Before my husband and I were married, we had a talk. We had a lot of talks, but one night I remember a particular talk about those kind of women who are always comparing themselves with others in order to determine how satisfied they were with themselves. We rolled our eyes at them and gave thanks that I wasn’t that kind of female. I just didn’t measure my personal worth by what I saw other girls doing or what they looked like.
We married, we had a baby, we graduated from college, we moved, we got a job. We did the things we wanted to do most. We were starved for sleep, we borrowed some money, we adjusted to being an in-law, we adjusted to being parents and spouses to a parent, well, we began to adjust anyway. And we began to adjust from the intoxicating whirlwind of falling in love and growing up, to living the struggle that this life is.
But I have to admit, it was harder for me than I thought it was going to be. I had a lot going for me, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I was doing as good of a job as I needed from myself. I learned a lot from other moms and women I admire. But one of the messages I was getting was that I wasn’t doing a lot of the things I needed to be doing. I wasn’t patient enough, didn’t know how to make a home a haven of love instead of nagging or squabbling, or how to spend no money and still find clothes to make us all look presentable. I didn’t know what food was truly healthful, where to buy it, or how to fix it, and I couldn’t get anyone to eat it anyway. I didn’t know how to respond to the irrational little people I spent most of my time with or how to deal with the nausea of pregnancy while entertaining a toddler.
How could I not compare myself to fabulous mothers I knew? Moms playing at the park with their darling laughing children (I couldn’t convince my toddler that a trip to the park was worth putting on shoes, so we rarely went–add a scoop of “we never go to the park” guilt), super moms with kids growing up doing dynamically amazing things, or moms that seemed like good people but with kids who had made serious mistakes. I wasn’t the first mom, the one at the park. It didn’t look like I was pulling off being the second kind either. So was I the third? Would my children make poor decisions in life because I wasn’t the mother I needed to be?
And then there was more. I felt miserable. I was supposed to be “enjoying them while they were young” like the old ladies in the grocery store kept reminding me to do, but much of the time I couldn’t. I was crying in the closet, only feeling worse for doing such a poor job at being grateful for what I had. Sometimes if I found myself driving home at night alone, I would think that it would be a good time to get in an accident. My children were safe at home. If I died, my husband could easily find a better mother for them than I was. If I lived, I would get to spend some relaxing time in bed with people bringing me meals and taking care of my children for me. It really sounded good, except that I didn’t want to actually hurt whomever was behind those oncoming headlights.
I finally talked to a therapist, and just starting down that road helped significantly. Continuing helped even more. Of course, life was (and is) still more of a challenge than I ever hoped for in my wildest dreams.
Then one day, in the midst of all of this, a friend and her small children had dropped by my house. I believe it was church business or something, I don’t remember many details. I think that she was younger than I was, had two small children, was cute and thin, her husband was in graduate school, and they were living in a small apartment close to the university. I then had three children, with the oldest in kindergarten, was frumpy and overweight, but we had finished the apartment phase and were living in a house now.
I don’t actually remember just who this person was, but the part of this visit that is vivid in my memory, that made a very lasting impression on me, happened as she left. I can see her now in my mind’s eye. She is just leaving my home, walking down my front walk, a baby on the hip, a toddler holding her hand, and she turns back towards me as I’m standing in the doorway. I can’t remember what she said, but I sure remember what her words and her eyes meant. “Look at you with your happy home and family. You have it all put together, and I am a wreck.”
I wanted to tell her that she had it all wrong and to please not beat herself up with what she thought was an image of me! That is what I had been doing with the supermoms I knew, and I was certainly not one of them! I learned something in that moment that I have reflected on perhaps every day since: How we see others tells us very little about their reality. Oh, you already know that, but I had never had it sink in like it did then. I now looked harder to see past the visible side of people. I find that everyone I have the opportunity to know has significant challenges in life. Nobody has it easy. And I shouldn’t have to wait to get to know a person to understand that they are suffering in some way.
This extends to the driver who cuts me off, the parent yelling at their child in the parking lot, the child who took my child’s scooter, the parents of that child, the teacher who was a little harsh, the neighbors with the new car and noisy parties, the super mom I hardly know that brought me a meal when I had a baby, the telemarketer who won’t take no for an answer.
I now see myself in those I could have been critical of. I may not be an alcoholic, but for how many years have I been trying to break myself of the habit of staying up too late at night? It hurts me and it hurts my family, but I can’t seem to stop myself. Sounds just like an addiction. I can forgive others their weaknesses better because I recognize them in myself. And instead of condemning myself for them (except on my harder days), I can use them to help myself be more understanding and forgiving of others.
Sometimes I think I’ve met someone who really has it all put together. Someone happy and gliding through life, achieving their goals, with their children following their example and smiling even at each other. But the more I get to know people, the more I find that those people, admirable as they may be, also have challenges that wear on their hearts. That they, too, benefit from a kind word, understanding, and support.
So if you happen to come to my house and it’s a mess and smells like wet diapers and burnt toast, know that I’m really not a loser mom, I’m really doing all I can. And if you happen to catch me when my house is clean, the children are enjoying each other, and you can smell homemade rolls cooking, know that it’s probably the wrong house.