The messy middle of motherhood

He’s facedown on his mattress with his head buried under the pillow, holding the edges down tightly around his ears for good measure. His cries are muffled under all the fabric, but with each sob that releases, I watch his small body ripple. Or maybe not so small a body, actually, I notice as I rest my hand tentatively on his back. His legs almost reach mine as we lie next to each other in his twin-size bed.

I’d known this bedtime wouldn’t be easy, and I can hardly begrudge him the anticipatory anxiety I’d so generously passed down along with the freckles that spread across his nose. It’s the night before school begins again, and he’s been enjoying a welcome respite from the stress it seems to bring him. What I’m not prepared for are the looks of contempt he was just shooting me or the disdainful way he told me how miserable I make him. I hadn’t steeled myself to be the target. 

I want to remind him that I didn’t write the laws about going to fifth grade and that I hardly deserve his vitriol, but I close my eyes as I take in a slow breath to calm the part of me that’s so triggered by his rage. With a slightly more soothed nervous system, I start to move my hand back and forth across his bare back. “You’re feeling overwhelmed,” I murmur, “That makes sense to me.” 

His head shoots up from beneath his pillow, and it’s as if he was just waiting for me to speak in order to pounce. “Oh yeah?,” he yells incredulously, almost spitting the words. “Then why are you making me go if you really understand? I hate it! I hate it! I hate you!” 

And then his head is back down buried in his pillow. “Just go away!” I hear. 

I bite my lip in an effort to redirect the strongest sensation in my body from my heart to my mouth. Another beat. Another breath. 

We’ve been talking for twenty minutes by this point, and I don’t see my efforts resulting in another soothing of his pain. I’m tempted to say, “Okay,” and give him some space to cool down. I think I’ve exhausted all of my Dr. Becky-inspired gentle parenting skills and I feel helpless to offer anything else of value. 

But there’s something in his heartache that connects to my own. His grief at how things have changed in the last year, this new house, this new school, this new version of his mom. I miss what existed before too. So, I stay. 

“I’m going to stay here,” I tell him, mostly to commit it to myself. “Is that okay with you?” 

“Whatever. I don’t even care.” he angrily mumbles, his face now turned toward the wall. That’s a win, I take note. I don’t want to press my luck, but I decide to shift a few inches closer to him. He’s breathing heavily, but he’s not pulling away, and so I gently slide my arm under him and pull him every so slightly to my body. He says nothing, but I can feel in my arms as the tension in his body starts to ease. He’s becoming warmer and heavier with each breath. Soon, he falls asleep. 

I don’t remember exactly when it shifted, but there was most certainly a point at which people stopped reassuring me, “It gets easier!” while I juggled a crying infant strapped to my chest with opening the sixth yogurt pouch of the afternoon for a toddler. Suddenly, it seemed, their refrain transitioned to, “It doesn’t get easier, really. It just gets different.” 

I wanted to shout, “What the actual fuck!?” I’d been promised a lessening of this perpetual demand. It was the only thing that had helped me not board a one-way flight to the most remote place I could conceive. I didn’t want ‘different.’ I wanted the easier I had been promised.  

If they’d been honest – and I’m not saying they should have been – they would have told me that in a lot of important ways, it actually got harder. Sure, I was no longer carrying a small suitcase of emergency supplies everywhere I went, and I didn’t have a barnacle of a human attached to my leg while trying to pee. But I’d traded that for searing looks and tearful emails to teachers. 

I wondered to myself, is it harder to always be needed or to never be wanted? 

As it turns out, the latter is harder, at least in some ways. And that’s coming not just from one frazzled mom’s perspective (ahem, mine), but from some fascinating research of two esteemed professors of psychology, Suniya Luthar and Lucia Ciciolla. 

Drs. Luthar and Ciciolla had observed how intensive parenting had become for mothers in the last couple of decades, and they got curious about how these moms’ well-being might be impacted depending on the stage of parenting they were in. To look at this, they conducted an in-depth survey of women who had children ranging from infants to adults. They traced moms’ stress, feelings of emptiness, loneliness, life satisfaction, and fulfillment across from infancy to adulthood. They also traced their feelings about parenthood, their feelings of guilt, how their kids were adjusting, and even how rejecting they felt of their children. My favorite part of the whole thing? They titled their study “Moms As People.” 

I don’t actually know whether these two researchers were mothers themselves, but their hypotheses for the study makes me think they definitely had some insider information. They predicted that moms of middle schoolers would fare the worst, followed by moms of infants. They suspected that middle school moms would be in particularly bad shape because of the intensity of the shifts that are happening for their kids’ hormonally and emotionally, and because these changes often also come with some riskier behaviors by their little darlings. On top of that, moms in this phase are often facing their own hormonal and emotional shifts. Essentially, everyone in the house is feeling wack-a-doodle all at the same time (my words, not the esteemed professors’). 

What emerged from their data was in line with some, though not all, of their predictions. And it should be printed out and included with all the breastfeeding and tummy time literature sent home from the hospital. 

(You can take a peek at many of the graphs over on this post I created.)

The first thing that shocked me from this data was that mothers of infants seemed to be doing, dare I say it… pretty well? Now, we have to consider that this is all relative (we don’t have data to compare moms of infants against non-parents or dads, for example) and showing only how moms are faring across their parenting stages. But while role overload is second highest for this stage (highest being for toddler moms) and stress is by no means low at this point, moms of infants rate several areas the highest of all the developmental stages. They feel most fulfilled, very positively toward their child, and most satisfied with both parenting and life. They also rate things like their kids acting up the lowest (no baby criminals in this data set) and feeling least rejecting of their infants. It looks like Mother Nature is doing her job and making sure mamas of the most helpless stay relatively engaged. 

What we see start to happen as kids progress out of infancy is that moms start to feel more lonely, more stressed, more guilt, and more emptiness. In addition, the kids themselves start to have more behavioral challenges and the data starts to show more negative feelings toward the kids as satisfaction in the whole damn thing plummets. By the time we look at middle school moms, they are reporting the greatest stress, emptiness, loneliness, and dislike of parenting that they will experience across their kids’ lifetimes. 

The so-called silver lining, based on this work, is that the idea of an empty-nest syndrome is largely a myth. Luthar and Ciciolla found that later-stage motherhood was, on the whole, a great time. As their children reached young adulthood, moms found themselves with the least overload in their roles, much less stress, and feeling most positively toward these humans they’d raised. That is, If they didn’t kill them in middle school. 

Quick aside – anytime I’m sharing research that relates to groups of people’s life experience, it feels important to re-emphasize the fact that no data set will ever match an individual’s experience perfectly. Factors like how much social support was present, what kind of financial stressors were at play, individual kids’ developmental needs, mom’s mental health at various points, cultural events and factors, and so many more all play into how hard or satisfying or lonely a certain period is for a certain person. If these data don’t resonate for you, that makes sense and is valid data too. 

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For some of us, though, the bottom falling out when our kids are in middle school feels on point in a way that I don’t think we often hear about. There’s not enough talk about any of the tumultuous stages of motherhood and the impact on our well-being, but we’re at least a little more well-versed on things like “having a baby is hard.” While we sure as hell need more of them, there are at least support resources like breastfeeding groups and mommy meet-ups. There’s – in theory (big emphasis on the theory here) – a few more doctors’ appointments where someone might give you a post-natal depression scale or ask you how you are holding up. 

But when our kids start to enter the messy middle of their time (theoretically) at home with us, we’re faced with hits that seem to keep on coming. They need us, but they don’t want to need us. Their identities are shifting faster than we can keep up, and part of that process often means testing new dynamics with us. Their hormones are totally unbalanced and their poor prefrontal cortexes have so much growth still to do. They are out in a world that feels scary to both them and us for them, and we’re trying to navigate what independence to offer. 

Maybe we recognize all of that. But I’m not sure we recognize how all of it is overlapping with another kind of middle: this middle phase of life that we as the moms of these tweens and teens are navigating. Just like them, we’re experimenting with new relationship dynamics, evaluating loyalties, forming new identities as parents not constantly parenting, and dealing with super obnoxious hormonal shifts that make us cranky and sometimes doubt goodness exists. 

And as our kids stroll out into a tricky and very often painful world, we’re faced with perhaps the hardest part of all: the activation of our own memories of that difficult time. We definitely don’t talk enough about how watching our children reach different ages and stages can bring our own unresolved stuff from that time in our lives to the surface. 

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Many days I wake up not knowing whether I’ll be asked to spread the cream cheese on his bagel because I do it so much better or be told that I’m clueless about life and on the border of ruining his. Motherhood is such an adventure that way. 

When I start to begrudge that no one told me early on it would be like this, I decide that I’m going to be a voice for the rollercoaster of this phase. But I also remember my earlier parenting days clearly enough to know that someone could have told me that I’d have to run three marathons per day when my kids were older and it still would have sounded like a reprieve from constantly being touched. A run? By myself? Oh, that sounds nice!

So, maybe it’s not so much about warning anyone that it gets harder. Because harder, I guess, is really in the eye of the beholder. But maybe it is about sharing that it makes sense that it’s hard now because everything’s new again and we’re all just growing up together. 

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