Motherhood is a profound blessing. We moms know it. But motherhood can, at times, bring us to our knees. A mom regularly faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF!
What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?
One intriguing study identified 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:
1. Unconditional Acceptance
Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance. With Pinterest and HGTV blinking at us, it’s easy to forget that our children, husbands, and friends love us and cherish us no matter what color our kitchen cabinets are. Sometimes when I’m expecting guests, I practically stage my house like a realtor before an open house!
And this extends to our “performance” as moms. The fact is, we will make mistakes on our mothering journey. When we fall short, we need to know we will still be loved and accepted. Moms need the freedom to make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable person they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.
2. Feeling Comforted When Needed
Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.” I think every mom I know has at some point felt they couldn’t go on, that they were at the limits of their ability to cope, and this feeling is very distressing for them, because they have children depending on them to “keep it together.”
We need somebody who can comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling. This support helps us gain perspective so that we don’t dig ourselves deeper into a hole. Sometimes we just need an ear so we can vent; we don’t really need anybody to rescue us. At other times we need a hero. We need somebody to swoop in and save us, oftentimes through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head).
3. Authenticity in Relationships
Moms who are drawn to gentle, responsive parenting can put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect moms. We can even judge other moms who aren’t doing the gentle thing “right.” Let’s try to get over this! Every single day our ideal for ourselves as moms doesn’t match up with reality on some level or at some moment.
Mothering is messy. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about their struggles and concerns, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive. Being authentic requires humility, surrender, and trust. Every mom needs a few people she can be authentic with.
I’m grateful that I can be authentic with my husband. Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, he went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling, and not merely what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point.
When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.” He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).
4. Friendship Satisfaction
Moms do better emotionally in motherhood when they have a few friends in their lives who can give and receive love. I think particularly for women, the quality of our friendships has a deep impact on our well-being.
You’ll notice all four of these factors are related. I need the humility to be authentic in order to allow others to accept my unconditionally. And only people fully capable of unconditional love can love us unconditionally and allow us to be authentic.
The bottom line: nurturing adult relationships keeps a mom “happy, healthy, and able to give or herself.” And you will notice that all four factors are essential for a child’s flourishing as well! Children need unconditional acceptance, they need to know they will be comforted when distressed, they need to know they can be authentic in their relationship with their parents, and they need people in their lives who are emotionally free enough to give and receive love. In many ways, we cannot give to our children what we don’t have. So, if our adults relationships are impoverished, we need to find a way to build up the love and support we need in order to love and support our children.
Not the Whole Story . . .
I think this research is very important and reminds us that God created us for community. I would add, though, that we can identity other factors that set satisfied mothers apart from those who suffer. In particular, many times our perception of ourselves as mothers impacts our ability to experience joy and satisfaction. Our culture doesn’t value mothering in the way it deserves. If we feel we need to live up to the world’s definition of success, we can struggle with our identity and sense of meaning. If we perceive motherhood as a drudgery, a drag, then we will bring that perception with us into the inevitable demands of motherhood. The first factor in the study sort of hints at this – we need unconditional acceptance. But I think we need people in our lives who value us not only as unique, unrepeatable persons, but also as mothers in particular — who recognize the unique gifts that mothers bring to their families that nobody else can give.
Most significant, one relationship this study doesn’t consider, but which is the most important factor to our thriving, is a mom’s relationship with God. I can see a direct link between my commitment to prayer and my satisfaction as a wife and mother!