As a mother of two boys, moving three times in two years has been especially difficult. I have worried that the military lifestyle will have a negative impact on their lives. Like many of you, I have held them as they cried when leaving teachers and friends. I have even pulled my youngest son off the fence in the backyard when he was convinced he could run away back “home”. I absolutely love supporting my husband as he works hard in his calling. But sometimes, watching my children struggle is enough to make me doubt it all.
Anyone who works with military children will tell you they have an amazing ability to adapt to new circumstances. They learn valuable tools that will make them extremely successful in the “real world”. As Brene Brown, a researcher, once said “children are hard wired for struggle”. Over protecting them actually does more harm than good. Sometimes I have to remind myself that our lifestyle is all they know. They have not experienced living in one place their whole life. I also remind myself that what I am feeling inside is not what they are feeling.
Mommy Guilt, is actually shame. Telling myself “I am a bad mother for _____” is extremely unproductive. You can identify it by almost any negative statement that starts with “I am…” I am a bad person, I am unworthy, I am unloved, I am a horrible parent… Known as the “swampland of the soul”, shame can spiral into a place where no one can save you but you. None of it is true, and it is up to you to pull yourself out. Guilt, on the other hand, is admitting I have done something wrong and then making it right which is very productive. If we can identify something we have done wrong, we are usually motivated to make it right. I have already seen the battle of shame start in my child’s life. Knowing how to differentiate the two and modeling handling it in our own life is a powerful tool to teach our children the same.
So when the warm wash of shame comes over me, I pull myself out of it, comfort my boys, and tend to their heart. I assure them that life is never easy but we have each other. If needed, I explain the calling on our hearts as adults and how they will one day feel a call too. Their role is an important part of our team. To tend to my own heart, I know I can go to my more seasoned military spouse friends who assure me that my kids will turn out more than fine. They share with me their own stories of parenting and the importance of keeping the marriage team strong. I am so thankful for these mentors in my life who share how they raised successful well adjusted adults. Their example and willingness to serve in the “village” of the military culture paves a path of success for my own family that is priceless. It is also a reminder that we are all part of the village. That we, too, get to pay it forward as we serve another parent struggling.
It was the last week of school, my last week of work, and we were getting ready to move (again) in a month. Everything seemed to be peaking into this nice opportunity for a meltdown. I was late getting teacher’s gifts, and the double birthday party I had been planning for my two boys’ classrooms (out of sheer guilt that our military calling would be pulling them away from their friends again) had been canceled due to the amount of chaos swirling around me. I felt I had already disappointed them once by postponing, and my youngest’s teacher had emailed me (again) about his behavior at school. I was drowning in the quicksand of mommy-shame. But, this particular morning, I had a winning thought, I can get cupcakes for their classrooms! In one act of service on my way to work, I can help my youngest make amends and give them a chance to have a birthday send off all at once! Several boxes checked. I suddenly felt the pride of a Supermom moment. You know, like when you get the kids off to school, have had breakfast, and you still had time to clean up the kitchen? That feeling only lasted a moment until I stood in the bakery section of Walmart, paralyzed, staring at cupcakes.
I have 50 children, should I get the mini-cupcakes or the full-size? I have no idea. 50 is a lot and will be expensive to get the full-sized. I’ll get the mini ones… but what will my children feel when walk in with mini-cupcakes? Have their friends brought in full-sized for their birthdays? Will they feel cheated, less loved? What about the full-sized- that’s a lot of sugar… they have water day today.
I am now envisioning 50 kids throwing up beside the inflatable water slides on water day because Jack’s mom brought full sized cupcakes with massive amounts of frosting. The teachers are looking at me and I now feel responsible to sanitize the giant slides from this disaster.
Do I chance the mini-cupcakes? Will my kids look back and remember the time their mom brought in tiny cupcakes? I’ll call a friend, I can’t make this decision alone… someone understands this situation as the real, serious, life-altering moment that it is. The first friend I think of doesn’t feed her children sugar. Great, I can’t call her! What is that now saying about me that I am loving my child with food, much less an overly sugary treat. I think, Who else has a fifth grader? Ah, yes! Another friend… but she is homeschooling. Great, she hasn’t been buying cupcakes for 50 children lately and now I’m feeling like crap for sending my children to public school and not teaching them myself. Here I am, a competent woman who is frozen in the bakery section with the Walmart staff staring at me. I can’t do this…
I leave for the clothing section since I need to process this situation. As I step outside of myself like an out of body experience, I’m getting pretty mad. I am a mental health clinician that helps women, mothers and their children on a daily basis with their self-esteem and confidence. I have just been named Military Spouse of the Year and somehow represent 1.1 million military spouses in the world and I can’t pick out cupcakes. As I’m pacing down the aisles, I began to wonder how I got here.
At what point did I give my self-esteem to a classroom of fifth graders? When did birthdays become an extravaganza of exhaustion? When did buying cupcakes become an identity crisis? When did Pinterest become the new measuring stick? Why does motherhood have to have so many extremes of perfection? I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE.
In that moment, I take a huge step. I am choosing the middle ground. These cupcakes can’t define me, I feel ashamed that for a moment they did.
I march back over to the bakery section on a mission to reclaim my personhood.
If these two awesome boys don’t know that they are loved by this point, something else is wrong. My children are going to have to rough through another military move and are going to be better for it. I am a working mom with my own goals that won’t be prioritized above my family. I will leave the world a better place starting with the fact that I am feeding 50 children cupcakes because they are loved. Some don’t even get cupcakes, right? RIGHT? DON’T THEY KNOW HOW MUCH THEY ARE LOVED!?
(Obviously a breakdown is happening during my attempts to control the situation.) The phone rings. Its Jack’s teacher again describing his meltdown yesterday and we agree I will help Jack apologize to another teacher for saying he hated her during his own emotional flooding and I wonder which parent he got that from. I stood there, staring down those cupcakes as if I was battling a giant- a giant being the “me” I keep thinking I need to be and I bought mini cupcakes.
You know what? My kids never said a thing about those cupcakes after school. By four o’clock they had forgotten about cupcakes.
Why do we do this to ourselves? It is impossible to get it all right every time. What’s more is that it will be forever impossible to crawl into our children’s minds and know their exact need in the perfect moment. By the way, that part of their mind isn’t even for us, it’s for their future spouse. There will only be one person who will be responsible to tend to those needs in their soul and it’s not me. Can we just let go of the perfect-mom measuring stick for once? What we really need is a reminder that the things we think will be most important in our child’s memories will not be what they choose. Do you know what mine is? A plant my Dad got me for my birthday one year. If we parent as if the world revolves around them, they will walk into the world believing it. I hear from so many other women that have put the burden of perfection on themselves only to crumble. I say do you your best, do what’s smart, and embrace the imperfection of it all. I gave 50 children mini-cupcakes, and found myself again in the process.