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Modern mothers' guilty little secrets

Authors of  'I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids'  uncover the guilty secrets of moms today

Authors Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile interviewed a diverse group of 100 mothers all over the country and found a surprisingly similar trend: many had a difficult time feeling like they were "a good mom" and their happiness was clouded by guilty little secrets. Many mothers described their anxieties and identified themselves as “challenged” more than “happy.” In their new book “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids,” the pair document real mothers’ stories ofstruggling with exceedingly high expectations, pinpoint where the craziness stems from, and offers solutions for mothers to come to peace with motherhood.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Fake-Cupcake ProblemIf you’re sitting down and reading this, then you must not be having the worst day ever. Or maybe you are. Whatever kind of day you’re having—you couldn’t love your kids more, or you couldn’t be more eager to jump in your car and speed away—we’ve been there. Between us we have five kids, two husbands, two dogs, three-quarters of a career, steadily improving skills at negotiating with toddlers, and way too much stress. This book got started on one of those nights that followed one of those days—dog poop tracked into the house, wild children in the aisles of Target. Laser-eyed, we watched our clocks until 4 p.m. Then we each poured ourselves a glass of wine and picked up the phone to call each other.

As we talked, our kids tattooed one another with permanent markers and played in the dog-food bowls. Whatever—it really didn’t matter. We discussed our days, and within ten minutes we’d laughed, cried, whined about our husbands, wondered what happened to our sex drives, snapped at the kids, wished we had passions, and questioned why we sometimes felt like bad moms. Were you a bad mom if you screamed at a four-year-old for getting up twelve times in one night? Were you a good mom if you stayed up late baking fifty cupcakes for the next day’s ballet recital? Would passing off store-bought cupcakes as homemade really be a terrible offense?

Meanwhile we were trying to turn the three ingredients in our respective refrigerators into some semblance of dinner. And our husbands, who’d finally come home, were looking at us cross-eyed for yet again being on the phone. Granted, blabbing while the kids trashed the house might not have looked so good from their position. But immediately hanging up to resume our roles as moms would not have been a good idea, either. These phone chats were our salvation.

“Oh, Really? You’re Having a Hard Time?”…Click.
Why did we need these daily chats? Because we needed to vent. Badly. Our husbands didn’t understand the fake-cupcake problem. Nor did our mothers. Nor did our kids.

Our chats started five days after one of us (OK, Amy) had her first baby. It wasn’t pretty—massive exhaustion, recurrent mastitis—and what did one of her closest friends do? She pulled that dirty motherhood-perfectionist trick.

“Oh, really? You’re having a hard time? I always felt great. That never happened to me.”


So we began talking to each other. Our lives weren’t identical. Years earlier, before motherhood, we’d both established careers, but one of us was now a stay-at-home mom, and the other a part-time working mom. Still, we felt exactly the same way: questioning our choices, grappling with guilt, and wondering if the other mothers we knew were struggling to keep it together, too.

Once we started being honest about how we felt, it was addictive.

The truth is, we did so much talking to each other and felt so much better afterward that we started to think we should write down some of what we were saying. One of us had a public relations background and the other had had a career in advertising, so we wiped off our whiteboards and brainstormed about all the issues that moms today face. Our goal: to try to understand phenomena like the fake-cupcake problem by reverse-engineering them back to their component parts: 2 cups guilt, 1/2 cup competition, 2 tablespoons judgment, 1/2 teaspoon trying to live in the moment, et cetera.

Here’s what we came up with:

As mothers, we put way too much pressure on ourselves.We have an unrealistic image of what a “good” mom is.We secretly compare ourselves to other moms, who seem to have it all together.We think we need to be perfect all the time.We feel alone.Our lives feel out of balance.

We also had some fairly major questions:

What happened to the people we were before we became moms?Why did our marriages change when we became parents?Why, no matter what choice we make, do we constantly feel that we’ve made the wrong one?Why do we feel guilty all the time?How come nobody talks about how hard motherhood truly is?

Then we started to wonder if we, in particular, were just more insecure and screwed up than most mothers.

So we decided to look for some answers. We started asking everybody we knew.

Excuse Me, You’re Jack’s Mom, Right? Are You Losing Your Mind?
It can be slightly embarrassing to be women on a mission, particularly if that mission involves asking taboo questions of vague acquaintances. Still, we decided to start asking every mom we could find how she was feeling. In the grocery store, at after-school pick-up, during cocktail parties, and while pushing swings at the playground.

Over the course of the next six months, we talked to more than a hundred women, logging six thousand minutes of intense, sometimes tearful, sometimes humorous interviews. We talked to women across the country, from small towns like Port Angeles, Washington, to big cities like Boston. We talked to stay-at-home moms, full-time working moms, and part-time working moms. We talked to mothers in their late twenties and in their early forties. We talked to married mothers and single mothers. We talked to mothers with one child, mothers with two children, and mothers with three, four, and five. Ninety-five percent of our research was done one on one, in person and on the phone. We sat down with women behind closed doors or found some quiet time on the phone, and we listened. Many mothers threw us a bucket of sunshine at first, but then gave themselves permission to reveal their honest feelings about how they’re living in motherhood today. Many told their truths for the first time in years, and in doing so, they felt instant relief.

OK, not quite instant. Getting to the relief took a few minutes. Twenty-two minutes, to be exact.

Us: Tell us a little something about yourself.

Them: Well, I’m thirty-six, I have two kids, and I used to be the manager of a pharmaceutical company. I finally got a big promotion right before I had my first child.

Us: How are you handling motherhood right now?

Them: It’s amazing. I love it! I am so balanced. My husband is my best friend. I feel really blessed and extremely lucky that I have healthy kids and we’re able to provide a great foundation and a positive environment for our children.

Twenty-two minutes later:

Us: Sounds like you have real balance in your life. A lot of women we’ve talked to seem to have a hard time finding that. How do you do it?

Them: Ummm, well, maybe balance isn’t the right word. [Long pause.] Umm, actually, I haven’t taken a shower in three days. And, OK, my husband and I haven’t had sex in three weeks. And, well, the laundry is piled to the ceiling, and my house is a mess. My five-year-old daughter could also use a serious attitude adjustment. I really wish I had time to get a haircut. And I hate to admit it, but my son’s first word was “Shrek.”

Us: OK, things aren’t perfect. But overall, are you happy?

Them:  Umm, wow, happy? Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, I’m happy. Well, I wouldn’t say totally happy.  You know, I have an MBA. Why can’t I do this? [Long pause.]  I feel like such a bad mom sometimes. This really isn’t what I expected.One mother—talking with us on the phone, between working and picking up her four-year-old from preschool—summed it up best: “I was a really good mom before I had kids.” 

Honesty Starts Here
Sure, you can go ahead and keep telling all the women in your book group how beautiful your whole life is, but for us, it’s time for a reality check. We didn’t realize that being mothers would make us feel so unsuccessful. We didn’t realize that motherhood would involve so many sacrifices. We didn’t know we’d lose control. We didn’t know the skills we honed at work would not be transferable or, worse, would be transferable in really unappealing ways. As one mom told us, “I used to be a creative art director at a big ad agency, and I found myself driving around to six different drugstores at 10 p.m. to find three specific flavors of Kool-Aid to match the color theme of my daughter’s birthday party.”

We’ve been there, done that. And we can tell you from experience: this is not who this woman thought she’d turn out to be.

So it’s time to get real and start improving our lives in motherhood. And the first step involves being frank—with ourselves and with others. More than one hundred moms shared their innermost thoughts with us. They admitted some dirty little secrets and offered advice, which you’ll find throughout the book. We’ve pinpointed eight core issues to talk about, and each one stems from the same source: our overblown expectations. At the end of each chapter you will find applicable solutions that will help you rewrite your own rules for living in modern motherhood.

First, we need to get some disclaimers out of the way.

Yes, we all love our kids.Yes, we all adore our husbands.Yes, we are very, very lucky to have so many choices.

Yet... We’re feeling pretty maxed out right now.We’re stuck. We need to think about motherhood in a new way.We sometimes resent being mothers.We want to feel better about our lives.

The hope is that we’ll raise great kids and be happy doing it. And that means talking about the good and bad sides of motherhood. Because if we can talk honestly, perhaps we can lose the notion that we can and should do it all. And if we can lose that notion, then perhaps we can get a grip on our insane expectations. And if we can get a grip on our insane expectations, perhaps we can stop judging ourselves and other moms, learn to say no when we need to, embrace our daily lives, nurture ourselves and our husbands, and maybe, just maybe, relax and find peace. The ideal is to be true to ourselves, to make conscious choices based on our own value systems (and not others’ expectations of us), and to live our lives in ways that serve our own best interests and those of our families. Only then can we begin to love motherhood as much as we love our children.

Excerpted from "I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids" by Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile.  All rights reserved.  Published by Chronicle Books. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.