We walked across the parking lot, the asphalt shimmery in the sweltering Florida sun, and my short 5-year old legs moved swiftly to keep up with my mom. As we walked, I looked up at the huge vinyl banner, suspended along the superstore’s gray cement wall. I don’t remember what it said, exactly, but something about “guarantee” and “wholesale.” I read it aloud and looked up at my mother for validation. But nothing. Did she hear me? I wondered.
The previous time we had made that same shopping trip, I noticed the banner and read it to my mom as we walked. I didn’t mean anything by it, exactly; I was just thinking aloud. My mom looked down at me with a look of awe on her face. “You can read that?!” she said.
I loved that affirmation. I relished her praise. I found value in knowing that I was good at something, that someone else noticed my skill and accomplishment. It was particularly meaningful to me as a kindergartener, just learning to flex my reading muscles. And for as long as that sign hung there, I read it aloud every single time we entered the store, hoping for more praise.
As a child (and well into young adulthood), I wasn’t sure where my value came from. I thought, perhaps, it could be found in how smart I was and how much I achieved, and so I read big words aloud and hoped someone would hear. In high school, I left exams with A’s out on the kitchen counter, hoping my parents would stumble upon them. I constantly needed someone to tell me, “Yes, you are valuable. Look at these great things you can do!”
My parents were generous and effusive with praise, and yet I craved more of it, like water-thirsty soil in the middle of a drought. The problem, of course, is that achievement and performance make a tenuous foundation on which to build my identity. Deep down, I knew it was fleeting, so I was constantly on the hunt for more.
The same temptation exists in motherhood, where I might tie up my worth in my children’s obedience or how well I manage both parenting and housekeeping. What’s more is that I’m not merely considering my own self-esteem, but that of my children as well. Among my mom friends, we constantly talk and debate about how to find a balance between building up our children’s self-concept and making them resilient and self-actualizing. I don’t want my children to be starved for encouragement, but I don’t want them to rely on it so fully as I have.
It took many years of growth and failure, along with a reexamining of my faith, to learn where my value actually lies. Having children was the catalyst. I looked at my son and came to the swift realization that my baby had worth and value simply by merit of being my child. As a person of faith, it was then easy to see how much more God must feel this way about me. I need not pray the right words or make the right choices to secure my worth (let alone earn a heap of accolades). I am a child of God.
In motherhood, affirmation is rare. The vast majority of my mothering happens alone, behind the closed doors of my home, in the middle of those very long days. No one is there to notice when I remain calm in the face of a toddler tantrum, or when I spend 20 minutes building block towers without checking my phone. Goodness knows toddlers don’t go around handing out praise and encouragement to their poor, beleaguered mamas. For some time, I felt unmoored without that constant external validation of my mothering choices and habits. Eventually, I came to realize that I could not survive motherhood if I thirsted for validation like I did as a child.
I can approach motherhood as an opportunity to prove my worth and competence, but when I do, I need constant reassurance. If I need Instagram likes, my husband’s ok, or a golden statue from the Academy of Motherhood Arts and Sciences to feel good about my choices and to find joy in my role as mom, I will be waiting forever. Encouragement makes for a good boost, but in the long run, it does not make for very good fuel. It is a meal that does not satisfy.
If I instead look at motherhood as an invitation to step into joy, to fulfill a purpose, and to celebrate my identity as a child of God (not to mention my children’s identities!), I find the fuel I need to persevere through those long days. I have no 3-step formula for this process; it is simply a daily choice to remind myself of what is true. My value and worth do not change based on the outcome of any day or any one moment. It is then that my validation comes from within, from the voice of God singing love over me, a more steady and ever-flowing stream.
Featured image by Robin Chapman
Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.