Motherhood is a tough job. Oftentimes it goes unappreciated, and when you’re already questioning your ability to be a good parent, it can make things that much harder.
Six years ago, when I suffered my worst case of Major Depression, I was not the best parent I could be. During my youngest kid’s 4th birthday, when we travelled by ferry to San Francisco to visit Ghirardelli Square, I was distant and wound up wandering away from the group so I could cry on a bench, feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t just be happy for my kid on his birthday. This should be a joyous occasion. I was not a good mother that year, largely due to emotional dysregulation. I couldn’t be a good mother because I couldn’t even take care of myself.
Society teaches us that mothers should put their children first. Above their own wants and needs. But I disagree. Balance is far more important. When you don’t have time for self-care, it is a lot harder to take care of other people, because you’re running on empty. Don’t neglect your children solely to take care of your own needs, but also, don’t neglect yourself to meet your children’s every want.
In the five years that followed that bout of Major Depression, during and after my recovery, I became a much better parent through taking care of my own needs as much as my children’s. When I took time out of my life to pursue improv, I was able to appreciate the time I spent with my children more, and also share with them the lessons I learned through my own self-growth. The lessons I imparted on my children during those years have allowed the three of us to cope pretty well at a time where it is unsurprising that many people are suffering due to a raging virus and efforts to try and mitigate it.
During the rest of the entry, I’m going to talk about some of these specific lessons that I have imparted on my children, that have helped us cope. My experiences are mine alone, and what works for me may not work for other people, because of life circumstances, systemic issues, or whatever else. But hopefully some of you will be able to take away something that at least gets you thinking about different ways to approach life. Also, I’ve found that the way I approach things with my children is very similar to how I approach things with other adults—with the basic tenant that I try to treat everyone with respect, and the ability to make their own choices.
Though I have two sons, none of this content is intended to be advice for a particular gender. I think I’d be imparting the same lessons regardless of gender, because it’s about what makes human life worthwhile.
Empathy Can Be Taught
The Elementary/Middle School my children attend(ed) has empathy listed as one of their values. It radiates through the lessons they learn, and allows them to appreciate and better understand people of different backgrounds in a way that I did not learn when I was their age, growing up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighbourhood in Australia. We live in a predominantly Hispanic, low-income part of Oakland, California with statistically more racial and ethnic diversity than I grew up with, and that has meant their school teaches Black and Hispanic History. Their school also doesn’t ignore LGBTQ issues. But these lessons can’t just be imparted at school, they also need to be enforced at home.
Have the hard conversations. If you don’t understand the issues, take the time to research them yourself so you can be better prepared to discuss them, and from different angles. Talk about the reasons why some people might be against certain groups having basic human rights to help them empathise with the marginalised groups they do not also belong to, because that can create a better understanding about how some of these issues are systemic, even if they are not directly impacted by them. Discuss the issues through intersectionality, also, because marginalisation is often compounded the more minority groups a person identifies with.
When Trump won the Presidential race in 2016, it devastated our school community. My eldest son in particular was concerned that his classmates could get deported because of the rhetoric Trump spewed. I had to calm him down by explaining to him why some people would want to vote for him despite that rhetoric. So I do feel it is important that, no matter how much you might disagree with someone’s ideals (and it can be incredibly hard when they are spewing hateful rhetoric), you are never going to understand them or find any common ground and help them see your point of view if you are also unwilling to see theirs.
Yes, there are people in the world who deliberately want to antagonise others. Trolls, people with personality disorders, and so on, across the political spectrum, and you don’t have to gloss over that. You can’t always tell the difference at first glance, and you get to decide how much time and energy you want to extend to figure out what type of person someone is. But I do believe the majority of the world just wants to be heard and understood. When we take the time to do this, then it makes it easier to choose to put our community’s interest above our own.
Imparting this kind of wisdom to my children over the past few years has made it that much easier for them to accept distance learning. Of course they would prefer to be in school with their classmates, but talking to them about the purpose of distance learning—to help prevent the spread of a virus that has decimated the country we live in (and has been especially devastating to the communities in our zip code, where the rates are some of the highest of our county)—has allowed them to feel like they can have some control and responsibility in looking after others they care about, by staying home.
Hard-Work, and Self-Motivation
My children do really well in school. I don’t know where all the credit for that goes—I suspect it’s a combination of genetics, great teachers, environment, and nurture. Genetics because both their dad and I generally did well in school without necessarily having to try very hard. Although in my case, that led to me taking a lot longer to develop a strong work ethic, because in school I didn’t have to work hard to succeed, and then when things got harder, I gave up faster because I worried about failing at something if it didn’t come naturally to me. If I quit first, then I didn’t have to find out I wasn’t good at something, which is a guaranteed way to not succeed (thankfully I’ve mostly outgrown that now, depending on the situation, though I still gravitate towards activities that do come easily to me).
I took my experiences to foster some different ideals in my kids. A few years ago, my eldest kid was showing signs of wanting to do well in school to make me proud. I was absolutely proud of him doing well in school, but that was a red flag warning sign to me, as I thought back to my own childhood and wanting to make my own mother proud. That was all well and good, but she ended up having different dreams for me that didn’t really match my own, so I followed the path expected of me and wasn’t really happy as a result, rather than feeling like I had a choice to pursue what I had actually been more interested in, because I’d been taught how challenging it was to make a career out of my creative interests. So I chose to follow what I saw as the easy path to success. I didn’t want my kids to follow the same mindset, I wanted them to feel like they could follow the path they chose, and that they would be capable of achieving their goals if they worked hard for themselves. As long as they were happy and caring people, I would be proud of them.
This lesson really began to get imparted on my eldest kid when he was so smart that he skipped 6th grade and went straight into 7th (after doing 6th grade math and science when he was in 5th grade). That year, a lot more was expected of him in terms of homework, and I had started working as a tour guide then so I wasn’t always around to remind him to do his homework when he got home like I had in his earlier school years. As a result, he neglected a lot of his homework, which impacted his grades, since his homework that year was part of his grades. I didn’t become upset with him, but rather discussed with him about how it made him feel for himself. If he’d been disappointed in himself because he knew he was capable of doing better, then it would give him more opportunity to be self-motivated to do the work for himself, rather than because of how it might make me or anyone else feel.
In general, I’ve also fostered a love of learning, and with my younger kid especially, who has a 504 Plan, their teachers and I make sure the content they’re learning (particularly when they have a choice of fiction books to read) reflects their interests so they’re excited to be at school.
Amazingly (and perhaps also because I have very rarely restricted screen time for my kids, so they’re used to sitting in front of screens), I haven’t had to do much to keep my kids motivated through distance learning. They now set their own alarms to make sure they get to their zoom classes on time, and the most I’ve really had to do since they returned after summer break is troubleshoot technical issues for my youngest kid. My oldest kid, who started high school this school year, has been a self-starter and has only needed minor help for a couple of physics classes. I’m really impressed by the structure their schools have figured out for their distance learning, which has worked really well for both of my kids, and I greatly appreciate that the school administration is always looking for feedback and ways to improve because they recognise the challenges for various members of the student body.
I do acknowledge that, whilst we are currently low-income and living in a low-income neighbourhood, we are at least fortunate enough to now be living in a house where they have their own bedrooms and therefore class space. It was a little more challenging in the spring when they were sharing a bedroom and I’d have to put a privacy screen between their desks, or have one of them bring their work into my bedroom, so they didn’t distract each other. They are also lucky that I am in a position where I can stay at home with them in case they do need help staying on track. This is certainly not the case for every family muddling through distance learning right now.
Healthy Boundaries and Emotion Sharing
Always ask for consent before doing anything with your children, no matter how inconsequential it might seem. Consent doesn’t just relate to bodily autonomy. It can be required for all sorts of things, from the activities you do together, to the food they eat. I never force my kids to do anything they’re not comfortable doing. Now, I do recognise that this could lead to complications if they didn’t want to do things that are important to keep them healthy and taken care of, but still in those situations, I don’t force them. Instead I will explain to them why it’s important to participate (for example, brushing teeth or choosing healthy food), and what the long-term consequences could be if they don’t choose to take care of themselves. I’ve found that my kids are far more inclined to take care of themselves when they understand the why. “Just because I said so” is never a helpful response to this question.
Respect their ability to say, “No.” If they don’t want to do something you’d like to do with them (say, watch a movie), respect their decision. Sometimes their “No” is a “Not right now.” If they know why you want to do something with them, but they’re in the middle of something, they might be inclined to tell you they are willing to do it later if you give them that choice. Give them a choice. If you want to do something with your children but your specific options aren’t appealing to them, ask them to suggest an activity instead. Show them that spending time with them is more important than the specifics.
When we give our children choices like these, and respect their ability to say “No,” or “Not right now,” they will learn to respect other people’s ability to do the same—including when you need to tell them “No” or “Not right now.”
Because I have a history with some difficult mental health issues, and I’ve sought help for it (through one-on-one therapy, classes, and reading a lot of psychology materials), I have become better equipped to pass those lessons onto my children so they can also be more emotionally healthy. Some of this comes in the form of sharing boundaries (e.g. “I think we need some space right now.”) Sometimes it’s admitting you don’t have the answer (e.g. “I’m not sure what the right answer is, let’s see if we can ask someone else for help”—this opens the door to being able to seek therapy before problems get too big and overwhelming, which is much harder to deal with). Sometimes it’s acknowledging emotions without judging them—there are no good or bad emotions. Emotions just are. They exist. We can’t control how we feel. We can control what we do with them. Talking about our feelings helps us understand them better, and therefore we become better equipped to channel those emotions in healthy ways.
When dealing with difficult and challenging emotions, don’t just brush them under the rug. Be honest about them. Which brings me to…
Acknowledge the difficult feelings, and accept them. Don’t gloss over pain and tell kids to just suck it up. Life is hard. Mistakes are common. But if we’re not willing to own them, and apologise where necessary, then what are we teaching our kids? That we have to pretend to be perfect all the time, and people don’t want to listen to the hard stuff?
This means you teach by example. Have you gotten so overwhelmed that you haven’t done the right thing by your children? Apologise to them. And be specific. Acknowledge that what you did was wrong, and why. When you’re able to do this, it develops trust, and they are far more likely to come to you when they make their own mistakes and need your help.
When kids are allowed to express feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, and so on, they are better equipped to work through those emotions rather than letting them fester and build to something unmanageable in the future. Confront those feelings early on so they can be processed and understood. Why are they feeling this way? How can these feelings be channelled productively, if necessary? (It’s not always necessary to do something productive… sometimes feelings just need to be accepted). Don’t ignore the feelings, and offer compassion. When my kids encounter these difficult emotions, I try to ask them questions like, “Would you like a hug?” or “What would help you feel better in this moment?” Help them problem-solve, rather than solving the problem for them, so they are better equipped to deal with similar issues when you are not around to help. If you’ve encountered similar problems in your own life, talk to them honestly about what has worked for you, and see if they would like to try something similar.
An obvious example of putting this into practice during the pandemic is the feelings of disappointment around not being able to socialise in person with their friends or doing their favourite activities. Acknowledge those feelings. “Yes, this sucks. I’m sorry we have to deal with this right now.” Once acknowledged, it is easier to move through it and not dwell, so we can focus on what we do have control over. What is going well for us? Do we need a distraction?
Also on the topic of honesty, it’s really important to answer questions honestly, no matter how tough that may be, as that also fosters trust. Kids are often smarter than we give them credit for, and they can pick up on things that we might prefer they didn’t, or have tried to hide from them, either to protect them or ourselves. But when you foster an environment that shows you are willing to answer those difficult questions, your children will trust that it is okay to ask them. I credit my ability to create this kind of environment for my kids as the reason why, when I noticed something bothering my then-12yo kid and asked him if he wanted to talk about it, he had been able to express his fears to me. I won’t get specific about what those fears were, because he asked me not to (I asked for his consent and respected his wishes when he said no). It had been a difficult time for him, though, and being able to open up to me had allowed me to ease his fears somewhat, and also help him find other neutral people to talk to when I didn’t feel like I had the capacity to do a good enough job. I am grateful that my kid felt like he could trust me to have that conversation with him and maintain his privacy.
During the pandemic, honesty has been especially important when discussing how widespread the virus is, as well as the health and social distancing guidelines we have to follow to stay safe. It has, however, been important to discuss it in a way that doesn’t allow fear to override our decisions. That’s why my approach has been about keeping other people safe rather than dwelling on personal risks to ourselves (and the stats do suggest younger children are at lower risk of long-term consequences of the virus, which has helped them feel a little safer on the occasions when they have had to venture outdoors where they might encounter other people while wearing masks).
Resilience and Perseverance
It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to not be the best at something. Perfectionism can be a silent killer that leads to anxiety and depression. The sooner this can be accepted, the easier it can be to learn from mistakes and keep trying and keep improving, which is better than giving up. Acknowledging the effort and trying can help buffer against the negative thoughts of not being good enough.
When my youngest kid was in 2nd grade, he would adamantly say he was never going to read chapter books. He saw how fast his brother sped through chapter books and thought he would never be that good, so he didn’t even want to try. I told him not to compare himself to his brother, and it was okay for him to just focus on the books he wanted to read. I’m not entirely sure what happened next but I’d like to give a lot of credit to his 3rd grade Humanities teacher for finding chapter books that appealed to him, because that year his reading took off, and he read countless more chapter books than his brother, and probably ended up with a faster reading speed. Throughout that year and beyond, I have celebrated his ability to push past his fears and enjoy reading. We continue to look for books he’ll read enthusiastically, and when he occasionally starts reading something that he finds boring, I tell him, “It’s okay, you don’t have to finish reading it.” Passion and enjoyment are useful elements to keep perseverance alive.
This is another case where it’s important to know that it’s okay to ask for help. Recently, my older kid was getting frustrated and wanting to give up when he was struggling with some assigned physics work. He hadn’t been able to figure out how to get it to work properly, and I couldn’t either. When he told me he hated the subject, I instead suggested he contact his teacher and let them know the trouble he was running into, and ask for advice. It didn’t matter that the class was almost over, I reminded him that his teacher would want to help him succeed. That’s what they’re there for. He followed my advice, and the next time I saw him, he was much calmer, because he’d been able to get the help he needed.
Perseverance and acknowledging even the small successes are also important pieces of the resilience puzzle, in the face of nay-sayers (including one’s self). When you can recognise the progress you have already made, that can spur you further to keep trying.
I also like to include the importance of taking breaks from tasks to recharge our batteries. Sometimes time away is all we need to let our brains figure things out for themselves in the background while we’re focused on something different, so when we are ready to return to the task at hand, we can actually progress faster than we might have without the break.
This one is sort of a no-brainer for me. Quality time is one of my top two love languages, so I like to make sure I can carve out time to do something fun together with my kids. This has been especially important during the pandemic when we’ve literally been unable to socialise in person with anyone outside our household (though the kids do spend some time every week with their dad, also, who doesn’t live with us).
I have my preferred activities, but they don’t always line-up with what my kids like to do, so we generally put options on the table and decide together what we would all like to do. If there’s something two of us want to do, but the third doesn’t, then it’s okay for that person to opt-out of the activity (that’s usually to do with movies or TV shows), and allows for some one-on-one time together, which is nice as well.
The most popular activities we’ve partaken in during the pandemic has been table top games (we love trying new games, and it just so happened that three games I backed on Kickstarter happened to arrive during the pandemic), and watching things together.
The trick with playing games is to not be too competitive when playing. Both of my kids can, at times, be very competitive and feel disappointed or upset when they don’t win, or my youngest will be frustrated when he doesn’t quite understand all the rules because we’re playing games that might be slightly advanced for his age (he’s usually eventually able to get it, and his brother and I will sometimes give him tips to help him make the right connections in his mind when the game is about strategy). During moments of frustration, I offer time out to take a break and calm down before returning. When anger or disappointment pops up at a loss, I’ll acknowledge those feelings and then counter that probably next time will be different. Sometimes it’s all chance, and let’s celebrate another person doing well. We may also continue playing to see who comes second, if it’s a game that will allow for that. If I win, I don’t boast about it, but because I usually play fairly competitively (as in, I don’t make choices to help one of my kids win instead of me), when one of my kids does beat me, they feel prouder because they know I’m a challenge (this I learned from playing chess with my mum; she was so good that when I eventually beat her, I was really proud). Whoever does win, I teach to be humble about it, so as not to make the other players feel bad. The game and time together is more important than who wins, because next time it will probably be someone else.
One of the games that arrived during the pandemic turned out to have a co-operative playing mode, which we actually hadn’t done before in table top gaming (video games are another story). This made game time even more enjoyable for us, because we were able to team up and work together.
In terms of watching things… I was a huge movie nerd in my pre-motherhood life. I still love movies, but as an adult with more responsibilities, I don’t have as much time to watch things as I used to. But I do have a large DVD collection that is rarely put to good use any more. My kids are a lot less thrilled about movies, but during the pandemic, there have been some movies they have been eager to watch with me, usually from my DVD collection (like Disney and Pixar animations). Since we can’t go to a movie theatre, we’ve been making movie watching an experience… we all scootch together on my bed with bowls of microwave popcorn or Pringles while we watch together and usually share some laughs.
My older kid and I also worked our way through the entire runs of Avatar: The Last Air Bender and Legend of Korra when they hit Netflix, which was really great to do because it meant we could also have mini-conversations about the issues raised in the shows. It wasn’t just entertainment, but an opportunity to learn about life. I like being able to have those discussions.
Be Silly Together
When you can be silly together, and find the humour, it can help lighten the mood in some difficult times. We’re fans of anything from puns to unexpected humour, and use it pretty indiscriminately. I’ve always found life more enjoyable when it’s not taken too seriously.
We improvise humour together, also. After I’d been training in improv for a while, which I’d found helped me understand people better socially, and then learning that both my youngest son and I are autistic, it just made sense to see if it would help him, too. I started off playing improv games with both of my kids, like one-word-at-a-time-stories and gibberish conversations, before then taking these games into his classrooms over the years. The silliness and social engagement didn’t just help my autistic kid, but it was enjoyable and supported many of his classmates as well. I’d get regular comments from his teachers about how excited the kids were anytime I was coming back.
Silliness is freedom. Intentionally being silly gives us permission to be weird, and get comfortable when things aren’t “right.” I like to think that helps during moments when we’re unintentionally silly, like if we accidentally do something embarrassing or shameful. When you’re comfortable being seen as silly, then it’s easier to pick yourself up and move on during those times you didn’t intend to be seen as such, because you’re able to laugh at yourself.
Support Their Interests
And I don’t just mean saying things like, “That’s great, kid. Nice work!” I mean actively take an interest in their interests.
Prior to the pandemic, I had never played Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t get me wrong, I am a nerd and I like geeky things. But D&D specifically had never been something I’d been remotely interested in, despite how many friends I’ve had who’ve talked about it. However, my eldest kid had expressed an interest in it. He’d DM’d games online for a while before I went into my local Oakland Public Library branch (pre-pandemic) and discovered someone had organised a D&D club for teens. This was before he was a teenager himself, though he was close and had skipped a grade in school, so his classmates were mostly teenagers, so I knew he could easily get along with other teens. I shared the flyer with him and asked if he’d be interested in attending the group. After some thought, he said he was, so he regularly attended the event twice a month… until the pandemic hit and the library closed. This was the hardest loss for my kid as a result of the pandemic, since this regular event was his favourite thing he always looked forward to.
At this time, since the children’s librarian was familiar with us (I had also organised an “Improv 4 Kids” workshop at the library with her), she emailed me about some of the D&D group members making a switch to doing it online, so would my kid be interested? I forwarded the email to him so he could participate, which he did. Though he did tell me that at this point, even though he’d done D&D online in the past, it really wasn’t the same as playing in person.
So we reached the point during the pandemic where my 13yo kid decided he wanted to teach D&D to me and his 10yo brother, so we could play in person. We already played a bunch of other games together, so it just made sense to make that leap and experience his creativity by letting him teach us the game and improvise our way through the story he’d created for us.
In the case of my 10yo, who was 9 when the pandemic hit, he’s been pretty creative for years, though usually following in my footsteps (a few years ago he told me he wanted to be a “Mummy” when he grows up because he wanted to be just like me). He’ll see something I’m doing and want to do it too, then take things beyond expectations because he’s pretty dedicated to his special interests. It can be hard to keep up with him. He used to write a lot of short stories after I volunteered in his class a few years ago and talked about being a writer after Oakland Public Library accepted a couple of books into their catalog. Since the pandemic hit, however, and he saw me creating an online store with my artwork, he started drawing a lot more than writing. His teachers supported this, also—during the fall distance learning, there was a daily art tutorial video posted for his class if they wanted, and he consistently watched followed the instruction of these and more. He then regularly worked on improving his own art, teaching himself different techniques, and then also how to use GIMP so he could create his art on his computer. I supported him not just by complimenting his work and encouraging his pursuit, but also by helping him share his art through his own online store (and if you visit and make a purchase between Oct 28-30, you can use the 20% off promo on the site).
The other major interest my 10yo has invested a lot of time in during the pandemic (though was an activity he started pursuing pre-pandemic) has been baking/making desserts. He originally got into the idea of making desserts from watching The Great British Baking Show, and so I’ve bought him recipe books for his last two birthdays, which he’s used extensively. Since he’s autistic, we take care of his sensory needs (i.e. he wears ear muffs while using the electric mixer), but he’s gotten so good at following recipes now that there’s not often much I have to help him with. I usually keep the kitchen stocked with ingredients he might need, and then he’ll let me know in advance what recipe he wants to make so I can make sure he has everything. Occasionally (like when he wanted to make donuts), I’ll purchase something he needs to aid his ability to make something even better.
Be Affectionate, and Be Consistent
What does this mean? Well, it depends on the needs of your individual family members. In my case, I mean, don’t be afraid of physical affection (within reason, obviously—nothing that is actually abusive). Do this in line with respecting boundaries, which I mentioned earlier. I always ask my kids if they want a hug before giving them one, even when I’m pretty sure they’ll say yes or I can tell they need it. Throughout the years, whenever they physically hurt themselves, I would ask them if they would like me to kiss their hurts better (depending on the location, sometimes I’d kiss my hand and then rub the sore spot—I didn’t want to directly kiss their sock, for example), and that would usually work. As they got older, that’s moved more to hugs than kisses, but I’ve found that during the pandemic, that physical affection has become more important. They might be struggling with something emotionally that they don’t know how to express verbally, but asking if they want a hug, and then granting them their wish when they say yes, gives them that physical indication that they have someone on their side who cares about them no matter what. Sometimes this is especially important when I say something that might upset them (such as when they don’t want to do a chore I’ve asked them to do, and maybe my tone indicates frustration at how many times I’m having to ask). I might offer a hug first before they do the task at hand so they get that physical indicator that I still love them even if I’m frustrated. Do not withhold this affection and use it as a “reward,” because that suggests your love is conditional. Your love for your children should be unconditional, so make sure they know that.
Speaking for chores, being consistent with them and having kids share responsibility for them is great for teaching them not to just take their caretakers for granted, and respect their time. This has become especially important in my life since becoming a single mother. I just don’t have the time and energy to be doing all the household chores on my own while also studying and trying to keep track of finances and everything else. We have magnetic calendars on the fridge for each of them to keep track of their daily and weekly chores, but I give them a little leeway on them sometimes. If they forget to complete something on the day it was assigned, I might ask them to do it the next morning or the next day, depending on the task. They’re rewarded verbally (I say “thank you” for each task they complete) and financially (pocket money is paid dependent on how many chores they actually do, and they rarely skip them as a result). Not only does it help me out, but I’m also teaching them personal responsibility so they’ll be able to look after themselves when they’re old enough to move out on their own, and learning that they can’t just expect to dump all these responsibilities onto their romantic partner(s). Interestingly, since I’ve shared with them my reasoning for why they should help with chores (i.e. to help me out so I have time to do other things and so they can learn to be more responsible), that has actually led to my older kid actually offering to help with additional things I haven’t specifically asked of him, like making meals for us (which is a different motivation from my younger kid making desserts, because he wants to eat them and likes sharing his cooking with us).
Whilst I may have fumbled my way through my decisions on how to raise emotionally healthy and resilient children, social psychology suggests that a lot of what I do is a great way to build self-esteem and self-confidence in a child, and mindset can have a big impact on resilience. I don’t want my kids to struggle the way I did when I became an adult, I don’t want them to feel completely dependent on another person because I didn’t give them space to grow and discover who they are themselves. And if 85% of the world has low self-esteem (see linked social psychology article), which in turn causes so many interpersonal problems, then shouldn’t we do everything we can to try and combat that, and help others develop their own?
Motherhood may often go unappreciated, and the impact may not always be noticed, but writing this all out has helped me see how much I’ve actually done to raise my children. I know my kids appreciate me, so beyond that, anything else is cake.