When I was younger, my greatest aspiration was to be a mother.
In fact, that’s all I wanted to be. Even before I had the knowledge that there was another side to that equation if I had plans to get pregnant, I was dead set on it. There was no Daddy in my mental image of the future, no husband. Just myself, and a hoard of babies who would love me, and I would take care of them for all my days and be quite content.
Not sure how I planned to pay to feed all those mouths, but you’ll excuse me if my preschool brain wasn’t too troubled with budgeting at the time.
I’m sure I wrote ‘Teacher’ or ‘Doctor’ on some Grade 1 assignment about my future career, because Mom wasn’t an official job title and as an anxious 6 year old, I wasn’t going to rock the boat. But deep down I knew, without a doubt, my sole purpose was to create and love children. I knew any profession I somehow stumbled into would pale in comparison to mothering.
And really, that’s how I started being a social worker. By stumbling into it in pursuit of my ultimate desire to mother others.
All through high school, I focused on making choices related to children. By then I realized I might need to either have a partner, or be able to invest in the process myself, and my childhood plans to simply recreate asexually were dashed. I became a bit more practical about my dream of a slew of children holding my apron strings and decided that if I couldn’t be a Mom right away, I’d fill that need with having children around me as much as possible. I’d pick a career that gave me as many opportunities as possible to love and be loved by children. I did my Co-Operative Education placement in a child therapy position, I researched and chose classes based on where I could attend University that would steer me towards work with kids. I initially started an undergraduate program called Childhood and Social Institutions, meant to open my eyes to all the best information and a career discussing childhood development.
And I hated it.
I had a soul-crushing realization as I sat through learning about Bowlby and Erikson, that this didn’t feel like mothering. It was miles detached from the glowing warmth and purpose I was sure I would find when I went into a profession working with kids. I began to wonder if working WITH kids and actually HAVING them were different. How was this getting me closer to being a mother? How was learning about Childhood Literature and analyzing what the font size and colour choices of Where the Wild Things Are helping me have a child? In short, it wasn’t. It was an attempt for me to make a career out of a goal that could not be satisfied in that realm.
I swept into the Social Work program a bit apathetically. I was already disenchanted with my choices so far, and terrified of failure, so I latched on to anything I felt could give me success. I had good grades in an entry level Social Work course and thought ‘Why not’. I’d been tip-toeing around counseling and therapy my whole life. I was known on the playground as a mediator, often counseling my friends through the toddler version of couple’s therapy to resolve fights and disputes about who got to be which Sailor Moon character at recess. It wasn’t too far of a jump to go from child-based social service classes to full on counseling.
I continued to still focus on children in a round-about way. I worked as a Child and Youth Worker, assisted with an Equine Assisted Therapy program for youth in the criminal justice system, and started children’s programs at a local community center through my practicums. I dabbled in child therapy as well under the support of my program Supervisors. And again I was faced with the terrifying reality that it wasn’t what I thought it would be, and in fact, I didn’t like it much at all.
It’s a hard pill to swallow when you build your life around something and find it falling flat time and time again.
But I did learn that even if I couldn’t work with children as easily as I had hoped, I was best at the core value of what I felt made a mother: nurturing.
Nurturing means to be with others and offer your presence, your voice, your heart to them unconditionally in the moment, and support them to grow from their pain. To nurture means to help others learn from their difficulties and raise them up to their full potential, and yet making them feel they are doing it with their own strength.
“Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”
― Marvin J. Ashton
In counseling it means sitting in the dark places, holding that space with someone, and encouraging them to notice the strength they have to survive that moment. It means to guide them toward what they already know is the right step, and bolster them with the energy they need to do what has to be done.
Nurturing is not changing someone, or taking over. It’s building up resources around them, and helping hold their discomfort with them for just a moment until they can do it themselves.
It means letting people know they are not alone.
Mothering and therapy have those goals in common.
Whether I am sitting with my son, helping him find the words to express his sadness over a lost game of Mariokart, or doing the same for a 40-something year old reflecting on the loss of a job, my role is strikingly similar. I listen. I validate. I reflect and put into words what they can’t express for themselves. And I remind them it’s OK to hurt, and it won’t always feel this bad – but yes, today it’s OK to cry and I’m here with you.
I never could have imagined in my youth what mothering really is until I had my own children. I tried to find those feelings through my schooling and my work. But I failed, as it never quite measured up. That’s not to say therapy isn’t a second-calling for me, and all my fumbling led to me a career that is equal parts challenging and rewarding. But nothing quite compares to that second you hold your child for the first time and think…
Oh. This is it.
This is what I’ve been looking for.
It’s still not everything I thought it would be when I was younger. It’s more. It’s more love. More joy. More pain. More frustration. More anger and sadness and elation and pride and more noise than I ever thought imaginable.
But it’s precious and in a crazy way led me to my purpose as a professional too.
My mother had a shirt when I was growing up; a novelty white t-shirt, baggy from years of use as pyjamas, and probably given to her by my brother or myself as a gift. It had a slew of different job titles across the chest, like Taxi Driver, Personal Chef, Secretary, Maid and Therapist. And at the bottom, “In Other Words: Mom”.
I reflect on that a lot now as I look back through my journey of what I thought mothering was when I was younger, to where I am now. Being a Mom is many things at different stages to all of us, and it’s learning to adapt and change that makes us better in the end.
So even if you’re not where you thought you’d be at this stage of your life, or that what you thought would be amazing is actually entirely the opposite, take time to reflect on how this journey has helped you grow.
I’ve personally gone through a lot of changes in how I saw myself as a professional, as a woman, as a mother and as a human being since I first declared my reason for being born was to be a Mom. What that looks like is different now, and even what I thought I would enjoy or hate has been turned on its head.
But that doesn’t detract from the sense of belonging we can find, no matter where our expectations finally settle us.
So share with me: What did you expect from parenting? How did you find this journey to where you are today? Looking back, does it change how you see yourself or what you thought life would be?