48 year old Esther O. doesn’t think that she is the best mother in the world. But this past Sunday, to mark Mothers’ Day, her 12-year-old daughter sent her more than 10 messages (and a bouquet of flowers) that seemed to say otherwise. “It’s not that I don’t think I am a good mother,” she says, “it’s just that given the circumstances of my past life, I don’t exactly expect to be hailed for my mothering.”
Like Esther, many women have felt like they are less-than-perfect mothers, and feel the accompanying shame and guilt. Damaris*, is one such woman. As a single mother to a seven year old boy, Damaris is gripped with anxiety. “I worry that my son will never get to know and enjoy the presence of a father,” she confesses. “I worry that my past bad choices will affect him in a negative way and that he will grow up resenting me for it.” Damaris says she constantly has to remind herself of children’s resilience and forgiving nature, and not project her fears on him. “Actually, my son is a strong, kind, loving and pure-hearted boy who sees the good in everybody,” she adds.
WILL I ALWAYS BE THERE?
Esther’s husband’s death 10 years ago and a difficult grieving period thereafter meant a few years of upheaval for her and her daughter. “After I got myself back together, my worry and need to make up for my failures meant I had no boundaries with my daughter,” Esther says. “I would give and do anything she wanted. But that is not being a ‘good’ mother.”
She has since shifted from being a ‘pleaser’ to being a mother – which, though liberating, has come with its own challenges, “I am anxious about her teen years,” she says. “I hope she has enough knowledge to make the right decisions. She is also attached to me – for example if I am late getting home she will ask why I never told her that I would be late, so I worry whether she will be able to stand on her own. I think maybe she worries whether I will always be there for her.”
Esther’s daughter is already exhibiting some independent behavior. “She makes plans and goes off on her own for sleepovers with her friends and cousins – with permission. This one time she asked me, ‘Don’t you think you have cried enough for my dad?’” Esther laughs. “She is nudging me towards dating so maybe she is the one who thinks I am too attached to her. But my fear is where I will find this person who will accommodate her? And in turn, will she accept him?”
'MY RESPONSIBILITY TO WORRY'
Wairimu* is a 44-year-old business woman and a church minster. She is also a mother of three – a 19-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter and a toddler. “It is my responsibility as a mother to worry,” Wairimu says. She believes that it is worry that drives a mother, making her a divinely inspired problem solver.
Being away from home most of the time, Wairimu has had her share of worrying about proper feeding, timely diaper changes, abuse (physical and sexual) and so forth. “In as much as I value optimism, worry always has its way of manipulating my thoughts,” she admits. “The thought of malicious kidnappers and road carnage often strike my mind whenever any of my kids take too long to get home from school.
“When my oldest son turned 18, he would get home late from college and would spend hours locked in his bedroom, glued on his phone like a robot. I really got worked up about the friends he associated himself with and what they did during their free time. When growing up, he was attached to me and the family as a whole. Seeing him this way (when he was older) tormented me.”
She would constantly ask her husband to talk some sense into their son, “but he would always say it was a part of growing up. Eventually, I knew that I had to adjust to the change, and accept and embrace it.” Today, Wairimu says she realises the power of the thoughts she harbours about her life and family, “I have resolved to focus more on the positive,” she says.
THE WORLD IN GENERAL
32-year-old Catherine Mwanzia is a mother of a six-year-old girl and a seven-month-old boy. Her fear is that times have really changed. “It’s an extremely fast paced world,” she says. “I, for example, worry about the (negative) impact social media will have on my kids. I worry that they might be exposed to pornography on their phones, TV or while they are playing. To alleviate my fear, I ensure that I know what my daughter watches and to what extent. I also control access to mobile phones. I advise her on what is and is not appropriate during interaction with boys, as they might play out what they see adults do on TV.”
But that’s not the end of Catherine’s worries; like many other mothers, she hasn’t been spared the usual anxiety about accidents, unforeseen ailments, and whether she is providing enough, “especially given that my daughter is a top performer at school. I hope I can work hard enough to be able to afford the kind of education I aspire for her.”
Even though Elizabeth G.’s son is only seven, she, like Esther, is already harbouring fears about his teenage years. “I rebelled as teenager,” she admits, “and I don’t want that for him. Fundamentally, I worry about failing as a mum. Am I teaching him the right values? I worry whether my advice is the best advice, whether I could do better. Am I or will I always be there for him?” Elizabeth admits that she also has an unfounded and irrational fear of losing her son.
CIRCLE OF MOTHERS
One of the ways Esther had alleviates her mothering worries is to allow her daughter to have ‘second mothers’. “They are more like mentors who she can go to with things she can’t talk to me about,” she says. “My mother, sister, cousin and one of her teachers have played this role.”
“Unfortunately, mothers can bring each other down,” Damaris laments. “I have had women ‘friends’ say that I am not worthy of being called a mother for whatever reasons. I have to stay away from such anxiety-inducing people. I set boundaries where the topic of my son with some people. I’d rather have one confidante to talk to about my fears. Some people will feed into your fears while others will help you gain perspective.”
HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND START MOTHERING
According to Robert L. Leahy, author of The Worry Cure, worrying feels a lot like trying to solve a problem, but it’s not. “Worry feels like it makes sense because it gives us the feeling of not overlooking anything and are therefore of being more responsible, but it rarely leads to solutions. Problem solving involves evaluation, a plan and action.”
To help weed out unnecessary fear, Leahy advises:
Evaluating the situation by asking oneself: how likely is this thing to happen (is it real or imagined)? If the problem is a ‘what if’ (e.g. what if my child gets abducted on his way to the shop tomorrow?), then the next question is:
How likely it is to happen, and what can be done to prepare for that eventuality? Is it out of anyone’s control? “The bottom line is to focus on the things you have the power to change, rather than what’s beyond your control,” Leahy writes.
“There’s enormous pressure to do everything right and this can be overwhelming,” says Dr. Paul Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear. “Mothers focus on the big, bad things and internalise horror stories from others and media without thinking of the odds of them happening. The danger in doing this is that you can actually miss out on the ‘little’ but more important stuff that’s actually happening to your child.” m to:
Do less for their children and teach them to be more independent, but mindful. “Offer freedom by increment depending on the child’s maturity. Teach them necessary responsibility tactics like confidence and snap risk assessment, and encourage free talk with you. This goes a long way towards prevention from harm than hovering over them.”
• Stop worrying they are not conforming to society standards. This is not a genuine concern for the child’s wellbeing.