Christian reflections · Family life

Stopping the ‘Should’ Cycle

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I stood in front of the mirror trying to screw up my courage.

“I should be ready for this,” I told myself. “Other moms do a lot more than this a lot earlier”

I wasn’t preparing to climb Everest, or even host a preschooler’s raucous birthday party. All that lay before me was a day with my two kids. A well-behaved three-year-old, a healthy five-week-old, and me. Alone.

While many of my friends’ husbands had gone back to work days (or even hours!) after the birth of their second children, my husband had two weeks of complete parental leave and over a month of partial leave. He’d been able to juggle his schedule around preschool, my mom’s availability, and a few strategic play dates to make sure I always had some support. He stayed by my side as I healed from the birth and adjusted to our new “normal.” I’d had a few stints alone with both boys, but only in the house.

Yet today my husband was back at work and I was headed out of the house alone, feeling totally out of my depth.

I stood at the mirror, lobbing “should’s” and “shouldn’t’s” at myself like grenades.

I should be ready for this. My friends all had to fly solo much sooner than the five-week mark.

I should be braver. My sister has three kids, and she does craft projects and goes on camping trips with her kids alone.

I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. Both of my kids are healthy–what about moms who have to cope with illnesses and disabilities by themselves?

I shouldn’t be so tired. I actually slept for a four-hour stretch last night. That’s enough for most people.

As I bundled the diaper bag, snack bag, stroller, baby wrap, car seat, and two kids into the car, I fought back tears.

“Mommy, can I have a snack?” called the preschooler from the back seat. The tears started to fall. “Mommy, what’s wrong?”

I passed back some crackers and the preschooler fell silent. I pulled down my sunglasses.

I shouldn’t be crying in front of my preschooler. It’ll scare him.

I shouldn’t be leaning so heavily on my husband. He’s tired, too.

I should be better than this. I should have more to give. I shouldn’t be so needy. I should be stronger. I shouldn’t. I should. I shouldn’t. 

Then something my mother-in-law, a woman of tremendous courage who has faced her share of adversity, said to me years ago came back.

“Don’t should on yourself,” she said. “It never helps.”

On the winding road to the park, her words filled up the car like a cool breeze off the ocean. I breathed them in and pondered. What if I actually stopped the should cycle? “Should” brings unhelpful comparison with others. “Shouldn’t” brings misplaced shame.

Instead of how I should or shouldn’t feel, how DID I feel? I took stock.

I feel overwhelmed. Well, I did just grow and birth another human.

I feel exhausted. Well, I do need a lot of sleep and I haven’t gotten much.

I feel worried that I can’t nurse an infant and manage an active preschooler at a public park. Well, maybe I can’t. But I’ll never know until I try.

I feel afraid that I won’t be enough, have enough, do enough. Well, welcome to motherhood 2.0. No one knows how to do it. We all just do the best we can. I’m doing the best I can.

As I slowed the should cycle, the shame started to lessen. What if it wasn’t about being the mom I thought I should be–according to my invisible audience–and instead being the mom I could be?  What if it was about just getting through this first day on my own with the kids–or even the first hour?

Sure, the mom thing is hard, incredibly and unmistakably hard, but I was making it infinitely more difficult by choosing to heap judgment upon myself.

As Brene Brown notes in The Gifts of Imperfection:

“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?'”

The only audience that mattered for these few hours were my kids, one of whom was currently fast asleep in his car seat, and Jesus, who was known for his compassion.

We pulled up to the park and I loaded my snoozing infant into the Ergo and unbuckled my preschooler.

“Mommy, are you still sad?” he asked.

“A little,” I told him. “It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. But do you know what?”

“What?”

“I’m feeling pretty happy to be at the park with you.” He pondered this, gathering his toy cars from the floor mat.

“Should I go down the slide first?” he asked, his blue eyes wide and bright.

“Little man, I think you should go play wherever you want,” I said.

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