Meg Meeker knows moms. Besides having four grown children, she has been a pediatrician for 25 years and has seen countless mothers come in with their children. And those mothers are in a tough spot, she said. That’s why she wrote “The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers: Reclaiming Our Passion, Purpose, and Sanity” (Ballantine Books, $25).
A well-known speaker, blogger and best-selling author of books including “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters” and “Boys Should Be Boys,” she corresponded by email with Our Sunday Visitor frequent contributor Michelle Martin about mothers’ tendency to put everyone else’s needs ahead of them, competition among mothers and how they can regain their sense of purpose.
Our Sunday Visitor: Many mothers put ourselves and our own happiness last (or at least feel guilty when we don’t). Why is it important for us mothers to be happy? Is it just for our sakes, or will it help our kids, too?
Meg Meeker: The age-old adage “If Momma isn’t happy, then no one is happy” holds some very real truth. Mothers set the tone in our homes. When we struggle, the whole family feels it. If we are stressed, anxious, depressed, the entire family feels on edge.
I realized early on in my pediatric practice that the best thing that I can do for my patients is help their parents. That’s why I wrote a book for mothers — not how to parent better, but how to enjoy being mothers.
It is natural for mothers to put the needs of their children ahead of their own. But one of the best gifts that mothers can give their kids is a happy, stable home, and a mother’s personal happiness is integral to that.
OSV: The subtitle of your book is “Reclaiming Our Passion, Purpose and Sanity.” How did we lose those things in the first place?
Meeker: I have seen a disturbing trend over the past 15 years. That is, mothers are becoming increasingly stressed about how well they are doing as parents. Mothers feel intense pressure to be excellent mothers, raise high-performing, successful children, excel at their employment or careers and, of course, work on being thin and fit. This is far too much of a burden for anyone to carry, especially women who are exhausted from having young children at home.
I wanted to find out why we feel the pressure to perform and then offer solutions for mothers.
Hence I found the “10 habits” to offer solutions for mothers who feel that their lives are out of control. Many mothers feel as though they are toppling over the edge of exhaustion and frustration trying to do too much and be too much for their children.
Because we feel pressure to perform in all of these different areas, we have lost our passion for simply enjoying being mothers. And we have lost our way with regard to what our true calling is as mothers and as women. My book is about learning to refocus ourselves on the very important things in life, to attend to our “inner selves” if you will. We must nurture friendships, simplify our lives and seek solitude, for instance.
OSV: It seems to me that competition with and jealousy of other mothers — avoiding it, recognizing it when it happens and dealing with it — has a place in several of your tips. Where does this jealousy and competition come from? Why do we do this? What good things happen when we stop?
Meeker: Mothers are competitive people. We want our children to excel, and that means beating out other children, whether it’s at sports, academics, Cub Scouts or anything else. Unfortunately, we usually want our children to outperform other children because it makes us feel like more successful mothers. We have come to equate much of our success with the external successes of our children, and this is very dangerous, both for us mothers and for our children.
We have become competitive for one reason: peer pressure. If our friends’ children play two sports, we want our child to play two sports. If our son’s peers play hockey 12 months of the year, then we want our son to do the same.
We drive ourselves and our kids crazy, overscheduling them and giving up precious and much needed family time all because we want our kids to keep up with the other kids in their classes.
This is madness, and it robs our kids of what they really need: character building, not performing. They need more face-to-face time with us, their mothers, less time performing so that we can feel like more successful mothers.
OSV: What perspective does your professional role as a pediatrician give you on the role mothers play in their children’s lives? How did that change the way you mothered your children?
Meeker: I have practiced pediatrics for about 25 years, and I have become sort of a “professional listener to mothers.” I have listened to thousands of children talk about their mothers, and I have seen great mothers and horrible mothers come through my doors. I have learned that the mothers who have learned to enjoy their children raise the healthiest, strongest children. But it’s hard for mothers to actually enjoy their children if they are constantly in the car with them, running them from one event to another.
Actually, I had my children early enough in my career that I grew as a pediatrician alongside growing as a mother. Since I have heard the hearts of so many children, I know what they want and what they need. They want attention, to know that their mothers enjoy their company, and they want their mothers to be moms, not perform as mothers.
Because I have seen what other children need from their mothers, I have strived to give my own children time, attention and admiration.
And my job has made it easier for me to say no to overscheduling my kids and staying home with them instead.
OSV: In your book, you write about “small faith” — for example, trusting that the bus driver will get your children to school safely — and “big faith” in God. Can you tell me about times when faith, big and small, had an impact on your life as a mother?
Meeker: Every mother needs faith, I believe, in order to survive motherhood. We worry so much about our children, and if we believe that they are constantly in the care of a loving God, then we can sleep better at night.
Our second-oldest daughter left the United States after college to teach school in Indonesia. This was an enormous test of my own faith. I didn’t want her to go because I knew what hospitals were like there, and I feared for her physical health and safety. But she felt strongly that God had directed her to go. I had no choice but to put my faith in the Lord and ask him to provide for her and watch over her. And he did.
After several months teaching there, she phoned me (after a particularly hard start to her work) and told me that she learned that “the Lord is enough.”
That was profound for me. He sustained her in the midst of her hardship, and she witnessed it. What greater blessing can a mother ask for?
OSV: Living with an infant is different from living with a toddler, and living with a toddler is different from living with a teen. All are different from having adult children (at least I assume so). How do the needs of mothers, and the habits they need to be happy, change as their children grow?
Meeker: Mothers go through very intense periods of turmoil, stress, sleep deprivation and frustration at different points during their parenting years. While their stresses change, I can honestly say that the “habits” I write about in the book don’t change.
Some will be more easy to implement at different stages of a mother’s life. For instance, taking time for solitude is much easier as children grow older. But other habits like nurturing our faith in God never change.
OSV: Ten habits seems like sort of a lot. How can mothers who are in the thick of child-rearing figure out what to do first?
Meeker: I encourage mothers to take small bits at a time. Try one habit, and then try another.
For instance, I write about a mother’s need to reach out to women friends for help and to learn to lean on strong friendships. A young mother may try this and then several months later try spending a bit of time in solitude.
The book isn’t meant to make life harder for mothers, giving them a list of things to do; rather, it is meant to shift their focus about life in general so that they can learn to relax and have more fun.
Michelle Martin is a Chicago writer with three children.