Teodor Lazarev/Fotolia

Motherhood Has Changed My Idea Of "Strength," & I'm Better For It

Ad failed to load

Think of a strong woman. You are, very likely and reasonably, thinking of someone who is tremendously accomplished. Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, the Williams Sisters, Elizabeth Cady-Stanton. Someone who, in spite of overwhelming adversity or difficulty, not only pulls through but thrives. Of course they're all strong women, but, in many ways, motherhood changed my definition of the word strong. More accurately, made me realize there are many different versions of strength.

When I think of strong women, and I know I am not alone in this, I think of women who have achieved great things, either for themselves or their communities. Strong women are women of action. They don't let narrow minds or tight fists hold them back. Their self-assured determination is unshakeable, and they are able to manifest positive, tangible results in spite of a dearth of resources, time, and support. Strong women are alchemists, Rumpelstiltskins who spin gold from straw. They're not afraid to show their strength even when society at large would rather they be quiet, polite wallflowers.

Growing up, I thought of myself as strong. Looking back, I think this is because I (mercifully and thankfully) had a happy childhood full of people cheering me on and encouraging me to be opinionated and accomplished and unapologetically myself. My strength was encouraged. (I also have one of those personalities in which blind, naive enthusiasm can be mistaken for fearlessness.) While I certainly wasn't Elizabeth Cady-Stanton or Hillary Clinton (and my complete lack of physical strength and coordination assured that I would never be either of the Williams Sisters), I could point to things that had "proven" my strength: graduating college summa cum laude, landing a good job, running successful education programs throughout New York City and the Northeast. I was no shrinking violet. I was strong.

Ad failed to load
Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

And when I thought about the kind of mom I wanted to be, I wanted to be a strong mother, too. I knew parenting was going to be hard (well, I "knew" but I had no idea), but I was determined, as all strong women are.

My first challenge was coming home from the hospital with my first child. Because strong women are self-assured and capable, but I felt neither confident nor competent. "They're just going to let us waltz out of here with him, huh? Like, they're not going to call any references or check our credentials? We don't have to pass any sort of written or practical test?" Nope. They happily check you out and you're on your own. What I'd already kind of learned in four days at the hospital proved true at home as well: having a newborn was hard.

Ad failed to load
Because strong women are self-assured and capable, but I felt neither confident nor competent.

At the same time, it could be terrifically boring. My baby slept a lot, but at weird times. You never knew, exactly, how long he'd be zonked out for, even if you could sort of begin to see a pattern. This inability to effectively plan out my day, plus my complete and utter exhaustion, led to absolutely nothing getting done. If you'd asked me what I did in those first few weeks and months, I honestly couldn't answer. Instead, I'd just stare blankly as I mentally ran through my day. There was a diaper change, a bath, a feeding, another diaper change, another diaper change, another feeding... at one point I think I moved the pile of unopened mail from the counter to the table... and that's about all I can adequately recall.

If strong women were confident and accomplished, I was falling short in every way possible. None of what was going on in any way resembled what I recognized to be strong.

Ad failed to load

So... why did I feel kind of strong?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

The first thing you have to do, as a mom, is recalibrate how you perceive of time. This is largely due to the fact that you'll be sleeping in increments that are legally considered torture under international law. When that happens, the days all sort of bleed together. On top of that, everything you do with or for a baby takes longer that you expect it to. Think of what it takes for you to pack for a weekend-long vacation — that's every outing for a while. Eventually this becomes a quicker, easier process, but it's never quick or easy. It will always take time and effort. Baby-based time is slower, more thoughtful, and, necessarily, less concerned with "accomplishment."

Ad failed to load

And that's the second thing you have to do: recalibrate how you think about "accomplishment." Because, honestly, sometimes your accomplishment will be simply making it through another damn day. Other than that there will be nothing to show for even after tremendous efforts. That's not to say you have to give up on all your hopes and dreams. But it does mean to treat yourself with some gentleness and grace as you figure out how you're going to go after them while raising a child, which is in and of itself a full-time gig.

Motherhood is a strength of endurance and resistance.

"But!" you might say (and by "you might say" I mean "I actually say all the time even now") "I just saw So-And-So post a picture of a perfectly decorated nursery and how she just organized all her baby's onesies by thread count! THAT is a strong mom. That is a mom who is doing it all in spite of the same hardships. I'm failing."

Ad failed to load

To which I say (in a mirror, to myself) "Pull yourself together woman. She isn't doing it all. She did that thing. And she was so reasonably excited that she accomplished it that she posted about it on Instagram. She is celebrating her victories, and so you are only seeing her at her best. And even if she were 'doing it all,' it's not a contest. Why don't you celebrate your victories?"

And then you remember that motherhood has reordered time and accomplishment. These things did not look like they once did, which is frustrating because they used to be tangible and measurable and, frankly, easier to muscle your way through. Those feats required strength as I had always thought of it: accomplishment despite challenge. But motherhood can mean a completely different kind of strength. Motherhood is a strength of endurance and resistance. The strength to know what have to do (and not do) to make it through in one piece, and the strength to resist losing yourself in the process.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney
Ad failed to load

Motherhood will swallow you if you're not strong, and it's easy to see how and why. We fling ourselves into it, we want to do it well, and, often, we like it. This frequently means putting the needs of our children and others before ours. That can look strong — taking on absolutely everything for someone else — and, in its own way, it is. But it's not sustainable without a cost, and that toll is ourselves as individuals. When we do that all the time, to the detriment of our own interests, limits, and desires, we become a background player in our own lives. It takes courage to pull ourselves back and assert time and space for ourselves. Courage to do things according to your own rules and intuition despite being told there's only "one right way" to be a mom (and it doesn't look like what you're doing). Courage to step away from what would look like an accomplishment to the outside world, but which you know just isn't worth it. Courage to look "selfish."

Strength can absolutely be what I always thought it was — scrappy and indomitable spirit and accomplishment. Indeed, that strength can (and often does) exist right alongside the kind of strength I discovered as a mom. But being strong doesn't require that anyone else recognize it as such (though it's nice when they do). It takes great strength to move forward on your own terms, in your own time, in a way you know is best for you and your children.

Ad failed to load

Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:

Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

10 Reasons Why I Won't Apologize For Giving My Toddler A Pacifier

My first child had no interest in a pacifier. I tried a couple times to get him to take one, but he always spat them out and gave me an incredulous, judgmental look. But my second? It was love at first suckle. And after a while, the incredulous, judg…
By Jamie Kenney

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at Names.org recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

Here's How To Introduce Your Pet To Your Baby & Make Everything As Calm As Possible

Our home, which we lovingly refer to as “the funny farm,” is filled with four-legged family members. We have two crazy beagles and two cat jerks, and boy are they loved and spoiled. (As they should be.) But we are now finally having a baby of our own…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills