On Motherhood and Suffering

Gabriel is in a phase where he’s up for the day before 5:30AM. For me, the “marmotte” of the family, that is supremely hard. We’ve gotten into a groove where I go in and nurse him and sort of doze off, then he’s done and plays around his room with some toys while I can do some morning study, journaling, etc. But he never plays for very long before coming back to pull on my clothes and fuss to be picked up or nurse again. I’m often frustrated that I can hardly write a few lines before he’s coming back for more. 

And then the other morning it hit me: he’s not being “difficult.” Maybe he just wants to spend time with me. Maybe he just wants my attention during this only moment of the day where it’s JUST me and him. It’s sad that it took me so long to realize that, so I set down my book and sang nursery rhymes to him. 

Motherhood is hard. I know it sounds dramatic to use words like suffering, but it is a constant drain on your mental, physical, and emotional energy. Luckily, there are joyful moments and sweet rewards: when sticky fingers are wrapped around your neck, when a baby gives you that first gummy smile, when your child learns something and radiates pride and a sense of accomplishment. These are all beautiful moments.

But another truth is that these are not proportionate to the amount of grief and pain that goes into birthing and raising a child. And another reality is that they aren’t supposed to be. By definition, the equation between a parent and child will always be a negative balance, and that is by design — it’s not give-and-take. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

My children will ALWAYS take more than they give. And I’m realizing that’s normal and completely OK: I am the parent, not them. More is required and expected of me. I want to be careful, because I know that the idea of sacrificial motherhood has caused a lot of damage, but that’s not what I’m saying here: I am not expected to submit to complete erasure — I am a person outside of my family system, and within it, and it’s good for my children to see I’m a human being. AND, I think a lot of my frustrations in motherhood have been because, deep down, I thought it would be balanced in some way. It isn’t, and that’s OK. 

I can find meaning and purpose in giving more generously of myself to my children. I can also find fulfillment — and need to — outside of this relationship. It is not an either/or proposition. I’m learning in my personal study that a huge part of what hurts us is what we wanted from our mothers that they could not give. Children are, by nature (and rejecting the negative connotation), selfish. In their eyes, a mother exists entirely to give, give, give. They need to see that I am a human being with my own needs, but they also need me to freely give love, approval, safety, etc. I can make sure my own needs are met, deal with my own stuff, which allows me to give more freely. To me, this is the definition of unconditional love.

Like sitting down and playing with my 9-month-old for a few minutes before the day starts.

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