When Motherhood Feels Toxic From The Beginning
You already know that the Mary Poppins account of motherhood is a false bag of goods. For me, that became clear the moment my beautiful daughter was placed onto my chest. Within ten minutes of pushing out this extraordinary baby, I became physically paralyzed with fear. “Where’s this divine motherly instinct”? I thought in a panic-stricken state. I just knew the nurses and my husband saw my missing mommy gene. For me, this is when motherhood began to feel toxic.
As I clumsily held my daughter, (my arms cramping from being in the same awkward position), I felt like everyone in the room could see right through me to my obvious incompetency. It’s the first of many examples of how I’d continue to contort myself beyond my limits in motherhood. Sound familiar?
“But that’s what mothers do,” some will say with a well-intentioned smile. If that’s what’s expected of mothers, the definition of motherhood is long overdue for a makeover.
The reality of every movie that depicted motherhood as a comedy was more like a horror movie (painful bleeding nipples, horrific constipation, mind-numbing exhaustion, and confusion). Every family member and friend who went on about how wonderful motherhood was before I had my daughter, was now offering me useless phrases like “this too shall pass” in attempts to help me not completely lose my shit.
When Motherhood Feels Toxic Like Past Relationships
Don’t get me wrong. I knew parenthood would be demanding. After being entirely hands-on with much younger sisters, I was ready for the challenge. My mother’s one of the most real people I know, and one of the few who didn’t romanticize motherhood. What I was NOT ready for was motherhood reminding me of the abusive relationships I worked so hard to escape and heal from in my late teens, early twenties.
My toxic motherhood and prior toxic relationships shared many of the same ingredients. There were intense feelings of love (borderline obsession)—fast-moving peaks and valleys of emotional highs and lows. The fleeting moments of feeling extremely important and then utterly worthless in the next breath. Most days my heart teetered between overflowing and empty. The flip-flops between “this is so right”, and “this can’t last” was all too familiar to me. Just like in those abusive relationships, I couldn’t picture myself in a long-term relationship with motherhood. It was as though at some point I’d have to break things off with motherhood (not with my children themselves).
Looking Within to Take the Toxic Feelings Out of Motherhood
Looking back on my early experience as a mother (from my experience as a life coach), reflecting on my behavioral patterns seems like a logical place to start. In my relationships and friendships, the other person’s needs always came first. Often, my needs (particularly emotionally and mentally) were left running on fumes. This pattern was introduced to me in my childhood when my parent’s relationship had many peaks and valleys (in which I was my mom’s emotional support system).
Another pattern that contributed to these toxic similarities between motherhood and past abusive relationships was tying my worth to my ability to make someone else happy. Bending beyond my limits to make others happy was as natural as breathing. No matter how fun, sexy, positive, and generous I was as a girlfriend, I’d be verbally and emotionally abused and cheated on.
No matter how joyful, funny, and cute I tried to be as a kid I couldn’t make my parents stop fighting. In parenthood, it seemed like no matter how great of an outing I planned, no matter what great treat I surprised them with, and no matter how much I fed, rocked, and cuddled them, their reaction was the opposite of my expectations.
That’s when it hit me! So much of the fuel that fed my toxic relationships and was feeding the toxic part of my motherhood experience had to do with my expectations.
When We Contribute to Motherhood Feeling Toxic
Looking back on all of the seemingly great motherhood advice, I realize it all smacked of “your life ends here.” Much of the “perfect mom” idea perpetuates the same behavior I displayed in those toxic relationships. Not holding boundaries. Absence of self-care. Sacrificing yourself in the name of love. All of this, with an underlying message of “this is what you’re made for, so you can handle it”.
Trying to live up to the Super Mom standard after having back-to-back babies, I felt like self-neglect (not showering, getting dressed, or asking for help) were all badges of honor. “How dare you suggest I do something for myself when I’m undertaking such a monumental, selfless task like raising a child.”
Let’s take a moment to address the mom memes that give us a sense of comradery as we giggle at the image of a frazzled, half put-together woman, about to do laps in a tall glass of wine. Funny? To a degree because it’s relatable. Do they also reinforce an unhealthy message that motherhood comes with no boundaries and self-neglect? I believe so.
Taking Your Power Back by Defining Y our Motherhood
I managed to self-heal from the low self-esteem and crippling fear of failure that over a decade of toxic relationships left me with. I never thought those feelings could intrude on the most beautiful moments of my life. Yet, there they stood, taunting me in motherhood as if the years of personal growth I engaged in never happened.
What’s incredibly liberating is that the onus is on you to flip the switch. I realized that ingesting endless information about what makes a great mother also led me down a dangerous path. One that felt intimidating and yet oversimplified at the same time, rather than reassuring and inspiring. Thankfully, my self-awareness kicked in allowing me to call a big “timeout.”
If I didn’t get a hold of my expectations for their behaviors and reactions, I knew it would be a recipe for an absolutely miserable family dynamic. I had to strike a balance between utilizing the experience of others, while creating enough space and freedom for myself and my family to blossom our way. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that if you don’t define what you want in any aspect of your life, (certainly motherhood is a hell of an important one), you risk having other people define what it should look like for you.
Hitting Your Stride
With my kids now 6 and 7, there have been some unexpected changes that are absolute blessings! Because my daughter had no interest in virtual learning, I took a leap of faith on homeschooling for both of them. The freedom from the traditional school day followed by homework has been all positive. My daughter went from having anxiety about school and requiring an IEP, to the district no longer classifying her as a special education student.
Running my coaching business and podcasting from home with them has challenges but for the most part has been a total blessing.
It took years to realize that motherhood requires us to show up for ourselves and create boundaries. I’ve become a fantastic (not perfect) mother. I’ve gone from feeling resentful toward my husband, regularly picking fights) to feeling gratitude that makes me enjoy and crave his company.
Most importantly, I look in the mirror and respect and love who I see—the imperfect mom, who some may deem selfish for drawing red lines and enforcing them. The mom that left her safe job as an Ultrasound tech to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams. The mother who regularly takes internal stock to make sure her needs are being met, rather than being hyper-focused on showing up for others.Yes, I show up for myself first, because my fulfillment, dreams, and sense of self still matter.
Did you think I’d say something like, “I show up for myself because you can’t pour from an empty cup”? That is true. However, I feel no need to explain the simple concept that I still matter! My only mom guilt comes from not having understood this from the beginning.
Are you struggling to create healthy boundaries? Need help making the mindset shifts necessary to become your greatest asset in life and business? I help ambitious moms silence fear and intuitively create the fulfillment they crave. Visit my homepage to find out how I can help you define what fulfillment looks and feels like for you, and fearlessly create it.
If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, are dealing with thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, and want to rule out a more serious issue, please, never hesitate to speak honestly to your doctor or a mental health care provider.
Where are you in your motherhood journey?