Conflict is something that most of us tend to avoid, and yet it is an inevitable part of family life, and of life in general. It's too bad that we tend to shy away from conflict so readily, because it can be a powerful messenger - a gateway to understanding both ourselves and another person on a deeper level, and to greater compassion and empathy. If we shifted our perspective about conflict and saw it not as something catastrophic but rather as a potential opening to stronger connection, we might even embrace it.
This week on There Goes the Motherhood (Wednesdays 10/9c on Bravo), we see two of the moms on the show, Jen and Beth, navigate the turbulent waters of dealing with their feelings about divorce and single motherhood. Sparks fly as each becomes emotionally inflamed about their perception of how the other is faring post-divorce. While we don't often see this level of tension between moms in our Los Angeles-based parenting groups, we didn't shy away from it on the show because we knew that we could allow the container of mom group to help Jen and Beth move through their differences. We also wanted to talk about how conflict can be addressed in a healthy way.
Emotions tend to run high for just about every mom on a regular basis, for lots of reasons - one primary reason being that there is so much at stake in the responsibility moms feel to raise children who are happy and healthy, who are empathic and kind, who are able to navigate the roller coaster that life can be, and who can both succeed in reaching their goals as well as learn from their challenges with grace. Talk about pressure! So where does that pressure come from? Some of it comes from a self-imposed internal pressure that many moms place on themselves; many of the moms we've met over the 20 years we've been working as parenting professionals hold themselves, and by extension their children, to impossibly high standards that set both parent and child up to feel like there is a benchmark that is nearly impossible to meet. But a mom's friends and family, the media, and society add their own pressure, too; a mom often feels a kind of collective admonishment from the world that she had better be a "good mother," whatever that means, or else some sort of harm will come to her child, and it will all be her fault. The implication seems to be that you're either being a good mother or you're not; there's little room for anything in between. But the reality, of course, is far more nuanced; if you yell at your kid for any reason, are you being a bad mom? If you respond immediately to your child's every need, are you being a good mom? Who is the judge who condemns or applauds?
For a single mom, the pressure to do right by her child can be especially intense; many single moms often don't feel that they have all the support they need to take care of themselves and their families, and the burden of making parenting choices and decisions on their own can mean that emotions, especially anxiety, run extremely high. As single moms of young children, Jen and Beth are both feeling the heat. So why do they turn this heat on each other? Perhaps one reason is that neither one of them feels certain in her place in life due to all of the recent family upheaval, and with each feeling that trust was broken in their marriages, each is learning how to trust herself again - not to mention how to trust others. When we judge or criticize, we are usually recognizing something about ourselves in the mirror of the other person - our inability to accept our own imperfections, or even our own strengths.
In our parenting groups - our "mom village" - we try to help each mom take a deeper look at what triggers strong emotions for her, including in her role as a parent, and to uncover what is really at the root of that reactivity. Inevitably, that root is planted in fear: fear of being vulnerable, fear of not knowing what to do as a mom or how to do it, fear that she's the only mom who doesn't have motherhood all figured out, fear of failing herself and her child. Once a mom can acknowledge these fears in group, there is always a chorus of "me toos" - these fears may manifest differently in different people, but the overarching themes of how those fears play out are incredibly common in motherhood. As each mom receives the emotional support she needs in group - and in some cases, she needs to be encouraged to ask for additional support outside of group, too - she usually feels a tremendous amount of relief, knowing she is not the only one who feels anxious and worried at times and knowing that she is not alone. Once moms have offloaded the too-heavy burden they've been carrying on their own shoulders, there is usually some laughter in the wake of any tears that have been shed. Generally, we tend to feel the best about ourselves and life when we're connecting with others and sharing our stories, without becoming those stories.
Finding the sisterhood in motherhood does not mean that every mom will agree with every other mom's parenting or life choices. But just because a particular choice wouldn't work for you, that doesn't mean that it's wrong for another. No one is standing in anyone else's shoes; no one can know what another person is feeling or experiencing. What's more, at any given moment in life, everyone is fighting some kind of battle. Every mom is doing the best that she can. In motherhood, there can be room for differences of opinion without it getting personal. A mom can agree to disagree with another mom's decisions or path without drawing conclusions about who that mom is or isn't. Learning to disagree with someone without getting emotionally wrapped up in judgment and projection - which requires the willingness to accept and tolerate differences - is a healthy way to move through conflict.
Let's be honest: there is no certainty in motherhood, other than knowing that you love your child. And that uncertainty can make a mom feel more than a little unsettled at times. But where that uncertainty takes you - whether to judging yourself or another, or to reaching out for connection or support - is a choice. Every mom, single or married, can benefit from learning to trust herself more, and in trusting herself more she can open up to trusting others more, too. Motherhood must include both the honesty of, "Holy $*%*# this is so hard, and there are days I'm truly not sure I can do it" and, "At the end of the day, there is definitely more good than bad to this gig, and I'm incredibly blessed to be a mom and to have this opportunity to give and receive so much love." Owning both makes you neither a good mom nor a bad one, but an honest one - and a mom who is in very good company with plenty of other moms who feel exactly the same way.
"There Goes the Motherhood" airs on Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR OWN CIRCLE OF MOMS
Why not have a get-together with your own mom friends and keep the conversation going? Here are some questions to get you started. You can also join us each Thursday at 10 am PST on our Facebook page for a virtual mom group where we'll talk about all that's on your mind and in your heart! Join us!
1. Have you found yourself judging another mom or feeling particularly angry at the way she is handling an important situation with her child? Can you connect with anything you, yourself feel frightened of in the things she was saying or the way she was approaching a situation? Is there a particular fear that was triggered in you when you watched the other mom's situation play out?
2. What have you felt judged for as a mom? What is it that you feel
others may not understand about your life that is unique to your situation?
3. What has been your experience of offering compassion or support to another mom who is struggling, or of receiving that support? Do you feel more empowered as a mom yourself when judgment is present (whether yours or another's), or when there is compassion and connection?