My husband and I made the intentional choice for me to be at home with our children. I was happy to leave my stressful career teaching middle school and excited to begin a slowed-down, family-oriented life.
Yet over the past few years, as we’ve welcomed two beautiful kids into the world, I’ve struggled with life as an at-home parent. For quite a while, I chalked up my difficulty to the normal hard stuff, like lack of sleep, social isolation, and general adjustment to becoming a mom. If I just got a better routine or maybe did more self-care, I thought, the cloud would lift.
It got easier as I developed my rhythm, yet I found the discontent was still there. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t quite sure why. One day after listening to a podcast, it hit me: I don’t feel validated in my role as an at-home parent. Instead, I feel a strong sense of shame about not being out in the world, daily demonstrating my intellect and capacity for challenging work.
I used to teach at a girl-focused charter school, where a feminist ethic was a given. Most of my friends who are mothers work outside the home. It’s become clear to me that I’ve absorbed a cultural message about staying home with children. The message is this: At-home parenting is not a valid role for a woman today if she has any self-respect (or education or talent or intellect or motivation). I’ve never been too afraid to go against the grain, but this message has seeped into my consciousness and surfaced a surprising amount of insecurity and self-doubt. I didn’t realize the angst that could come alongside something I chose.
I know it’s important that I deal with this at its root, so I’ve started leaning into the pain. I’m determined to embrace this role and this season. I want to be healthy and happy, for myself and for my family. Here are three things I’ve done.
Speak my experience. The first thing I did was just let it out. I put my sometimes-vague and raw emotions into words. I took my scattered thoughts from my head and formed them into coherent phrases and sentences. I first did this by talking with my husband and then in bits and pieces to a few trusted friends. It’s incredible how much better I felt when I started speaking words instead of just drowning in my feelings.
Go to therapy. It was immensely helpful to get it out of my mind and body and into words, but I started to feel like I was ruminating. And perhaps I was coming off as complaining (especially to my husband). This was when I decided to seek out individual therapy. I can’t tell you how life-changing it’s been to prioritize my mental health in this way. It’s really something to have someone listen to you with their full attention for an hour, and a professional can share observations and insights from an unbiased perspective. Once I started seeing a therapist, I started to feel even better.
Write about it. This is a more vulnerable step I’ve taken recently: I started writing about my feelings on the Internet. From the first post—a tiny little reflection on the term “stay-at-home mom”—I felt weight almost instantly lifted from the time I hit publish. To be sure, this also feels scary, but the feeling of freedom and lightness that comes from speaking my truth outweighs the fear.
I’ve realized that everything I’ve done to help me work through this pain has something in common. It’s naming the shame. Getting it out of the darkness, into the light. Shame can only percolate and grow in secrecy; it can’t survive out in the open. I realized that once I started articulating my feelings—naming them with words and phrases and sharing my words with other humans—the shame quite literally began to disappear.
“Mom guilt” is a phrase all moms know. No matter our mothering situation, we’ve all felt it in one way or another. Guilt is no fun, that’s for sure, but it’s nothing compared to shame. Guilt tells us, “there’s something wrong with what you did (or didn’t) do,” while shame whispers, “there’s something wrong with you.”
Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve felt shame for months now. In fact, I’m starting to feel empowered. I’m owning my story and my experience, and in sharing it, I’ve connected meaningfully with others. It feels like a communion, something sacred we’re supposed to do. There’s nothing wrong with anyone; we simply have pain, and it’s meant to be worked out, together.
Where might shame be lurking in your life, mama? No matter what it is, I encourage you to name it. Speak it. Write it. Share it. It’s scary, and it’s also what will decimate the shame. And if you’re working at home and struggling, let me tell you–stand in your worth, mama. The work you’re doing, though largely invisible and invalidated by society at large, is valid work, and it matters immensely, for your family and for the world.
Featured Image by Hill Smiley Photography
Amber Adrian is an at-home mama of two little girls and a freelance writer and editor. When she’s not doing dishes or laundry, the perennial tasks, you can find her with her nose in a non-fiction book or messing with words (hers or someone else’s). You can find her thoughts on her blog and her pictures on Instagram.
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