The Seven Secrets of Motherhood: What I’ve Learning as a Parent Counsellor

Motherhood can feel like you are juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle – challenging, ridiculous, and messy. It’s also complex and emotionally murky as love, confusion, and worry emerge from the depths. One thing is for certain – motherhood is full of surprises which are revealed with time and patience.

To honour Mothers on this special day, I wanted to pull back the veil and reveal the ‘secrets’ of motherhood as gleaned from counselling sessions over the years. It is really a love letter to anyone who does the work of mothering. Universal in nature, the following secrets reveal the essence of what mothering is from the window I am afforded. What is for certain is our mothering not only changes our children, but us too.

1.The Complexity of Connection

Sacrifice, longing, and love are a few of the powerful emotions that bind us to our children. Mothers are moved to care through ancient instincts and emotions that only Nature seems to hold the key to. Yet in the privacy of counselling sessions, with kids safely out of earshot, Mothers have confessed they have fantasized about escaping in the wee early hours.

Exhausted, sleep deprived and fed up, Mothers not only want to run to their kids but also away from them sometimes.

Still, it is these mothers who also rise to greet their kid’s morning with pancakes and packed lunch bags. These acts of caretaking are the expressions of love and connection. We can’t help ourselves. We are pulled headlong into motherhood where we realize there is nowhere else to go but through the mess of it all. And so, we face what comes – sometimes with tear-stained cheeks, but we do it all in the name of love.

2. Embracing Imperfection with Humour and Tears

From imperfection, to feeling guilty and insecure, there is nothing like your kid(s) to reveal the immature parts in you. With courage Mothers face off against these parts with part humour and sadness. Moms seem to have a unique ability to laugh and cry at themselves at the same time. From losing patience over small things to finding laughter in the chaos, the movement of emotion is what keeps Mom’s sane.

Embracing chaos and coming to grips with the imperfect reality of motherhood is key to surviving. For example, one Mom howled with laughter until she cried in recalling how a stranger once asked if she ran a small daycare as she towed her three kids behind her. “Can you imagine if I did? I could call in sick and could go home by myself and not have anyone touching me constantly.”  With tears in her eyes she admitted she couldn’t bear the thought of missing her kids too. Being a Mother reconfigures our hearts to bear the weight of another’s and we don’t even see it coming.

3. Confronting Fears from the Shadow

Daunting are the fears that come with mothering. We can wake at the slightest sound in the middle of the night and can catastrophize about all that could go wrong. We ache when our kids do, we are alarmed if they are not doing well, if they struggle at school, if they don’t eat or sleep well, get sick, or worry that people will hurt them, about digital devices and screens that are unrelenting, that they are different than their peers or are full of attacking behaviour when faced with limits and restrictions.

One Mother in my office was pretty sure her son was a psychopath at the age of three because he wanted to poke his dad’s eyes out and chop his head off with a chain saw. It turns out Dad was going back to work after a two-week vacation and watching his Dad use the chainsaw was his favourite thing to do.

I have watched Mothers protect their kids from in-laws and outlaws, from teachers and bullies, from medical illnesses, to navigating their child’s special needs. I will never forget the words of a Mother helping her 10 year old son navigate a very hard time in  his life by telling him, “this too will pass, and you have a big beautiful life ahead of you.” What he did not know is she was full of alarm and had many sleepless nights wondering if she would get him through such hard times.

It is our caring when mixed with our fears that give birth to the courage in us. We are not courageous to start, it grows in us as we are called to show up and lead through hard times. It is this leadership that creates resilience and resourcefulness and gives our children something solid to lean on.

4. Wisdom in Nature’s Ways

Mothers realize at some point that they are not separate from Nature but part of her exquisite plan for renewal and regeneration. With reverence and respect for development, she comes to see that Nature has always been there to help her grow her children up. She sees herself as playing midwife to the brilliant plan Nature enacts to grow our children’s bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits. It is this realization that allows her to better listen to the voice inside her that steers her as a mother.

I have witnessed this beautiful evolution many times over and it never ceases to strike me with beauty and wonder. I will often remark – “you seem different as we talk today, more confident in some way.”  I hear less waver in her voice, more confidence as she recounts how she sees her child and listen to her knowledge of how she will find a way through hard times.

Instead of turning her mothering over to google she searches the interior of her own emotional and instinctual world for answers and doesn’t come up empty handed.

5. The Ghosts from Memory

Raising a child seems to unlock our own memories from childhood. We remember how we were treated and what worked for us or didn’t. We can’t help but compare ourselves to our predecessors and ponder how it would have been different if we had received less of whatever didn’t work. And sometimes we are filled with gratitude for the Mother we did have and serve to configure ourselves in her image. Sometimes we long for the Mother who left us too early and wonder how she would walk beside us on our own mothering journey.

We exist in relationship to our children, to ourselves as a Mother, and the Mother we had. The complexity of these roles and emotions swirls around in us as we discover our tears and resolve to place the hands on the steering wheel of our own mothering journey. Whatever our story, we have the capacity to have a relationship with it all – to feel it, heal it and to do differently for our kids. And as we make mistakes we may also find some grace and forgiveness for the imperfect ways of our own Mothers too.

6. Unraveling the Threads of Influence

The power of mothering lies in seeing one’s relationship as the key to influencing our child. It is attachment that unlocks a child’s desire to follow, copy and imitate us, and to strive to meet expectations and guidelines for behaviour. It is the strength of our connection that opens their minds to our influence, their mouths to our food, and brings their body to rest as we lead them to sleep.

As we step into the provider role, we are empowered by their love for us to influence the trajectory of their growth.

As they rest in our care they are free to express themselves, to explore and play, and to be reconfigured in the face of loss and adversity. As we seek to influence through connection we are less inclined to resort to consequences, punishment, coercion, bribes, threats, and token systems to assert power. We come to realize that the most powerful thing is human connection. When we have their heart we have the key to it all. It is our presence and the promise of unwavering love and support that reconfigures them into a more mature version.

7. The Power of Empathy and Compassion

One of the greatest shifts from adulthood to parenthood is in our emotional world. As adults the focus is on our feelings. As Mothers we are responsible for both our emotions and making room for our children’s. Often our hardest times are when we are flooded with too much emotion with little room to maneuver.

The raw truth is we must struggle and stretch to emerge differently. We often grow emotionally wiser and mature in reflecting on all we did not do well. It is in the post-mortem of mistakes that we learn to walk beside our children’s emotions instead of making it about ours, we listen instead of getting them to calm down, and hold ourselves back from teaching a lesson or problem solving. When we come to realize we don’t control their emotional world, and that they are not always in control of themselves either, then our empathy and compassion steer us through. The irony is that as we grow more emotionally mature as Mothers, the more our own immaturities seem more glaring.

We are not ourselves at the end of this mothering journey – cat scratched, fever pitched, with well-worn, mushy and soggy bits. But we are better for the journey, wiser and hopefully gentler, more confident in what we have to offer, and in awe of Nature’s enduring wisdom to take care of us all.

As I said to my five year old daughter one night when she worried her shiny new black patent shoes wouldn’t fit her one day, “I can always get you new shoes, and you will never be too big that I can’t take care of you.”

After pausing and inhaling she replied in the quiet between us, “Will you still love me when you are in heaven?”

As tears surfaced I hurried to push them away and replied to her with the only thing I knew was for certain.

“I will always be your Mama. There won’t ever be a day you won’t feel my love for you. I am in your heart, and you are in mine, and we will always be together this way.”

To all you wonderful Mothers, thank you for showing up and endeavouring to hold onto the hearts of your children.  You make this world a better place and I am grateful for all you do.

Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor, educator, mother, Faculty member at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), Nourished: Connection, Food and Caring for our Kids (and everyone else we love), and The Sorry Plane.