I'm lying in bed awake at four in the morning, nursing my restless and sick son so that he can sleep. This is my second Mother's Day, and I can honestly say that the last two years of my life, starting from when I got pregnant with him, have been the most rewarding, but also most challenging, exhausting, frustrating and at times heartbreaking years of my life.
Why heartbreaking? Because I never knew that one single person, this tiny little human being, could make me doubt my abilities as a mother, a woman, a wife, a professional and a person so completely and utterly as he has.
Obviously, it is not his fault. It's not really him who makes me doubt myself, but the society around us - a society that constantly tells not only mothers, but women, that we're not good enough. That we're not performing to the standards set to us by others, that we're not succeeding in "having it all", that we're not enough. The pressure is even worse on mothers, because of all the unrealistic and unnatural expectations placed on motherhood and parenting. Some days it feels like we just can't win. If we stay at home, we're not setting an ambitious enough example for our offspring; if we go back to work, why did we have kids in the first place since we're just dumping them in the hands of strangers. If we don't breastfeed we're selfish, but if we breastfeed too long, we're weirdos and clearly there's something wrong with us. If we co-sleep, our kids will surely be sleeping with us until they go to college, and if we put them in a crib we're causing permanent damage to their ability to form normal attachments. It seems that when it comes to motherhood, everyone has an opinion and everyone is an expert - and all that "knowledge", information and pressure can at times just feel too much to handle.
I've received my fair share of judgement and criticism, some from strangers and some from people I know, some in the form of disguised "advice" and some as plain, nasty comments - but as I watch my sleeping child, I realize that even though those comments have hurt me in the moment, I've made the somewhat unconscious decision to not carry them with me. What I carry with me are the random, unsolicited acts of kindness and support I've also received, sometimes from very surprising places. Instead of remembering the nasty stares I got from strangers when I nursed my crying child in a crowded New York subway, I remember the unknown construction worker who came up to me and told me I was doing a good an important job nursing my baby - which he knew all about, as his wife had nursed all four of their kids. Instead of remembering the group of young women who made sure to speak just loudly enough for me to hear them as they criticized me for traveling with a baby as we were waiting to board a flight from Helsinki to New York, I choose to remember the lovely elderly couple who played peek-a-boo with my son on our latest trip from New York back to our current home in Tanzania. Instead of holding with me the judgmental remarks I've received about the fact that we choose to co-sleep with our son, I remember my husband telling me that he believes our son is such a happy, relaxed, well-adjusted little kid largely because we've kept him close to us, and because he knows we're always there for him when he needs us. I also carry with me the memory of the relief and gratefulness I saw on the face of the mother whose newborn baby I breastfed when she had ran out of formula and couldn't breastfeed herself - and I know that it is those moments, those sincere and genuine acts of solidarity and kindness, that can make the hard moments of motherhood a little easier to handle.
So on this Mother's Day, give the mothers (and others) in your life the gift of kindness. Hold out your hand, and pull up someone who is about to fall. Allow a tired mother to lean against your shoulder. Tell her "Great job, Mama. What you are is enough. You are enough."
Because it is kindness that can really change this world into something better - not just for mothers, but for all of us. Happy Mother's Day.