Not only was she right then, this advice continues to ring true today as my kids get older. This is also a message that I try to bring to all of the moms who pass through The Chicago New Moms Group.
There are two essential topics that I bring up at the introduction of every six-week session: The first is concept of the natural inclination to compare ourselves to others. I talk about how it is easy to look around the room at the other moms sitting there and compare yourself, thinking that everyone else has it all together. Despite appearances, no one has an easy time of early motherhood. Everyone has her challenges. To quote my brilliant and also wise friend, reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Eve Feinberg, “No woman is the queen of all 6 domains of pregnancy.” Her 6 domains (and I extrapolate them to a 7th that includes early parenthood) are:
- How well you feel during your pregnancy
- Pregnancy weight gain
- Postpartum emotional challenges
- And my 7th is whether your baby naturally sleeps well in the early months
Eve’s point is that every mom is going to experience something that she struggles with. No one gets away with everything being easy. The problem is that we are rarely encouraged to talk about these challenges in any kind of a group setting for fear of judgment (the second essential topic I discuss in every intro session). This is why I explicitly ask the moms in the group to consciously try to bring in their true feelings. I remind them that there is an excellent chance that someone else in the room is feeling the exact same way and is really in the same place that they are. It is only through this type of honesty with one another that moms can get relief from the isolation that comes from feeling like you are the only one struggling. I also make a point of saying that even after being a parent for more than 14 years, I am still trying to figure it out. I don’t always know what I am doing any more then the next parent does. That is because our children are our teachers (not all of the books, blogs, sources of parenting advice, etc) and we are constantly learning from them.
The other topic I always discuss is that the group is a judgment-free zone. Sadly, as many moms have experienced, there is judgment that comes out of every corner when you become a mom. Really, it starts when you are pregnant and are a walking advertisement for impending parenthood. People feel entitled to give you advice and even though much of it is probably well-meaning, it sometimes feels judgmental. Once your baby is born, the judgment can come fast and furious. You may feel it from your mom or your mother in law, your pediatrician, possibly even from the postpartum nurses at the hospital, from the random person in the baby isle at Target who feels entitled to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing with your baby. Or the worst kind of judgment that comes from friends who don’t have children! It is EVERYWHERE! And it is hard not to take this to heart at some point.
In order to protect ourselves from feeling judged, we often don’t share our feelings about what is truly happening for us as moms and the struggles we go through daily, especially in an intense transition period of new motherhood. Sadly, this fear of judgment leads moms to live in their “back rooms,” and struggle in silence. So what do we do to change this? We live honestly. We talk boldly about the reality of motherhood, the isolation we feel at home with our children or the guilt we feel about returning to work—either guilt about being away from our children or the guilt about enjoying our professional lives sometimes more than our parenting lives. We don’t just post the happy moments/photos/images on social media. We share the challenges so that those who go after us on this journey know what is real. And every day we remember how we feel when we are judged and are conscious about not judging others.