No Dead Beetles
“There is…[a] form of too-good mothering that has been making headlines in recent years. It involves women who feel they must have an inexhaustible supply of motherlove, who feel their needs don’t count in comparison to those of their children. It is a kind of mothering that easily breaks down.”1
It sounds scandalous: mothers can sometimes get tired of mothering. But it’s not scandalous. It’s normal. It’s self-preservation. Every mom is programmed with her own will to survive, and that will conflicts directly with your one-year-old’s need to get you up three times a night and still wake up before the sun.
While we’re on the subject of the will to survive–I once saw a nature show about a female beetle that couldn’t find food fast enough to suit her offspring. So, while she was out hunting, they left and joined up with another beetle’s brood, thinking that maybe this new mom would serve them their snacks faster.
Runaway Beetles: ”More milk and crackers, lady. We’re growing over here.”
New Mom-Beetle: ”???”
But that mama beetle didn’t take a second thought. She doubled her efforts to feed the new baby beetles as well. She hunted and hunted, and every time she returned with food the tiny beetles would demand more. The mother beetle had no time to rest. Within days, she worked herself to death. Really. They showed a shot of her curled up on her back next to a bush someplace.
We could react to this story in one of two ways.
First, “I can totally see how that working to death thing could happen. Thankfully, people are smarter.”
Or, “Mama Beetle was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to meet her kids’ needs! That’s just the sort of thing moms do. Aren’t they awesome?”
But option number two leaves out something important. What happens to all the baby beetles once Mama Beetle has keeled over from exhaustion? And was it actually necessary for her to work so very hard in order for the little beetles to thrive?
Maybe. But they’re, you know, beetles.
Humans are smarter than beetles. It’s undeniable.
So we don’t know any moms who do this sort of thing. Right?
I read a book by a woman with ten kids. She is put-together, healthy, happy, and completely sane. If I had ten kids, I don’t think I would be any of those things. Her name is Kathryn Sansone, author of Woman First, Family Always: Real-life Wisdom from a Mother of Ten. She’s been on Oprah and the Rachael Ray Show. She’s a certified personal trainer, she cooks for her family, and she’s organized. I only have two kids, and the only thing “organised” about my house is washing day: lights, darks, and colors. Yet even with TEN KIDS, Kathryn’s still got it together, because Kathryn has discovered the secret to motherly happiness.
It’s getting a break from your children.
In an interview for O Magazine, she says,
“Do more for yourself—it’s okay. It’s not selfish. Exercise. Spend quiet time. It will empower you to do the work you’re supposed to do. I see a lot of parents who do so much for their children that they just spin out of control. But to take care of others, you really do have to care for yourself first.”2
Taking time off from mothering will makes moms better moms? Heresy! God wants us all to be more like the dead beetle.
If that were the case, God would have made it so that Dead-Beetle Parenting turned out more successfully. But it doesn’t. It backfires. Like a houseful of little beetles starting to wonder where Mom went, and when the next round of crackers is coming. From the wise Ms. Sansone:
“If you give too much of yourself away in the process of being a parent, you’ll probably end up feeling stressed and resentful. Resenting your family will poison your honest efforts. You may not even know why you’re feeling this way and apply yourself even more diligently to selfless activities to make up for it. Soon everyone will be unhappy, simply because you haven’t given yourself the respect or attention that you deserve.”3
From the mouth of a woman with ten kids: Dead-Beetle Parenting is ineffective. Mothers have needs that do not involve mothering, and when those needs go unfulfilled, everyone can end up unhappy. In my personal experience, even believing that you need to be doing mom-work all the time can be enough to shut you down to it. In The Mother Zone, author Marni Jackson writes, “when you’re home all day, the repetition of housework starts to eat away at you. Delinquency becomes a form of self-expression. Why scour pots, when ten thousand other chores await you?”4
I simply couldn’t handle the thought of doing one more dish, when I thought how the dishes, the diapers, the laundry, the little bits of toddler biscuit squished into the carpet, would never end. I would NEVER FINISH. But until I had finished, I didn’t deserve to do anything else. I was unavoidably miserable, whether or not my house was actually clean. Because whatever I did was never good enough.
To break this cycle, I had to accept that I was never going to do it all, and that I was a good mom anyway. I had to decide it was okay to take time for myself, and set limits on the amount of housework I was going to do every day. Within a week after giving myself permission not to keep the house immaculate, it was clean. And it has stayed that way since. Mostly. Most of the time. And that’s just fine. I cut myself some slack, and it actually helped my family. It will do the same for yours!
Some of you are telling yourselves, right now, that you can make it work. You can make yourself happy living under the shadow of perfectionism and needless self-sacrifice. Or maybe you’re saying your happiness doesn’t matter at all. You’d give up your basic needs just to make sure the kids get something extra. I’ve heard moms argue both–or more commonly, that it isn’t possible for a good woman to be unhappy devoting herself completely to mothering. After the interviews and research I’ve done, I can say for sure that none of these things are true.
When our kids are involved, it is easy to go to extremes. We think that if being mom is the best thing for us to do, or the most important thing for us to do, that it has to be the ONLY thing we do, or we’ll spin off into selfish oblivion. Our kids will end up begging for clean laundry and hot meals at our neighbors’ houses while we’re off at a spa somewhere. But think about your diet for a moment. Eating cookies might be the best thing. Eating vegetables might be the most important thing. But eating only cookies or only vegetables would quickly leave any person sick. And we all know that a healthy mom can take care of her family better than a sick one. Balance is what we all need. A sweet, delicious balance that includes all food groups, the occasional cookie, and no dead beetles.
If all this is not enough to convince you, consider this: we learn what we see. When a mother spends her days working and caring, takes little time for herself, and feels that she must love it all or be considered a failure, her children learn will learn from her. Especially the girls. Nancy Chodorow, an author and sociologist, puts it this way:
“Women mother daughters who, when they become women, mother.”5
Moms, imagine your little girl 20 years in the future. If the thought of your baby feeling the same way you do from day to day is unpleasant, that means you need to adjust your priorities and your schedule. Otherwise she will likely take on the same impossible standard you currently suffer from: be the perfect mom, do it all the time, love it all the time. Change for her sake if you won’t for yours. Do you fancy your boys growing up and expecting their wives to wait on them? Then don’t wait on them now. A man who can’t cook and do laundry is simply a man who has never been taught how. If you want your children to feel they can take time for themselves when they’re parents, show them how to do it today. Set a good example. Show them that they shouldn’t worry about being perfect by not worrying yourself. You love your children. You want what’s best for them. So teach them balance. Teach them that you have limits, so they will know their own.
1Almond, Barbara. The Monster Within:The Hidden Side of Motherhood. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. (p 39)
2 Sansone, Kathryn. Interview with Oprah Winfrey. O, The Oprah Magazine. Hearst Corporation, New York. May 2003.
3 Sansone, Kathryn. Woman First, Family Always: Real-life Wisdom from a Mother of Ten. Des Moines: Meredith Brooks, 2006. (p 9)
4 Jackson, Marni. The Mother Zone: Love, Sex, and Laundry in the Modern Family. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992. (pp 182-183)
5 Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978. (p 209)