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Best Laid Plans of Mice and Mamas

When I decided I was ready to become a mother, I wasn’t at all nervous. I was married (to my ex-husband) at the time, finishing up my Doctorate at New York University, and absolutely convinced I had everything I needed for a future as a woman who could perfectly balance work and motherhood, raising a bevy of children who were healthy, happy, and well adjusted.

 Here’s why I had that story: 

  • I had received the message loud and clear from my mother and my feminist education that if I worked inside and outside the home, I would be a truly fulfilled woman…that I could have it all.
  • I was a trained therapist who understood human nature and had taken every child development and parenting-oriented class you could imagine.  
  • I’d read countless books on what children need to thrive, and how to parent in a way that creates the safety and love that allows them to do so.  
  • I’d done tons of my own healing work, excavating my own childhood wounds so that I was perfectly aware of all the things my parents coulda/woulda/shoulda done that I was going to do differently. 

So, this parenting thing would be no problem and I had everything I needed to nurture and raise a kid that would have an easy, beautiful life, in a home that was filled with joy, right? 

Um, not so much! 

I was lucky enough to get pregnant quickly, but right out of the gate (aka birth canal), I started to get the memo that my best-laid plans of being in the driver’s seat of my motherhood journey were not going to go as intended.  

My plans for a peaceful, sacred birth turned into an emergent fiasco where the umbilical cord came out first and my first son was being suffocated with every push through the birth canal. I (of course) was intent upon a natural birth, so with no epidural, there was no time to do a C-Section, and it was a traumatic crisis of a delivery for both of us. Thankfully Ethan was able to come home with me from the hospital, but quickly developed jaundice. He was profoundly colicky.  He rarely slept and was impossible to soothe. 

Then, before his second birthday, I discovered my husband was living a secret double life (for years) of compulsive cheating, our marriage imploded,  and I left him and our home in Spain to start again back in the States.  My career, thankfully, was taking off, but by his 4th birthday, Ethan was diagnosed with leukemia and had to go through 3 years of medical trauma including monthly spinal taps, chemotherapy, and misery.  

I was a single mother through it all, Ethan’s biological father essentially abandoning him.  And that was just the beginning.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ethan is one of the most compassionate, brilliant, and wonderful humans I have ever known, and I am beyond privileged that I got (and get) to be his mama. He’s been through the fire and came out the other side. But absolutely nothing went according to plan. We had years of struggles with PTSD, depression, anxiety, opposition, and acting out.  None of my “Magic 123” plans, child empowerment, “giving choices,” and time-out strategies worked at all.  And I was drowning in the difficulties. All my expectations of a perfect, easy child and a beautifully balanced working motherhood seemed delusional. 

Then came my two youngest when Ethan was seven years old. I had remarried by then to my (final) husband, Sam. Sammy was born, followed by Jackson 14 months later. Despite all my knowledge and (again) best-laid plans, I was exhausted, tapped out, and drowning in drama.  Ethan and my husband were struggling in their relationship as Ethan grappled with the abandonment by his biological, acting out and feeling threatened by his stepfather’s bond with his younger siblings that he felt he couldn’t share. We could barely spend time together as a family, much less go on blissful family vacations together. We could barely get through a meal without a huge blowout.  

Our family dynamics were complicated and layered and not at all easy. Despite all my therapeutic awareness, and inspired actions I tried to take, I was deep in (unconscious at the time) codependency. I had no idea how to set healthy boundaries in my relationships in or outside the home. I was way over my head, and none of the strategies I had learned or read about or consulted with clinicians about were working. Child and family therapy wasn’t working either.  I was overwrought, over-stressed, and way out of my league.  And, like everyone else I knew, I was pretending to have it all together.  

We got through those years and came out the other side as a family, but it wasn’t easy, and none of us came through unscathed.  

And then, Sammy died, sheltering at home during the pandemic in his bedroom. 

Sammy was a great student, a truly kind, funny, brilliant, and wonderful kid. But he was approached by a dealer (sent to him by the Snapchat algorithm) who offered to deliver drugs to him at home while we were sleeping. Because good kids make dumb decisions, he accepted the offer wanting to experiment, having no idea what he was taking was a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl. His younger brother and I found him dead in his room on Superbowl Sunday, 2021. 

I share all of this because, despite all my knowledge, insight, and preparation, my motherhood journey has been nothing like the daisy-filled, peaceful journey I imagined it would be. It has been painful beyond measure. And messy.  And humiliating. And petrifying. And devastating.  

But it has also been beautiful. And empowering. And transformative.  And the best education on a soul level that I ever could have imagined. The trials and tribulations of my motherhood journey have transformed me into a better, more self-actualized, more fulfilled version of myself than I ever could have imagined. 

Here are just a few things I have learned: 

  • All the preparation in the world won’t prepare you for motherhood.
  • Despite our gallant efforts otherwise, we simply can’t control our environment, our children, or our partner’s behavior. All we can control is what happens inside us.   
  • Our children come through us, not from us. They aren’t ours (we just get to shepherd them for a while). 
  • We can shape our children somewhat with our guidance, but their personalities and character come into the world with them. And they are often very different than what we expect. 
  • Motherhood is a HOT MESS. The sooner one can embrace and honor that, the easier it becomes. 
  • However our children’s “negative behavior” is making us feel (scattered, overwhelmed, angry, out of control), is actually how they are feeling (!!)
  • You can’t help the child heal (ever), without healing the parents.  
  • Our children are unbelievably energetically entrained to us. They match our mood (even if we try to hide it. 

The most important thing I’ve learned about the beautiful, soul-searing, and growing act of mothering? Shit happens. A lot of it. Life is messy and unpredictable and mostly out of our control. But we don’t have to be at the effect of it all. We can learn to move through it all with grace, clarity, and power. No matter what happens. 

And most of all I’ve learned that no matter how old they are, or how far away they are, one thing always is true. When Mama is fulfilled and happy and OK, the children are too. Almost always.

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