“We’re all always doing the best we can.”
Channeling some wise Zen master from another lifetime, my husband tried to comfort me on yet another evening when I was feeling inadequate as a mother. Skeptic that I am, I wondered, “is that really true? Have I really been doing the very best that I can? What if I tried just a little bit harder?”
Before becoming a mother, I was, for the most part, an emotionally stable human being. And then my son was born. A torrent of emotion from my own childhood resurfaced. His needs often overwhelmed me. At times, my emotions were much more intense than the circumstances warranted. My heart would race in response to his cries, and I’d be overcome with feelings of helplessness. I knew that he was safe, but I felt anything but.
It became clear that I wasn’t just experiencing our present; I was also still experiencing my own past. The overpowering love—a love so intense that it sometimes literally hurt—cracked me wide open, and all of my past hurts poured right out.
My own childhood, though filled with love, was also characterized by instability. My need for sensitive, consistent caregiving wasn’t always fulfilled. Because of this, I worried that I would be unable to sufficiently bond with this tiny new person. I feared that I was somehow deficient, that I couldn’t give him something that I hadn’t myself received. After all, insecure attachment is often intergenerational.
I’ve spent many months since coming to terms with my own childhood, the good and the bad. Acknowledging that my emotional needs as a child weren’t always met has been painful. Children internalize unmet needs, unable to understand that they’re not at fault. When carried into adulthood, this becomes a vague, sense of inadequacy.
Though I may never know precisely why I am triggered by certain intense expressions of emotion, I’m learning to distinguish my present feelings from those of my past. As I heal from my own past, our present becomes less burdened. I can be more present when he needs me most, responding to the situation before me rather than reacting to an event from long ago.
Needless to say, the months since my son’s birth have been a time of immense personal growth. Yet I’ve often wished that I could have dealt with this before he was born. Ironically, though, it’s his very arrival that allowed me to do it. Without him, I doubt I would ever have confronted this pain, or even realized that it was there.
Still I lament that my past sometimes seeps into our present, preventing me from being the mother I want to be. But I think my husband is right—we are all always doing the best that we can, with the resources that we have in each moment. The more we learn, the more we heal ourselves, the better we can do. And the more we care for ourselves, despite the seeming impossibility of doing so while caring for a small child, the better and better our “best” becomes.
I’m doing the best that I can. And, in my better moments, I trust that it’s enough.