“Moooommmmy! I want to listen to my music!” my six-year old daughter whines from the backseat of the car. I keep my hands on the steering wheel, debating whether or not to change the station to appease her, when I hear the debilitating phrase that’s taken residence in my mind:
You don’t matter.
I sigh and give in to my daughter’s demands, pressing the buttons on the radio to select her music. She stops whining and the car is filled with the overpowering voice of Moana declaring how far she’ll go.
It’s as if there is an invisible monster within me, reminding me of the truth I believe. He ruthlessly claws his way to the surface of my thoughts and berates me. It doesn’t matter what you want. I feel the monster settling into his comfortable spot in the forefront of my mind, stretching out in complete control as I grip the steering wheel.
A few years ago I resigned from teaching to stay home with my children. I didn’t have a clear plan of what staying home meant, just that I wanted to focus my time and energy on growing and nurturing my kids. I imagined vignettes with my children playing happily with their dolls or Legos, visiting local museums and cultural exhibits, learning and exploring and creating within and around the walls of our perfectly arranged home.
However, in visualizing what life would look like as a stay at home mom, I had forgotten to picture myself.
You don’t matter, a new gravelly voice whispered after I resigned from my position and decided to put my energy into being the perfect mom. Your job now is to sacrifice.
You’re right, I pragmatically agreed. Fueled by Pinterest images and the latest Instagram posts, I vowed to make my house and home mirror what was shared on social media, to put myself last as I catered to the needs and wants of my husband and children.
I didn’t consciously invite the monster into my mind, yet he burrowed his way in like a parasite, feeding and growing on my insecurities: I wasn’t putting enough effort into taking care of my children, or preparing them for school, or serving them the right foods, or giving them enough stimulation. He told me I was being selfish when I sat down to read or write or listen to music that I preferred, or didn’t drop everything to cater to every interruption.
You don’t matter, he yelled at me, moving from my mind to shove aside a rib and sink his claws painfully into my chest. His voice grew louder and larger and uglier as he chiseled out more room for himself. Over time, the monster’s mantra became my constant companion.
On the outside, I smiled and continued to pour into the lives around me. But the small, twisted creature I had allowed in sank his disfigured heels into my heart and reared up to proclaim compelling reasons for his deprecating words: I had chosen to forfeit my career and stay home. It was my choice to keep the house clean, traipse the children to the museum on a whim, drive them to the beach for the day, arrange playdates at the park. I was living a vacation, or as much as I could, while corralling three children. I didn’t matter.
Unwittingly, too weary to speak up for myself and overwhelmed by taking care of the wants and needs of everyone else, I gave the monster a home in my head and a place inside my soul.
Years into this life I am angry, run down, and oh so tired. I don’t like how I feel and have lost my usual joy and energy. I can feel the monster salivating, ready to pounce and claim any small piece of me that is left. If I submit and allow him to completely scrape and hollow out even more room for himself, to let his harsh words chip at what’s left of the brittle walls, I will shatter.
Listening to Moana describe her inner turmoil, I have a moment of clarity. Is this where I want to be? Do I want to be a martyr for my family, empty and depleted, berated by a ruthless internal monster for the choices I make, constantly erasing myself from the picture? Is this the example I want to set for my children and their future? The answer is clear and I know I need to change that inner voice if I want to take a different path.
My children sing along in the background, oblivious to my struggles. I think of them and the life I pictured as I gather the courage I need.
“I matter.” I say audibly, trying it out. I matter. I dare to speak life back into the dark recesses within me. The monster howls in response, offended that I take such a stance against his words. Yet, with trepidation and the sweet taste of a renewed sense of self, I persist. Tentatively, I reach into the murk and fog of my mind, numb to the claws of the monster fighting to keep his authority. I sift through the pieces of myself that have been torn down and ripped apart and examine the edges to see what once fit together.
I narrow my thoughts and remind myself that I once presided over classrooms and tried new ideas and had fun. With every memory, every realization that I do matter, I scream back at that monster from within, prying its claws out and filling the space that it has inhabited. I push it up and out as I deprive it of its crippling hold on me.
The song ends and I hear a different child whine from the backseat. “Moooommy! We need to change it to my music!” It is the four-year-old who has learned from her older sister.
“No, not right now, sweetheart.” I call back. “It’s Mommy’s turn.” I smile, a genuine smile, as I continue to drive, one hand lightly on the steering wheel, the other turning the knob to my station on the radio.
I would like to say the story ends there, but that would be another lie. The simple choice I made that day was the first of many to reclaim the space the monster had hollowed out. Even with time, he hasn’t disappeared completely. I can hear him shrivel and crack, shrink and run out of room whenever I put myself first. His voice still lives in the back of my mind, trying to remind me of the lie I once believed.
I am working hard to prioritize and make room for me, to read and write and choose to purposefully enjoy life. I am finding and connecting with other moms who have similar feelings. Most importantly, I am refusing to feel guilty for putting myself into the picture.
Sometimes the monster will lift a claw and try to find a vulnerable spot, but his voice is getting dimmer and smaller, and I’m able to ignore it most of the time. As I find that I don’t have to sacrifice myself to be a stay at home mom, that my children will be better nurtured if they don’t have a shell of a mother, I tell myself the truth:
I am a mother and I matter.
Guest post written by Beth Robinson. Beth resides in Northern California with her husband and three children. She was a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Her children will tell you her favorite things are Reese’s peanut butter cups and her family, most likely in that order. She can often be found reading, writing, gardening, or traveling. She has written for BabyCenter, Parent.co, Tribe Magazine, and spontaneously blogs at My Pregnancy and Beyond.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.