The Invisible Mom
Being a mom may be the most all-inclusive and demanding job in the world. It’s impossible to capture what running a family with school-age children entails these days, but here’s a very short list of Mom’s common responsibilities.
-Provide primary connection and emotional glue for all members of family: knowing names and details of who’s who in the children’s lives, who’s being mean and nice, the latest crush, who got the lead in the play, and so on.
-Serve as that person who makes everyone (else) feel appreciated, seen and known.
Oh, and moms usually work full- or part-time jobs outside the home (where children believe moms begin and end).
And finally, in their “free” time, most moms are picking up stuff, putting out fires, answering cries for help, and responding to the unending stream of others’ needs.
What’s most remarkable about the mom job is the fact that (from my research) most moms feel unappreciated. Moms from all walks of life describe feeling unacknowledged and unseen for what they do and are for their families. Being a mom can mean being taken for granted. It also appears to be unique in that it comes with the expectation that appreciation is not and should not be needed or wanted by the one doing the job. And in fact, to want or need appreciation as a mom would be self-serving, inappropriate, and even shameful.
As a psychotherapist, I talk to women all day about the private experience they don’t usually share with others. Again and again, I hear moms express the deep longing for appreciation, the wish for some acknowledgment from their kids and partner. As a mom myself, I am remarkably aware of how little appreciation is offered for the amount of effort that being a mom requires. I am also aware that it can feel shameful to admit that I might want my family to occasionally notice and express unprompted appreciation for what I do for each of them individually and also for the family as a whole. It feels self-indulgent because, as moms, we’re supposed to be selfless, and certainly not need anything as childish and greedy as appreciation.
To appreciate something is to value it, be grateful for it, and acknowledge its importance. As human beings, we all long to be appreciated, to have our goodness seen, our positive intentions and efforts recognized. To want and need appreciation is a primal human longing.
At the same time, kids should experience a time in their life when they get to be fully taken care of without having to be aware of or grateful for anything or anyone when they’re allowed to be oblivious to the fact that someone is providing for them. There needs to be a totally self-centered period in a child’s life. And, there needs to be a time when the perfunctory, learned but not yet felt “thank you” is enough for appreciation. It’s not a child’s responsibility to be grateful to her parents for doing their job as parents. And yet, there also comes a time in a child’s life when it is important that she recognizes that her parents exist as human beings deserving of appreciation for working hard on their children’s behalf.
This recognition is an important step in the healthy development from childhood into young adulthood. Encouraging kids to feel empathy and gratitude for parents will ultimately help our children live connected and meaningful lives.
Recently, after a day of doing my job and using every spare minute between clients to arrange travel and other fun activities for my teenage daughter’s summer, and also getting my younger daughter’s medical and other forms sent the different camps she’s in this summer, I disappointingly misspoke, asking my teenager how her French quiz went. Well, apparently, in my exhaustion and bureaucratic stupor, I got the subject of the quiz wrong and received an icy and supremely agitated, “The quiz was in math.” That was it, conversation over. I had to laugh, there wasn’t anything else to do. Not enough, it’s the nature of being a mom.
As a mom, my children are the most important part of my life. They bring an ineffable joy and I am astonished that I get to be a mom to two girls I cherish. And, simultaneously, I dislike many of the tasks that being a mom involves.
This past mother’s day, I was happily surprised by my husband and kids with a lovely lunch at the restaurant they enjoy. I deeply appreciated this gesture—and—I also long for a “thank you” when I return from a 7 pm parent-teacher conference after a long day with patients when I walk in to find three people awaiting their dinner. Is it okay to want both, the lunch and the thank you? Yes.
We live in a society where, at a subtle level, women are still taught that they’re not supposed to want or need anything for themselves, including appreciation or recognition. But wanting to be seen for our efforts is inherent in every human being. Wanting to be thanked and noticed for what we offer is a wholesome wanting, and one that encourages us to keep on doing the good we’re doing.
While it’s odd, it does seem that the simple act of stopping what we’re doing and offering someone a straight, heartfelt “thank you” or “I appreciate you” can feel too vulnerable, or even silly. And yet, these simple moments of genuine appreciation are profoundly meaningful for the recipient, and also for the giver. The moments when appreciation is shared are the moments of connection that fill our emotional well.
When you feel unappreciated or unseen, or notice the longing to be thanked, try these steps:
1. Reject any self-shaming thoughts. Remind yourself that wanting and needing to be appreciated and recognized is normal and healthy.
2. Reach out to another mom. She’ll get it. Laugh about the fact that your kid hasn’t asked you how you are for years and yet is very good at asking for the credit card. It’s a fairly universal first world experience for moms.
3. Ask for what you want. Let your partner know, unapologetically, that it feels good to be seen for all that you do and are, and what you offer the family. When he does show appreciation without your asking, express your appreciation for his appreciation. Appreciation begets appreciation. If your kids are old enough, nine or ten and above is usually a good starting place, let them know that even mommies have feelings and sometimes need to be given a gold star in the form of a thank you. It’s not about guilting or shaming them but rather, letting them know mommies need things too. It will help them become more empathic and grateful.
4. Offer appreciation. Appreciation is a form of love. When you offer it to someone or name it out loud, you’re not only modeling appreciation for your family, but you’re also giving yourself a small dose of the love you need. It may feel counter-intuitive to give appreciation in the moments when you’re the one needing it but offering it evokes the same feelings of love and warmth that you crave.
5. Appreciate yourself. Put your hand on your own heart recognize all that you do and are. Remind yourself how good a mom you are and how much you love your children. Don’t forget to honor yourself because only you really know how much you do and how incredible and profound what you are providing actually is.
How strange, magical, and deserving of appreciation is life. Just as I was finishing this piece, my 7-year-old daughter came into my office with this, “Hey mom, thanks for making me a playdate today and not making me go to afterschool.”
Of course, I cried, as I usually do when touched, and then I told her how much I appreciated her saying this, and how I hoped that one day she too would be as lucky as me and get to be a mom. It’s the best job that has ever existed.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. For more information, visit NancyColier.com