There is a voice that inhabits every mother’s head. It is a voice of shame and doubt, and it points a finger inward, berating us for all our shortcomings. Today you slacked off, it whispers. Today you made mistakes. Today you were less than the mom that you could be if you would only try harder.
I catch myself listening to that voice all too often. When, for a third consecutive day, I allow my five-year-old to watch a movie while the other children nap: You should be playing with her. When I use the time when they are playing in the bathtub to check Facebook: They’ll think you love screens more than you love them. When a load of laundry sits in the washer, clean, for so long that it begins to smell like pond water: Why did you quit your paying job if you can’t handle something as simple as putting clothes into the dryer? And on the hardest days, when the baby is sick and I don’t bother showering because she’s going to keep wiping her snot on my anyway, when I can see clearly the crumbs on the kitchen counter and hear the dog whining because I forgot to feed him breakfast, when the older girls have decided that today they will be partners in defiance, giggling while they refuse to brush their teeth, it is so easy to let the voice consume me. You are failing, you are failing, you are failing.
It isn’t about silencing the voice. She is undeniable, a part of you. She is a side-effect of the sacrificial love that makes you a mother. She wants you to give everything you have, to dig always deeper, because your children are everything and you are nothing. She will never stop telling you this. And you know that, in some ways, it is true. Could you ever feel whole without them? Wouldn’t you die for them?
It takes incredible strength of mind and spirit to rise above the instinct of self-blame and to begin to forgive your own shortcomings. When I am feeling weak, I seek peace in the mundane, which is also a gift: Blue sky after three days of rain. The oh-so-sweet bitterness of a good cup of coffee. A book I can’t put down. Homemade bread, toasted, with butter and a touch of honey. My mother-in-law brought a loaf by the house yesterday, because she knows how much I hate preservatives. A hot shower, when the opportunity arises. Deep breaths of outdoor air. Watching a small brown-green lizard creep along the railing of my back porch, hunkered down against the gusting wind. I sympathize with her- I’ve been there. Let’s be honest, I am there.
I take comfort in the company of the people who love me. My wild “big” girls and my poor, snotty baby, who cried all night and is now napping in her car seat, the door to the garage propped open so I can attend to her when she wakes. My husband, the partner of my life, my fellow lizard in the wind. The friends who will take a fussy child from my arms and hand me a glass of wine. The friends who will say a prayer for me, even though we both know that this is just what motherhood looks like. It is not, however, no matter what the voice in my head tells me, what failure looks like.
Motherhood is a practice, not an art to be perfected. When I manage to make it to yoga class, my instructor always uses the words, “Wherever you are in your yoga practice today.” I need to start thinking of motherhood that way. Some days I will be more flexible than others. Some days will take me to the edge of what I think I can endure, even beyond. Some days I will fall off balance, but I will forgive myself. I will bring myself, all of myself, the flaws and complications, back to the mat to try again.
The voice is wrong. Where there is love, there is no failure. Life – all of it, the crumbs, the snot, the whining dog and gleefully naughty children – is beautiful. My life is beautiful. It is not too much. It is not less than enough. Try as hard as I might, it will never be perfect. I think I can live with that.