We often hear motherhood described as hard and demanding, exhausting and humbling—even unrewarding—at times. Motherhood is all of those things, but it’s also the best shot we’ve got at an internal renewal: it’s the opportunity to step into our power and experience what it feels like to kick ass and take names without even trying. Motherhood doesn’t come with a rule book because we already have the answers. The lessons that a lifetime of motherhood teaches us are about us, not about caring for our children. The key is to allow this wisdom to sink deep within our bones and then apply it to every facet of our lives.
When my daughter, Ava, arrived on my twenty-eighth birthday, I was completely unaware of the lessons I’d learn because of her presence. I expected to learn how to keep on keepin’ on with very little sleep. I knew that I’d put her needs before my own and love her in a way that I’d never loved before.
What I didn’t know was that loving Ava would teach me to love myself and that motherhood would provide a roadmap to the person I needed to become to be a good model for Ava. As it turns out, the version of me that’s best for Ava is best for all of us. That version is the one who can meet her purpose and make her mark on the world. The lessons we learn from motherhood can get you there, too, when you learn to go with your gut and forgo the path society will present to you.
Lesson #1: Don’t ask for permission to show up.
By the time Ava was born, I’d spent the greater part of three decades learning my place—trying to strike a balance between being too much and not enough, like so many of us do. When Ava arrived, it didn’t dawn on me to teach her her place. Naturally, Ava’s place was the universe and she belonged with me. She was born two weeks before the fall semester in the third year of my doctoral training. Whereas in previous semesters, I would’ve asked permission to bring a coffee to class, I traipsed into my first 8 am class carrying baby Ava (with her bouncy seat, lovey, and diaper bag in tow). I never apologized for her presence the way I’d been socialized to do for my own. And as a result, no one questioned it. My confidence set the tone.
Lesson #2: Setting boundaries is taking responsibility for yourself.
Before Ava was born, I accommodated everyone—at my own expense. I innately took Ava’s expense more seriously. I remember consciously putting a cushion between Ava and the universe. Nothing could penetrate this imaginary-yet-palpable bubble between Ava’s needs and the demands of daily life. Ava’s book time, bath time and bedtime took priority over work emails, my best friend’s phone calls, the pop-up sale at the boutique down the street, you name it. Ava needed me, and responsible parenting was as easy 1-2-3. She had needs and they came first.
Lesson #3: Self-esteem comes from self-care, not from achieving goals.
As Ava matured, she looked like me, moved like me and sounded like me. It made no sense that I could love her with all of my heart, yet still not love myself. One day, I made the conscious (and seemingly rebellious!) decision to treat myself like I treated Ava. Before this, I had it backwards—I thought that after I deemed myself worthy, then my self-care regimen would follow. But in raising Ava, I was learning that the more you put into something or someone, the more you get in return. Taking love from myself, for myself, felt disobedient by society’s standards (wasn’t I supposed to be thinking of everyone else first?), but I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. The more I listened to myself and honored my own needs, as I did so naturally for Ava, the more I began to feel my value.
Lesson #4: Loving ourselves and loving others are basically, the same thing.
I remember when one of my biggest fears was that Ava would grow up, never knowing the real me. In an effort to stand in my power as a woman the same way I innately did as a mother, when faced with a decision big or small, I’d ask myself, “Would this be okay for Ava?” If the answer was “Yes,” I carried on. If the answer was “No,” I declined with confidence. It worked. In treating me like I treated Ava, I began to love myself like I love Ava. Love is truly an action word, and self-love is the greatest love of all. We teach people how to treat us by how we treat ourselves. With this steadfast commitment to myself, my world began to accommodate to me.
Society would have us believe that our goals as individuals and as mothers are in conflict much of the time, rather than one in the same. The truth is that motherhood provides the best direction to becoming the truest expression of ourselves, when we listen to ourselves for ourselves, the way we do for our kids.
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