From the moment we know we’re pregnant (and maybe even before then) we start forming expectations of parenthood. What kind of birth do we want to have? What kind of parenting style will we adopt? Will be breastfeed or formula feed? Co-sleep? Cry it out? Babywear? It starts to feel like a really long cafeteria line of choices.
We feel the more we plan the more we are prepared and that gives us a sense of security. We get excited as we think about how beautiful a natural birth will be or how proud we will feel when we start breastfeeding/co-sleeping/making our own purees, etc.
And then for any multitude of reasons……..things don’t work out. We couldn’t anticipate how it would feel when things went awry but here we are and for some us, we are devastated.
I remember telling others when they asked if I planned on breastfeeding, “I plan on it as long as I can do it”– I even approached breastfeeding with a “no serious expectations” approach. Or at least I thought I did. But things didn’t work out I was emotionally gutted.
Over a year after breastfeeding concluded for me I am finally feeling a sense of acceptance and growth from the experience. But in the beginning all I felt was an utter failure of a mother. Whether or not my lack of success with breastfeeding was in or out of my control I felt a profound sense of unwarranted guilt and shame that overshadowed the first year of my sons life. I dwelled in a dark place for far too long. I chose to hold on instead of letting go and I wasn’t fully present to soak in the many other beautiful aspects of what I did as a mother.
I have become more resilient from my challenges as a mother. I am grateful for them because they have taught me important lessons about my sense of self-worth, my identity as a mom, and how I want my son to handle challenges in his own life. I have learned that perspective goes a long way when we start to obsess when things don’t work out. Not breastfeeding was one small portion of my sons life and although it mattered to me in the moment I have learned that nothing deserves as much weight as the love I show my child. My concerns over my son knowing that I love him should be the largest portion of my thoughts. When I reflect on how much love I have showed him I feel I have accomplished something amazing no matter how many ounces of breastmilk or formula he received.
So how do we foster resilience in ourselves as moms? How do we overcome the disappointment we feel when things don’t work out as we planned for our child or our motherhood journey? Here are a few tips to improving your resilience.
Respect your healing process. Its not going to be an overnight process to just “get over” what you expected to happen. Know that time will play a huge role in you developing a healthier perspective and demonstrating acceptance. And remember that true acceptance is not the same as saying something is “okay.” You had a lack of support or resources in making a parenting decision? Not okay. You didn’t get the birth experience you expected because of medical complications? Not okay either. But you can practice acceptance by just simply stating to yourself: “This is what happened. I don’t have to like it or approve it but this happened. I will choose to not let this define me or cause me an unhealthy amount of distress.”
Reject Unwarranted Guilt. Unwarranted guilt may be a daily challenge for you. One of the first steps in getting rid of it is recognizing when you have those thoughts. Then you can challenge yourself to find a healthier replacement thought and distract yourself with something constructive.
Here is an example: You think-“I’m such a bad mother because I let her cry in her crib last night. I never planned on crying it out.” Catch yourself and recognize this as an unhelpful, judgmental thought. Replace with a helpful and nonjudgemental thought. “I made the decision to let her cry in her crib. I can think more about how I want to respond tonight and make a plan. This does not make me a bad mother. I am doing the best I can with what I know and I am trying different things.” Then distract yourself with something positive like a self-care task, a conversation with a friend, or tickles and songs with your little one. The hardest part is deciding to move past the thought and not letting it rob you of your energy and positive attitude. If you feel yourself giving into obsessing over these thoughts try to limit your time when you catch yourself thinking about it (i.e. “I will give myself 5 minutes to mull this over and then I am moving on.”)
Stop asking questions and explaining yourself. A big part of letting go of failed expectations is realizing that there is not a need for answers for ambiguous questions. I became obsessive over why breastfeeding didn’t work out and I have now accepted that I may never know why and that it isn’t of great value to me when it doesn’t change anything that happened in the past. A lack of certainty in life is inevitable and one of the most difficult things with which to cope. Simply said-we just have to let go and find something more constructive to lend our energy too. We also don’t need to hold on to the explanations as to why things did not work as planned. Whenever I took out a bottle of formula in front of other moms I felt compelled to tell them why (cue long boring story about a baby asleep at the breast, fruitless pumping, and enough herbal supplements to open my own natural pharmacy). I realized over time it wasn’t really because I needed to have an excuse for them to understand but because I needed to believe that the excuses were enough. We can spend some time analzying our efforts or where we could have made different choices but this only helps to benefit us in the future and when we obsess or carry guilt associated with these explanations we are held down and remain disillusioned with our experience instead of seeing the lessons we can learn so we can move on.
Remember that modeling resilience fosters resilience in your child. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges. We tend to believe that a person’s ability to work through a challenge is determined by how difficult the challenge or stressor may be (i.e. a chronic illness is way tougher to deal with than moving to a new home). However, research shows that a person’s ability to overcome a stressor is related more to the person’s perspective and response to it rather than the actual stressor itself (Center for the Study on Social Policy, “Parental Resilience”) So this basically means its not the challenge itself that matters–it’s the way we perceive and respond to it. We practice resilience by demonstrating a healthy perspective of the problem, having confidence in our ability to overcome it, taking responsibility for our response, and focusing on solutions. It can be easy to overanalyse a problem, find something or someone to blame, believe that you have no power over the problem (including your response to it) and stay focused on potential barriers. But when we practice resilience we are modeling it to our children and thus fostering them to be resilient towards the many challenges of life. Sometimes remembering that can help us stay strong for our children.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. My husband uses this phrase frequently and its an unofficial slogan for the Marines. But the reason I like it is because it snaps me into action. One of the things I wish I could have understood before becoming a parent is just how much I will have to figure out as I go because there isn’t any amount of research or experience that will prepare you for everything when you are a parent. A large part of resolving problems is using your strengths and creativity to find what works for you (improvise). Then you have to demonstrate flexibility in being able to accept that And finally you allow yourself to work through the problem and let it go. Look to the future and if its in regards to making a mistake because of a lack of knowledge of experience remember- when you know better, you do better.
Remember that motherhood is so much more than your expectations whether failed or succeeded. Oftentimes our identity and relationships are defined by the challenges and growth we experience from them. So stay strong Mamas, you can get through this.