Radical Motherhood
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Radical Motherhood

How I Measure Success as a Mom

An argument for relationship-first parenting

A massive tree with sunlight shining through its leaves and branches
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

As mothers, we’re all concerned with being good ones. Moms who meet their kids needs, who ensure they’re fed, clean, and educated, whose minds, hearts, and bodies are developed to their full potential.

Successful mothering, as we know it, is performance. Acting a certain way, dressing a certain way, dressing your kids a certain way, having an organized house. Appearing like you’ve got it together, or like you’re messily together, hiding the hardest parts.

It’s making sure your kids are well behaved, do their homework, get good grades, go to college—a good college. Ensuring they get to play sports, play an instrument, take art classes, socialize an appropriate amount, don’t stay out too late, aren’t late to school or work or anywhere. Brush their teeth, get enough sleep, don’t spend too much time in front of screens, and listen to their teachers. Share as toddlers, don’t interrupt, have nice table manners, don’t embarrass you. Do their chores, work hard, don’t talk to strangers, do as they’re told, don’t have moods or dirty fingernails. Have the life you didn’t get to, succeed in money, marriage, career.

Success is building children who look as clean, poised, beautiful, and happy-go-lucky as they do in the professional photos we post on social media. Success is making them two dimensional and calling it well-rounded.

Our children, some part of us may believe, are trophies we win for being good girls, and we must keep them shiny. They indicate our prowess as mothers and human beings. They’re a reflection of us, our worth, our value, our talent, our success.

We might add that successful mothering yields children who possess soft skills — kindness, compassion, autonomy, confidence, empathy, open-mindedness, loyalty, caring — but as these can’t be easily measured or displayed, and are undervalued in our patriarchal, capitalistic society, what it takes to actually develop these skills can get lost in our parenting.

Regardless, it seems like we can never do enough to call ourselves successful, that we could always be playing more with our kids, reading more to them, signing them up for another activity, introducing them to more educational games and shows. There are metrics we could be tracking, friendships we ought to be monitoring, foods we should be growing, harvesting, and cooking, and others we shouldn’t be. More, more, more, that’s the cry of success in motherhood.

Success generally means achieving a goal or desired outcome. Often it’s in regards to money, fame, status or awards, but:

Why is success as a mom even a thing?

It’s not a concern placed on dads like it is on moms. Nor are mothers who’ve moved up in the generational line and become grandmothers as concerned with success as they may have been with their own kids.

Our culture insists that a woman’s primary duty is to become the wife of a man and then a mother and that once she’s done that, she should be unwaveringly devoted to her family, especially her children, sacrifice herself for them. Girls and women are taught and expected to be accommodating of others, placing their needs at the forefront, living in service to them. If we don’t we have failed as a mother, wife, woman.

A successful mom, then, is one who makes her children her priority, to the exclusion of all else. As a result, the theory goes, her kids will become successful themselves — academic and athletic awards, admission into prestigious colleges, enviable careers.

Likewise, a successful mother is one who is approved of by others and whose children are approved of by others. (Though, paradoxically, we often say success includes raising kids who are true to themselves.)

Success as a dad, according to our culture, means providing for his family, his kids. Making money. That’s it. There’s no pressure on his performance, for him to have a certain demeanor, sacrifice himself, be perfect. He just has to show up. And while there’s no doubt that fulfilling the role of provider can put undue stress on a father, he doesn’t carry the majority of the burden to mold his children into a particular vision.

Because this isn’t about the child at all—it’s about the mother.

The push for success in motherhood is rooted in patriarchy, diminishing a woman’s worth and very often, her happiness. How might we then turn it on it’s head and make it work for us and our children?

What’s the state of my relationship with my child?

So often we’re striving to do the things that make us good moms, or trying to accomplish a variety of other tasks while still being good moms. Many times the task at hand interrupts our relationship with our child. We put getting shoes on and getting out the door above our relationship with our child. We put good grades and good behavior above our relationship. We put maintaining control above relationship. We put punishment above relationship. We put expert advice above relationship. We put fear above relationship. We put all the things that society says make us a good mom above the quality of our relationship with our child.

Instead of endlessly revisiting and checking off the items that supposedly dictate our success, what if we made the quality of our relationship with our child our number one concern? What if we regularly checked in with ourselves to ask: What’s the state of my relationship with my child?

  • Does my child feel comfortable talking to me?
  • How do I feel when they talk to me?
  • What is their response when I talk to them?
  • What are our conversations/interactions like?
  • Do I listen without offering advice or judgment?
  • Do I hear what they need — what they actually need, not what I think or want them to need — and, where appropriate, do what I can to help them get it?
  • Do I apologize to my child when warranted?
  • Do I think or speak of my child as my enemy or adversary?
  • Are my child and I teammates?
  • Do I create win-win solutions with my child?
  • Do I give my needs a voice in the relationship?
  • What do I feel in my relationship with my child?

These questions are not meant to replace our old “good mom” checklists; they’re simply ideas to consider.

Using the quality of our relationships with our children as indicators of success is more difficult than marking off the list of “good mom” items. At the same time, that list never actually ends, while quick check-ins to feel our feelings and notice our children’s is a more definitive way to monitor ourselves. Instead of making success a destination, it allows it to be an ongoing experience, just as our relationship is.

What keeps us from measuring success in this way?

Cultural norms tell us that we need to follow certain rules to be successful mothers, that our kids won’t get what they need if we don’t. Additionally, our own fears, stemming particularly from our childhood experiences and traumas, shore up these norms.

We focus endlessly on getting things done, being productive, being efficient. This is the mindset of toxic capitalism and it says that what we do is more important than how we relate to others, that we can even use others to get things done.

We follow our training because we’re trying to survive, scrape by, and we’re scared. In order to keep relationship at the forefront we have to have our needs met. We have to feel rested, fed, relaxed, financially equipped. Otherwise, exhaustion, resentment, overwhelm, anger, etc. set in and disrupt the relationship. At the same time, making the relationship our priority helps us feel calmer, steadier, more confident.

This is all great, you might say, but we live in the real world. There are things that need to happen, things we have to do. Yes we do.

Let’s say there’s something that needs to be done, like your daughter has a bloated tick stuck in her head and you need to get it out. Let’s say you discover the tick, scoop her up, carry her to your bedroom, put her down on the bed, tell her to lie still, and begin to formulate a plan and gather resources for extracting the tick. Let’s say she’s frightened by all this: the tick, the suddenness of it all, the motion, your worry. Let’s say you don’t say much to her other than to stay still. Let’s say all of your focus is on the tick and little of it is on the person in whose head the tick is burrowed.

The tick is obscenely large — in hindsight, it’s been there for a week or two and is likely responsible for the tiny brown droppings found on and near her pillow every morning — so it’s understandable that you’d be concerned and want to get it out of her head. Yet you forget, or so it seems to your daughter, about her, that there’s a person, a person you love, on the other side of the tick.

She’s scared and you are fixated on the task at hand, removing the tick.

This happens all the time, not just with daughters and ticks. We focus on what needs to be done to the exclusion of considering the people involved and their mental and emotional wellbeing, their dignity, their autonomy, their worry.

When the OB is only focused on a healthy baby. When the boss is only focused on the bottom line. When the educator is only focused on what must be taught. When the politician is only focused on winning. When the police officer is only focused on a suspect’s compliance. When the father is only focused on getting his kids to bed.

In each of these situations, focus on the task may supersede focus on the people involved and one’s relationship with them, however loose it may be, very often to the detriment of all involved.

Though it may be swimming against society’s current, we must look for places to disrupt that current. We must decide that our relationships with our children are paramount and that we will honor them always. We with the most privilege especially can safely re-write the definition of mothering success and act accordingly. Because when we normalize putting relationships first, the whole of society becomes healthier.

Success is often based on the parent’s ego. If our children win a competition or go to an Ivy League college or are highly attractive physically then that, we believe, reflects well on us. We often hope for our kids to be this type of successful.

On the other hand, there’s little fanfare for success of character; these are quiet successes under-recognized by the outside world.

Judging success by relationship quality leaves no room for ego, only for character—forgiveness, communication, collaboration, boundaries, listening, and love.

Just because we have power over our children, just because we can place them beneath the task at hand in rank of importance, doesn’t mean we should. “Power over” thinking, though ingrained in us, disrupts relationship-first parenting.

What are the benefits of relationship-first parenting?

Relationship is everything. There is no amount of accomplishment that will take the place of satisfying relationships with others. We can follow the scripts imposed upon us and bedrocked by fear, but in the end all we have are each other, not least of all our children. We’re incomplete in our human experience if our focus is more on doing than on being.

In relationship-first parenting, both parties are satisfied, supported, heard. The parent maintains boundaries, refuses to sacrifice herself, puts herself first. (Or “co-first” if you prefer.) There’s plenty of room for children’s feelings and parents’ apologies, mimicked by children through their own apologies. There is grace, care, concern, confidence, curiosity, learning. Questions asked and answered. Simplicity. Mutual respect and trust. Healing.

What if we shifted the national conversation from the economy to the economy of relationship, the production and consumption of relationships? What would be different? What would be better?

Everything. I’d argue everything.

Our kids aren’t metrics-in-waiting; we can’t measure them in any meaningful way. Instead, we must redefine success.

Once we do, our children will feel less frightened, more loved, and more confident as we remove ticks from scalps. We will too.

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Ashley Kim | Adventure Motherhood

Ashley Kim | Adventure Motherhood

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Founder & CEO of Adventure Motherhood. Supporting the mental, emotional, and physical health of moms through travel experiences, outdoor programs, and coaching.