All through life, whether at school, university or work, I have been trained to expect feedback and to hope for positive affirmation of a task well done.
At school the validation of my teachers and peers was very important and I would look forward to the annual Presentation Night, hoping that I had won as many accolades as possible and hoping to score the prestigious Academic Excellence award. In year 9 I had a wayward year, spending my energy chasing boys and popularity rather than focusing on my studies and I clearly remember the feeling of acute disappointment on the awards evening as I walked away with very little. In that moment I resolved that I would return my attentions to study first, and any flirtations would simply have to play second fiddle.
My identity became closely linked with academic performance and I chose to pursue a career in law rather than the teacher I had often said I would be. When I got to university, however, I soon realized I was in the middle of the pile of a very clever group of people and had to spend a number of years working out the system and deciphering what the lecturers and examiners were looking for before eventually being able to graduate with Honors.
I was lucky enough to find a job as a lawyer in a department with a very affirming and supportive boss, though one who was not shy in telling me that he also had high expectations. He was very good at articulating how I could improve and meet these expectations, however, so I thrived under the pressure and affirmation.
Now, as a full time mother, my ‘clients’ (or bosses) are very inconsistent in their expectations, vocal in their unrealistic needs and not shy about sharing their preference for the parent who isn’t at home with them 24/7. There are no clear Key Performance Indicators and only vague glimpses of any measure of success. There are always persistent reminders of failure in the form of mess, ‘to do’ items that keep getting ‘snoozed’, face-palm moments of hypocrisy as you see yourself cracking it at the kids telling them to stop cracking it, and regretted discipline decisions.
To compensate for this lack of clarity, I have been pouring myself into things that can be measured: creating great menu plans for weekly meals, keeping on top of the washing so no laundry hamper ever gets too full, containing all mess to the play room, baking often and arranging epic kids’ parties to celebrate the passing of another year. Not that I don’t enjoy or feel satisfaction in completing these activities, but more realistically, it is one of the only solid ways I have found to measure my ‘worth’ as a mother.
As a mother you are kind of screwed. You deeply care about your kids’ development and character, but you can’t allow their achievements or failures to define your identity. The former leads to unhealthy attachment, the latter potentially to some form of disassociation or distancing yourself emotionally from them. You also have a house to run, but if you pour the majority of your time into cleaning and maintaining, the kids can become another obstacle to your goal of a well kept abode. I am yet to find a healthy balance to these conundrums.
I didn’t even realize how much all this was affecting me until recently. I could see vague symptoms, the urgent drive to keep the house clean and the need to self-medicate at times to avoid intense introspection, but it wasn’t until Dave brought it up that I allowed myself to admit the true weight of the burden. A creature built on affirmation, now in a perpetual role that provides almost none. In some ways I feel like I should have seen it coming, but some things are only really obvious in hindsight.
With the tears and admissions came relief and clarity. I could go back to work if I wanted to, but I don’t think that provides any real answers to my existential crisis. It would provide me with an outlet to feel affirmed and validated, but still only mask my core soul need of freeing myself from the bounds of needing that quantifiable encouragement to prop up my identity. ‘If you weren’t a teacher, you didn’t have Tribe and you were not doing a PhD, where would you get your worth from?’ I asked Dave. He replied: ‘From self mastery of desires and the cultivation of character’. He’s definitely further along in this journey of self discovery than I am!
I’ve been reading a book that I would normally turn my nose up at in favour of a good old fantasy epic or detective novel. It’s called ‘Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life’. The premise is that there are two stages of life open to us- the first ‘creation of identity’ stage where we strive to work out who we are, and the second phase which only some achieve in which the mysteries of suffering, loss, challenges and mistakes are understood and appreciated as creating meaningful life. The author, Richard Rohr, speaks of spirituality as being enriched more when we do wrong than when we do right if we can bravely face our faults and mistakes and allow them to humble us. The words seemed to leap from the page even as I could barely see them through my tears. I have so much to learn and understand about life and myself, but facing my fears and failings ended up being freeing and exhilarating.
I know that this will be a long and difficult journey, one in which I will no doubt make countless mistakes and errors, but I think I am beginning to understand that it is in these moments that I actually learn the most. Instead of fearing failure and trying to avoid it at all costs, I have no need to run from it any more. That is far more powerful than the fleeting boost of confidence even the most encouraging affirmation can provide.