My journey as a mother hasn’t been an easy one. Some of it has been circumstantial, but a lot of it is what I came into it with… and I know I’m not the only one who unpacked a whole new world of baggage when they became a mother.
In fact, I have come to believe that there are certain aspects of our baggage that we may not even be able to fully engage outside of the context of motherhood. It would be kind of like expecting someone to realize that they have a fear of commitment without having had the opportunity to be in a relationship – that awareness wouldn’t be very likely.
We are inevitably and silently shaped by our experiences growing up and by how our mothers treated us but also how the world treated them. Whatever our childhoods were like – beautiful, messy, horrific – we carry pieces with us that influence how we will experience our own journeys as mothers.
For me, it’s anxiety. I was never the kind of person that anyone would have called anxious – and it was certainly not how I defined myself. My youth was filled with spontaneous, carefree adventures. Being fearless was central to how I saw myself and how I wanted to live my life.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I had a single shred of awareness that I was an anxious person. That, in fact, anxiety could envelop me, and like an acid, eat right through my shell of reason and stability. That it could drown me and completely snuff me out. That it could turn me into the kind of person that makes decisions based on fear and pushes people away that won’t support that fear.
This anxiety, I know now, was always latent in me. It was invisible, biding it’s time. Anxiety is opportunistic – and it knows exactly when to strike. It has it’s own agenda and that agenda, like any disease, is to exist. To spread. To be powerful.
This isn’t rocket science, or some new theory, or anything close to a brilliant revelation – but I have realized that anxiety is simply fear. For me, it’s fear of the future. Not of an unknown future – that would be a healthier version of my fear. It’s fear of an assumed future – and of the careening, snowballing sequence of events that got us there. Because my anxiety is almost solely connected to my experience as a mother, this fear is for my children’s future.
A conversation with my husband one day is what suddenly made me realize what this fear really was and to be able to put a name and face to it. I mentally compared how we both reacted to a difficult situation with Aiden, and while Chase was more likely to lose patience in the actual moment (“this eff-ing sucks”), I was much more likely to panic over what the situation meant – not for us in this moment but for who my son is and what kind of person he will be. I could immediately project 2, 5, 10, 30 years into the future and let me tell you, it was grim.
The truth is that thinking about my son in this way makes showing up and being connected impossible. When things are tough, fear of this assumed future takes over. If things are going well, you can’t shake the feeling that this is just the “calm before the storm”. You cannot be present, cannot linger in each moment, cannot just respond to your child’s joy or their pain. To their need.
A few years ago, during a season of overwhelming anxiety, I knew I was faced with a significant decision as a mother. My relationship with Aiden had become so tense and fragile, so distrustful, and we were at an obvious crossroads. It became very apparent that I needed to let go of the control that I had desperately been trying to gain, but I really had no idea how to do that.
Slowly, through experimentation and feedback, I figured out that I needed to strip my mothering down to it’s barest of instincts and believe, deeply, that any need my son had was one I had been chosen to meet. It didn’t matter if I thought the need was ridiculous or unwarranted. I responded like one would to a baby – of course you need this right now. Of course I am the only one who can give it to you.
In the months that followed, effort blossomed into instinct, fumbling into memory. We began to heal, the boy and I. I would sleep with him all night long (the books tell you not to, you know). I would help him get dressed when he wanted me to (he really should be independent by now). If he wanted me to stay a little longer at school drop-off, I would (teachers really want you to perfect the disappearing act).
It meant I needed to stop seeing him as something broken. Something to be fixed. Turns out, children know when you feel this way about them, and it doesn’t make them feel very good.
He thrived and forgave and welcomed me back. He didn’t need any of those “things” from me for long. He just needed to trust me again, to know that I could show up for him just how he needed me to, no matter what it took.
We’re still healing, in the way that an old injury flares sometimes and you have to ice it or take a spa day or just sleep in a little. There’s a scar, for sure. But the trauma is named and gone, part of our story but not defining who we are.
The truth is that my fear of an assumed future for my son and for our family was based on my own story. I was raised to be fearful and while I managed to keep fear’s influence at bay for many years, once I became a mother that instinct became primal and overwhelming. The second hand but biological experience of my own mother’s struggle growing up was practically encoded in my being.
It’s no secret that motherhood can be a very triggering experience – we’ve all seen our own struggles in our children and in wanting anything but that for them, have reacted desperately to prevent it. We’ve all hurt our children the way our mothers hurt us and felt deeply ashamed but also powerless to do anything different. As mothers now ourselves, we can see how they were also innately influenced by the same coding, how the struggle is fluently reborn again and again.
I have experienced the utter lows of my humanity in this struggle. The affect of anxiety and fear on my life and my relationships with my family have been nearly disastrous. But I have also experienced the deepest of healing – and not just in the mending of those relationships. A kind of soul-rearranging, where parts of you get to come out of the dark and have a voice too, louder and louder over time and slowly forming majority. The kind of healing that you instinctively understand wouldn’t have been possible without the experiences that invited you to dig deep into the ugly and the broken.
Because of this, I have come to believe that every single passage of motherhood offers an unexpected invitation to healing – and that the reality is, being a mother is a constant healing.
The invitation is relentless. It asks us to brave the ugly and the broken every day. It too has an agenda – to give our wounds less and less power over us. To offer something better to our children. And to release those who bore us through their own struggle.
This healing is for us but it is not just for us. Every time we heal, we heal for the past, for the now, and for every future that might yet be.
We heal for our mothers who could not heal for themselves.
We heal for our child-selves who suffered and had no voice.
We heal for all women who are trapped and have no hope.
We heal for the earth who labors and withers every day to give life.
We heal for our sons and our daughters so that someday, they will know how to heal too.