Honesty Between Women

"...It’s brutal to feel like you aren’t a good mom--though many great moms feel this way. Sadly, we are often walking around feeling inadequate and discouraged.

Honesty with other moms is one of the deepest salves to “Mom-Envy” that I know. In a recent moms support group I ran, I watched with fascination as one particularly brave group member shared her thoughts and feelings with plainspoken directness during our very first check-in. She talked about feeling alienated from her partner, about her worries for her kid, and what felt like the loss of all her single friends." 

-Elizabeth Sullivan




Honesty Between Women
by Elizabeth Sullivan
www.elizabethceceliasullivan.com

I was out for coffee the other day with an dear friend. Our kids went to pre-school together ages ago. She’s someone I admire and adore and we were talking about making art and our jobs and kids, when she reminded me of something I once said to her, “Remember?” she reminisced, “Remember how you used to tell me, ‘I just dread the weekends.’”

I was a bit shocked for a second. It sounded so harsh! Though I also instantly recognized it as true. I did say that, and I did feel it--especially back then when I had a newborn and a 4 year old.
The weekends, when my 4 year old was home from his stimulating, creative preschool, were when I really strained to survive. Nowadays it feels different, but back then, the weekend seemed to stretch from the middle of the night wakeups through 5 am breakfasts in the dark, and on and on for hours of unstructured, unprogrammed time. Paradoxically, it was hard for us to get organized to do much, and yet we were all a bit stir crazy and bored after hours at home. Every time it seemed like we might head out for a walk or a beach trip or music class, someone would melt down, freak out, or need a nap (either the kids, my partner, or me).

“Jeeze, I did say that!” I agreed with a bit of chagrin.

“Oh, it just made me instantly trust you!” she laughed.

And it’s true--we both felt recognized and safer whenever one of us confided something. Our mutual honesty reinforced our trust, brought us closer, and made us both more able to trust ourselves. Being exhausted and overwhelmed didn’t mean we were “bad moms”--it just meant we were exhausted and overwhelmed. I knew my friend was an awesome mother whose kids were lucky to have her; and she held that faith for me--even as we both complained bitterly and uproariously, in order to manage our stress and to try to gain some perspective.

I want to write a bit here about honesty between women, between moms especially, and what a boon it is to our lives. If you can get into a place of intimacy and honesty with a few trusted friends, you have struck gold, and you will ensure a healthier relationship to your mothering role for the rest of your life. Healthy mothering requires perspective and resilience and love and care  for yourself--it really helps to see friends loving and appreciating you in order to do this.

In an earlier essay I wrote for Psyched in SF, I tried to address “Mom-Envy” and some of the pain we experience when we imagine everyone else is much more together, fulfilled and organized that we are, as moms or as women.  I think mothers are particularly vulnerable to it--both because of our high hopes for our mothering, and because of the hard-hearted way mothers are judged. It’s brutal to feel like you aren’t a good mom--though many great moms feel this way. Sadly, we are often walking around feeling inadequate and discouraged.

Honesty with other moms is one of the deepest salves to “Mom-Envy” that I know. In a recent moms support group I ran, I watched with fascination as one particularly brave group member shared her thoughts and feelings with plainspoken directness during our very first check-in. She talked about feeling alienated from her partner, about her worries for her kid, and what felt like the loss of all her single friends. Boom. Instantly everyone felt invited to get to what was real for them in a kind of speeded-up version of how the support groups usually go. Normally it takes a few weeks for people to build some trust and let down the persona. But this time, trust was created out of the risk to be vulnerable--and then we all benefitted from a powerfully close group. The group really grew together after this; shifting away from guilt and blame, and leaping into much more creative energy, solving problems and making positive changes.

And that is how it’s done, my friends. Whether it builds fast or slow, the risk to be vulnerable and honest can bring amazing intimacy if it is received non-judgmentally. Because of course, it is a risk--it can be terrible to let down your guard and be betrayed.

A client of mine, coping with a colicky newborn and baby blues, once told me about asking a friend if she ever “regretted” having kids. This friend blew her chance to create some intimacy with my client when she launched into a screed about her perfect fulfillment as a mom. I was skeptical, to say the least. But why, even if she was perfectly happy all the time, was she not able to listen to my client, just for a bit? Why did she need to insist and protest that she was never regretful? Who knows? But my client naturally shrank inside--feeling sure now that no one was as bad a mom as she. It took us some time to reframe what had happened, but eventually we realized that in her current state, my client needed to interact with more authentic, self-aware friends, who, even if they never had doubts, could at least listen to somebody who was suffering difficult, understandable feelings.

This client listened with skeptical fascination as I told her that I saw moms anyone would admire from the outside, who were coming in to confide their confusion and misery, and to work with me on the vexing problem of how to live a great life as a mother. She could barely believe she was not the only one. She needed an honest friend, and eventually, she did find one or two, and this helped her very much.

Looking back on my confession about weekends; I’m now pleased I had the wit to tell the truth to my friend about how hard it was during those early years. Everyone has a different experience, and I respect that, but I believe we all benefit when women talk to each other honestly about the hardest parts of mothering. Here’s to more of it!

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center and the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center at Stanford University. She practices in San Francisco. www.elizabethceceliasullivan.com @NurtureMoms 415.508.7086

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