Redefining Joy

I can barely keep my head above water today. It's been one of those days, you know-toddler throwing herself on the ground crying over everything, sort of days. It feels like everything I do to show her love and compassion only makes her angrier. I'm not sure what to do. Its days like this that has me reflecting on my youth and wondering why in the world people told me "motherhood is the greatest joy you will ever experience." Really? This is the greatest joy? Either they are all insane or I somehow don't understand what joy means. My logic tells me it's the latter but my heart wants to believe that every mother has to be insane to enjoy this.

I feel guilty even admitting that, but it is true. How can such a thankless, never-ending, 24/7 job really leave me glowing cheek to cheek with joy? If any of you have seen the viral YouTube video entitled "World's Toughest Job," you'll understand how absolutely insane the job description of "Mom" sounds. Yet, even with all that the job description entails, most of the women in my life are choosing to pursue the role of mother. They welcome it with open arms. Some of the women in my life are aching to become a mother, their desires not yet fulfilled due to infertility or other ailments. Don't get me wrong; it is so amazing to see the human that I have created. She is beautiful, smart, kind and hilarious. It literally boggles my mind how I even created this independent little diva. I guess I just wasn't ready for how hard it actually is. I wasn't expecting, what I will to refer to, as these roadblocks to joy. I think I must have assumed that having my baby would equal joy-almost like an equation that looks something like this:

A (my life) + B (baby)= C (joy)

What I am beginning to realize is that joy in motherhood isn't a simple equation. It's not just about gaining a child; it's about what we give to that child. The more we give of ourselves the more joyful the experience will become. The key to being able to give of ourselves as mothers is recognizing the roadblocks when they come, and having the ability to remove them from our path.  It will require work and it will also require a lot of pain along the way. The way I see it, there are two main roadblocks on our pathway to joy as mothers:

  1. Misunderstanding the definition of joy.

  2. Lack of seeing the connection between pain and joy.


Redefining our Definition of Joy

Since a little girl I've had this view of joy as complete happiness, fulfillment, pleasure-pretty much the happily ever after I saw in every Disney movie. By literal definition, joy is all of those things but the part we often leave out of the definition is that it is an emotion based on expectations. It is a feeling only felt when our own personal expectations are met, or we are living up to our idea of what success looks like. Those ideals and expectations can look different depending on the person. In the Merriam Dictionary definition of joy, it states that joy is "...the emotion evoked by the prospect of possessing what one desires."

The problem as mothers then, isn't that we are somehow incapable of feeling joy, but rather, we might be creating expectations that most likely can't be met. Some desires are completely out of our control and if our heart is set on those unmet desires, unhappiness, or a lack of joy, will most likely be evident in our lives. In fact, numerous psychology studies have linked satisfaction, or happiness, with achievement. Simply put, joy is linked to the inner goals we are setting and accomplishing. If there are no accomplishments being met, there is no satisfaction or joy. Because of this truth, we need to be able to let go of our desires or expectations that might be holding us back from experiencing joy.

As I've reflected on this new understanding of joy, I've been working on letting go of unrealistic expectations of what my life should look like. Through this process I've felt my feelings of disappointment and grief be replaced with joy. However, this process of learning to let go of expectations and unrealistic desires can be super painful at times. There are things in my life that I really wanted to experience but perhaps the time isn't now. I think for this reason, pain and joy are often connected and feel as if they coexist together. There will always be desires that we have as mothers that clash with the reality of what life brings to us; That reality can be painful and difficult to accept at times.

Relationship of Pain to Joy

This reality leads me to discuss the relationship pain and joy share. It seems as if that journey to feeling joy in our role as mothers cannot be experienced without the accompaniment of pain.

This pain is felt in many different ways. My pregnancy was uncomfortable, just like everyone else but the labor portion was hell. 48 hours of contractions left me feeling like I was ready to give up the ghost. After having my daughter I remember feeling as if I had lost my identity. Every concept I had of self was wiped away. It was painful for me to realize that I would never be the same person I was before. It felt as if I was mourning the loss of the old me, and that was a loss I wasn't anticipating.

I felt the deep depression of the baby blues.  I felt the agonizing exhaustion of sleepless night after sleepless night. I felt the anxiety of having to juggle my role as wife and mother, not to mention caring for our home. I felt the pain of being bitten, scratched and head butted. Every inch of my body aches from carrying her up and down our three flights of stairs. I felt the helplessness of watching my daughter go through sickness. I have felt the sorrow of miscarriage.

This suffering does not just belong to me, I've watched as the mothers in my life have struggled through infertility, life threatening pregnancies and tortuous labors. I've watched as mothers have dealt with the loss of their child, both in and out of the womb.  I've watched as mothers have struggled raising children suffering from disabilities, handicaps and illnesses. I've watched as single mothers struggle to achieve the balance between provider and nurturer. Watching and empathizing with these amazing women in my life, knowing that I can't do enough to help them has been a painful experience.

After all of this pain and suffering I've seen and experienced a mother, how is it possible to believe that motherhood can be joyful without the company of pain?  But where is the pain coming from? I don't believe that the pain is just a cruel joke that God is playing on all mothers, although sometimes I wonder... Rather, I believe that the root of this pain is the unavoidable process of making room for another person.

Starting with conception, we mothers literally make room inside of our bodies for another human being to grow inside. Our bodies stretch to fit this tiny new soul inside of us and our bodies willingly give up nutrients, calories and energy-even if that means taking away from our physical needs. Our bodies instinctively believe that our babies come first and every good thing consumed  first goes to the baby and then to us. We don't have much control over this process, it sort of happens all on it's own. I think the physical manifestation of change that we see in a woman's body is a perfect representation of the change going on in our hearts and minds after giving birth.  Motherhood feels painful because we are making room inside our hearts for another person to dwell. Much of our hopes, dreams and desires are often replaced by love for our child. This process is self-sacrifice by every single definition. It is giving up our concept of self for another person.  The crazy thing about this self-sacrifice is that we willingly give up our self for this beautiful, perfect child that we have created. Somehow, instinctively, we would give up anything for them.

This process is not easy, it is not pain-free but it does push us further on our journey to finding joy in motherhood.  Just like there are growing pains and aches during pregnancy, there will be growing pains as a mother raising your child. And I want to say that it's ok to feel that pain. I remember when my daughter was born feeling guilty for the feelings of sadness that I was experiencing. Everyone that visited would make comments like "aren't you just so happy?" And I was, but I was also feeling so sad and broken. I felt like something must be wrong with me because I was feeling these things. I know now that I had no reason to feel guilty. It is a normal and healthy process to feel pain as a mother. Burying that sorrow will only lead to more roadblocks on our journey.

This, I believe, is why we see that contradictory truth of motherhood where there is both pain and yet it is joyful. And we don't just go through this process once; some women go through it over and over again. My own mother gave birth to seven children.  I can't even imagine the amount of self-sacrifice that was required for that task but to me she is of superhuman caliber.

However, I must make it clear that I don't believe that the pain, in and of itself, equals joy. I don't believe that suffering somehow produces joy. I think there must be wisdom and understanding through that process of pain. Suffering without an understanding behind that suffering will not yield the feeling of joy. As I've come to understand that I'm feeling pain because I'm literally making room inside of my heart for my daughter, the pain has been easier to bear and the joy is more abundantly felt.

I believe that joy will be felt as we finally have room inside of us for our children. The room in our hearts will enable us to have the ability to give more of ourselves. Instead of feeling like our children are taking away our lives, our children will become our lives. They will become the center of our souls. Their wants will be our wants. Their victories will be our victories. We will be able to mourn with them and rejoice with them. But until we let go of ourselves there will only be the pain of motherhood. Until then, we will only see what our kids are taking away from us.

If being a mother has been painful and hard for you, like it has been for me, know that you are doing the right thing. Be patient and know that your pain will go away. You will feel joy. Sacrifice entails giving up something that is good for something that is better. I think at times it is hard to see that our children really are the things that are "better" for us. At times it is hard to see our dreams slowly fade to the background of our lives. At times it is hard to accept the new, challenging lifestyle, giving up our once comfortable lifestyle. However, those sacrifices will feel easier as we focus on what we are choosing rather than what we are losing.  Because motherhood is always a choice and I believe it's the hardest choice we make as women. Choosing to become a mother, and I mean really choosing to become a mother-not just compelled to mother, will always be the path less traveled.  I commend any mother on her journey down that path and although you might not see it, there are millions of women walking beside you on the journey.