Being a mother is the hardest job in the world when things go smoothly. When you have a child who suffers symptoms of trauma, the hardest job becomes exponentially harder. At my worst moments, when I despaired and felt like I could not go on, I was grateful for the education in emotions that I received in my training to become a trauma therapist. I am paying forward five of these nuggets of emotional wisdom in honor of Mother’s Day:
- Know that all your emotions are normal. Love, guilt, shame, hate, fear, terror, regret, disgust, joy and more, are all part of human experience. We can control our behavior, but we cannot prevent our emotions from being triggered. That is because emotions originate from the middle part of the brain, which is not under conscious control. For emotional health, we need to validate and honor our emotions, then we need to tend to them. Although emotions are painful, they are a part of you and your truth. Accepting our emotions is the first step in allowing them to resolve. Habitually avoiding emotions by pushing them down or away leads to stress in mind and body. As the mother of a traumatized child, you are likely chronically stressed to begin with. Learning to work with emotions in healthy ways may be one of the best things you can do for yourself. It was for me.
- Acknowledge and value what may be very complicated feelings about motherhood. This is because humans can have many conflicting emotions at the exact same time, like love and hate. For example, you might feel grateful for the opportunity to raise your kids AND it might sadden you to know how they had to suffer to end up in your home. Or, if you’re like me, you love your kids with all your heart and soul AND get profoundly angry at some of their behaviors. Or you may enjoy parenting AND hate how much harder it seems like you have to work because of their early trauma. Try holding all your feelings at the same time. If there are a lot of feelings, it helps to imagine yourself growing bigger inside. That way you can accommodate all of your emotions with lots of air and space around each one.
- Learn techniques to calm the mind and body. I routinely practice grounding and deep belly breathing to calm my nervous system. When things start to escalate with your children, take a break until you calm down. Walk or a run in the neighborhood, punch a pillow, phone a friend to complain, get in bed and watch a funny or sad television show, take a hot bath, make a cup of tea, or anything else that might help you feel a bit better. I suggest to my patients that that they make a list of five to ten ways to calm down or to shift out of a bad state and have it ready for when they need it.
- Don’t judge your emotions or evaluate whether you should have them. Instead, work to be compassionate to yourself at all times, even when you are irritable. Cultivating compassion is a life-long process that is helpful for many reasons. I have found that when I remember to be compassionate to my suffering, I feel a bit better and I notice my body softens. If you find it hard to be compassionate to yourself, as many people do, try accessing the compassion you have towards a beloved friend or pet, then once you have the feeling, turn it towards yourself. Keep practicing. There are apps and YouTube videos that can help you learn this valuable skill.
- Don’t risk being disappointed on Mother’s Day by waiting and hoping that someone gives you what you want. Instead, think about what you want for a good Mother’s Day then ask for it! If you cannot (yet) get loving appreciation from your children or your partner, find it in a friend. Get a sitter or ask your partner to watch the kids. Then give yourself the gift you want, a massage, a manicure, time alone, you name it. You deserve it! And besides, the better you treat yourself, the more you will have to give to others.
Mother’s Day can be a minefield of disappointments, regrets, guilt, anger, and other painful feelings. Learning to work with these emotions while striving to be kind and compassionate to ourselves can help. Even when the people around you don’t fully appreciate and understand the sacrifices you make, you can appreciate yourself for your super-human patience, hard work, and unconditional love. I truly hope you will.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is author of It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House, Feb. 2018). She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hendel has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals and consulted on the psychological development of characters on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City.