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The Many Roles of a Mother

by Liz Napolin  LPCMH, NCC 

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog for The Mothers’ Space.

I felt fairly prepared to be a mother. I had credentials under my belt that said I had a grasp on parenting. I had worked for years with children in a school setting. I knew how challenging kids could be. I knew the way they could push your buttons. I also worked one-on-one with parents in an intimate way. I knew the love they had for their kids. I knew the importance of discipline and natural consequences. But, I had no clue what it felt like. I had no way of really knowing the all-encompassing, full body, shut-your-logical-brain-down emotions that would come with parenting.

The love I have for my two boys is the strength of a thousand wild fires. I’m sure that most mothers know what I am talking about. Sometimes this love is so intense that it throws me off my game. I’m a therapist by trade and can sit with someone experiencing intense emotions and internally not be shaken. My job is to be present with sadness or anger or anxiety and allow the person in the room to sort through their emotions in a safe place. With my own children, though, my love for them is so overwhelming that when they hurt, I hurt. When they are sad, I am triggered as well.

A few months ago, my husband shared in passing that when he dropped our two-year-old Luke off at “school,” he had nowhere to sit. My little love, my heart and soul, walked into his classroom and as he went to sit down, a kid told him that that was their seat. When he moved to another play station the same thing happened and he wandered around a bit aimlessly.

This was a completely benign story. It was a brief moment in time that didn’t traumatize my kid; instead it traumatized me. Logically, I know experiences like this are helpful for kids. However, that part of my brain wasn’t turned on when I heard this story. Instead I was taken over by a wave of intense empathy for him—a heaviness in my chest, memories of kids who sat alone at the lunch tables, and a deep feeling of sadness.

If I had been there, I would have jumped in and “fixed” it. I would have wanted to appease my anxiety and rush my baby back to a place of comfort. I would have robbed him of a chance to build resiliency and see that he is not always the center of the universe. Hearing about this story after the fact allowed me the space and time to reflect on what Luke was experiencing (a growth opportunity) rather than what I would have been experiencing (a mama bear panic moment) and to be curious about why that was such a trigger for me. Only through reflection was I able to put the pieces together that I am hyper-sensitive about the feeling of loneliness for kids.

Now I know. I know the feeling of trying to calm my child’s tantrum only to turn and yell right back at him. I know the desire to rescue my son when he feels anxious the first day of swim class. I know the heartbreak when my baby is crying, asking me not to go to work. What all of these situations have in common is that they fire me up. They get me in a frame of mind that is fiercely protective and quick to act. That is a great way to be if there’s a lion in the room (real life-threatening danger) but not helpful when your child is navigating his social world in a safe classroom (healthy developmental experience).

Sometimes love is too intense. Empathy can overwhelm us, the discomfort activating our primitive, fight-flight-freeze brain to get rid of the pain. There are situations when we absolutely need to jump in and play mama bear. The tricky part, though, is calming our own emotions so that we can have the clarity of mind to know what our children need.

Before I can tune into my children, it helps to tune into myself. Comfort myself. Nurture myself. Mother myself. Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful meditation where you simply say to yourself, “Dear One, I am here for you.” When I practice slowing down and offering compassion to myself, I’m then able to attune to which mothering role is being called on in the moment.

Maybe take a moment now. Close your eyes if that feels okay. Check into your experience reading this. What memories in mothering showed up for you? Maybe some of those memories come with sadness or guilt or anger towards yourself. Allow space for those uncomfortable emotions. Now, instead of judgement (we’re so good at judgment), try to offer the love and compassion you have for your children to yourself. In the same voice you would use if your child was hurt and came to you for comfort, say to yourself, “Dear One, I am here for you.”



with Liz Napolin

Saturday, April 22nd, 1 – 4 pm

Being a mom is intense. The job description is long and the pressure we put on ourselves is high. This three-hour workshop will provide an introduction to the neurobiology of the parent-child relationship and dive into why it can be so challenging to switch gears from a comforter to disciplinarian to coach or counselor. By approaching our own life narrative with curiosity, we will gain greater self-awareness, increase our ability to tune in to what our children need and stay in the present moment when they display challenging behaviors. Participants will leave with a personalized self-care plan and practical strategies for calming guilt and fear when they show up in parenting.

This workshop is best suited for mothers with a child age 18 months to 18 years. Register here.