One of the best words to hear when we’re navigating any challenge, is “I struggle, too.” Because it feels so lonely when you think you’re the only one who’s not getting it “right.” You’re the only one who feels lost or distracted or not good enough. Similarly, it’s helpful to know what reduces or relieves those struggles. Which is why we asked moms to share the hardest parts of motherhood, along with how they traverse each one.
For Ali Katz the hardest part about motherhood is staying present. “As human beings, we are wired to think, and we can have a new thought approximately every 2 seconds. I think for moms juggling so much day to day we may need to double that,” said Katz, who has two kids and is the author of Hot Mess to Mindful Mom and Get the Most Out of Motherhood.
So when Katz’s mind drifts to her to-do list while she’s playing with her kids or helping them with homework, she tells herself: “This, moment.” When she inhales, she repeats “This.” When she exhales, she repeats “Moment.” She does this until she feels centered and can refocus on the here and now.
Helen Odessky finds it difficult to balance the desire to help her 7-year-old daughter with letting her build resilience. “While we need to educate our children to take caution in dangerous situations, we also have to let them try things and experience their emotions,” said Odessky, Psy.D, a psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping You. She repeats this mantra: “She’s got this.” Which reminds her that kids have an incredible ability to bounce back and recover from setbacks.
Psychologist and relationship expert Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, finds it heart-wrenching to watch her 19- and 22-year-old sons struggle—whether it’s getting wisdom teeth taken out or losing a basketball game.
“My instincts in these situations was to reach out, to touch, to comfort, to hold them in my arms, yet that’s not what they could accept from me anymore… I’m incredibly proud of the people they have become and their ability to assert their independence, even when it means setting boundaries with Mom. Yet, I can’t help looking at baby pictures now and then with a sense of nostalgia for my babies.”
“Before I had my first child, I, like many women, had this mistaken perception that motherhood is this amazing, sunshine-and-flowers-and-rainbows experience. Which it is…sometimes. But not always, and especially not when you have an infant,” said Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D, a mother of two and a psychologist in Summit, N.J., specializing in parenthood-related anxiety.
Initially the hardest part of motherhood for DiMarco was admitting just how hard motherhood can be. She felt ashamed for disliking certain aspects—including nursing and losing her freedom. She also worried that she lacked the unconditional love and optimism she was convinced all moms must have. All. The. Time.
“At some point during my son’s first year I grew tired of feeling ashamed and realized that I had to be kinder to myself,” DiMarco said. She started accepting her feelings and recognizing that it’s OK not to adore every minute of parenting. “Just because I had a hard time with these things didn’t mean I didn’t love my son.”
Like Katz, DiMarco also found mindfulness to be helpful, especially with worry (e.g., whether her son would sleep well). “I’d use mindfulness to bring myself back to the present, away from all of the future-focused worries and back to the beautiful, curious creature in front of me.”
As Stephanie Sprenger’s daughters have grown, the hardest part of motherhood has evolved. When they were babies, it was the physical exhaustion and minutiae of motherhood—hoisting them onto her hips, lugging around car seats, running endless errands. What helped was validating and expressing her feelings.
“Mothers feel so guilty when we complain about the less desirable aspects of our ‘job’; we have been told over and over to be grateful and savor every moment,” said Sprenger, a writer and parenting blogger at Mommy, for Real, and co-editor of The HerStories Project’s essay collection: So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood.
“But being able to vent to a friend, write a sarcastic blog post, or just tune in to the fact that ‘yes, it is extremely unpleasant to take a toddler on four consecutive errands,’ helped me to move through it.”
Today, Sprenger’s daughters are 6 and 11, and the challenges are emotional. Her tween daughter is just like her, which makes it especially difficult. She’s found it helpful to journal, to talk with friends, and to be mindful of her own reactions.
Therapy also has been vital in “navigating the tween years with a highly sensitive mini-me. Identifying and expressing what triggers me as a parent has helped me to become less critical of us both, as well as reminding to be gentle in my own responses.”
For therapist Esther Goldstein, LCSW, the most challenging part is that regardless of knowledge, skills or years of professional experience, parenting is about raw authenticity and imperfection. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a high-powered attorney, a university professor or a therapist who knows exactly what modalities to use.
When you get home there’s no research paper or rule book or formula to know how your child is feeling, Goldstein said. “It takes leaving those brains and smarts at the door and opening your heart and soul to the unknown. It’s in these moments where real connection lies, where children listen to what you’re saying—and learn from the mistakes and life lessons we teach them.”
So when you feel terribly unfit as a mother or like an overall failure, remind yourself that your kids don’t need perfect parenting. They need you. Sincerely, genuinely you. And when you inevitably mess up—because, well, you’re human—you can teach them understanding, patience and self-compassion. You can teach them that everyone struggles, and that that’s OK.