Last week, while I was at the post office, I overheard two women talking about how they had dropped off their child at college for the first time. As I heard one of them say with tears in her voice; “My job is done, it’s now time to take care of me,” my heart ached with empathy for her. I understand how painful it is to suddenly be faced with an empty house. Even though it was about 10 years ago that my daughter left home to go to college, I can still remember the awful silence. I remember how I missed her stuff lying about the house. And my stomach would ache at about 4pm, reminding me that I wasn’t going to see her walk through the door like she used to.
I too told myself back then that my job was done and that it was now time to take care of me. I know how it feels to suddenly have more time for yourself, and realize with some painful regret, that you have neglected yourself in all the busyness and responsibility of being a mother. And I have learned through my own experience, and through listening to my clients, that the job of mothering is never really done. And that following up on the promise to start putting yourself first is not easy.
But why is putting ourselves first so difficult for mothers? Why does mothering have to be such an all-defining, all-absorbing role? One reason is that our mother-wiring is deeply tuned into our child’s needs and it can all-too-easily override our own. And turning down the volume of our mother-wiring is extremely difficult, especially if we haven’t had any practice at it, and we come from a generational family where mothers are not expected to have needs and lives of their own. And that leads me to the main reason why putting ourselves first is so difficult for mothers. Women have little to no generational experience of it. And society through its religious beliefs and gender biases likes mothers to remain selfless, sacrificing, and self-neglecting.
It is sad reality that in 2017 I am still hearing women say that now that their child is off to college they are entitled to start taking care of themselves. This reveals how little progress has been made since our mother’s and grandmother’s day in terms of mothers being free to take care of themselves, and being regarded as people first. The definition of motherhood is still, as it has been for generations, a selfless, sacrificing, and self-neglecting role that limits women’s options, identity, freedom, and equality. The Culture of Female Service reigns supreme today, just like it did for our grandmothers and mothers.
If I could go back and give my younger self some advice, and young mothers today whose children are still young; Learn how to take care of yourself now. Redefine the selfless, sacrificing, self-neglecting definition of motherhood that you have inherited from your mother and grandmother, and create a new definition that includes you being a person first. Mothers seeing themselves, and being seen in their families as people first is, as I write in The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, the first solution to women’s emotional empowerment and healing and preventing mother-daughter relationship conflict. And to the two women whose conversation I overheard, and all mothers who dropped their child off at college this year, allow yourself the time you need to grieve the change in your relationship with your child. Grieve the loss of the daily contact. Grieve the change in your role. And alongside the grieving, start asking yourself what you might desire. Get a journal and start musing about all the things you wanted to do when you were your child’s age. Muse about what you wanted to do with your life and who you wanted to be, and grieve any differences between who you wanted to be and who you are now. And when you have the beginnings of a picture of what you desire, do one thing that will bring you closer to embodying this image. And then do another thing, until step by step you reclaim your life, your voice, and your identity as a person first. And the good news is that through this process you will be modeling for your daughter, and son, that mothers are people with a voice and life of their own.