Tomorrow morning at 4:01 AM, my older son turns three.
Each year on his birthday as I recount the past 365 days of being a mother, my heart is a warzone of clashing emotions. At the end of the first year, there was fulfillment and longing, happiness and heartache, wonder and delight, plus just enough mom guilt to bury a person alive. In the second year, there was patience and frustration, self-assurance and doubt, excitement for the future and a newfound sense of contentment with the present.
Though I have surely felt all of these emotions throughout the past year, this particular milestone feels different; new. I feel something I didn’t in those first few years of motherhood.
As I begin this new year of being someone’s mother, what I feel the most is FREE.
I don’t mean free in the sense that motherhood is a prison sentence and I’ve spent the last 1,095 days plotting my Shawshank-style break out. While I’ve undoubtedly felt handcuffed by motherhood at certain times (hello, breastfeeding) I’ve done my time happily and willingly. I wanted this life, wholeheartedly and without reservation.
But make no mistake, I have spent a good part of these years shackled. It’s just that I was the one who slapped the handcuffs on myself.
In this third year, I finally figured out that I also had the key.
First and probably most important, I have unburdened myself of the cumbersome ball-and-chain that is mom guilt. I have waved goodbye to worries about too much screen time and not enough sensory stimulation. I’ve said sayonara to my past mistakes and learned to forgive my rookie ignorance. I’ve bid farewell to constant concerns about my every move potentially landing my kids in therapy someday. I have learned that all I can do is the best I know how and that, on certain days, the bar is a little lower than on other days.
This year, I have freed myself from the notion that I’m required to be completely beholden to my children. As they’ve gotten older and become more self-sufficient, I have left behind the days of giving myself to them, body and soul, and leaving nothing for myself. These days they watch me take care of myself, too—hustling off to a kickboxing class while they play in the gym childcare, finishing my meal even though they’re ready to get down from the table, leaving the house to do things that have nothing to do with them. None of it makes me feel guilty anymore the way self-care always used to. Rather, it makes me feel proud that my kids will grow up watching me value myself.
As I embark on this year of motherhood, I am unencumbered by the need to compare myself to other moms. I’ve stopped letting myself fall into the trap of worrying more about what someone else thinks of my non-organic snacks or particular style of discipline than about what I think of those decisions. I respect other people’s opinions and I’m always looking for ways to be a better mother, but I no longer base my motherhood experience on someone else’s. All of us are simply different people with unique circumstances trying to do the same hard job in our own way.
Finally, I have disentangled myself from the belief that my life is not my own. I have spent so much of these first few years truly believing that nothing is in my control anymore. The state of my laundry pile. The flow of each day. Even my own happiness. I’ve let myself wrongly believe that, just because I’m a mother, I’ve automatically relinquished control of pretty much everything until my kids fly the coop someday. Somewhere during this past year, I finally figured out that, besides God, no one else can control my life but me. I can decide how to react to my son’s temper tantrum. I can make time for things that are important. I can put down the bottle and lean into the hard parts of motherhood. I can choose to be grateful, even when being a mother is especially rough. I get to choose; no one else. This realization changed motherhood profoundly for me.
So, on the eve of my motherhood anniversary, I want you to hear this if you’re feeling shackled the way I was those first few years: you’ve got the key to your own best motherhood experience right in your pocket. If you want to, you can set yourself free from the guilt, and comparison, the lack of value in yourself and the belief that you’re just sitting in the passenger seat of your own life, along for the ride. I know that sounds like self-help mumbo jumbo, but it’s really true.
You get to choose.
Will you choose to keep the handcuffs on or set yourself free?