When You Feel Inadequate as a Mother
March 1976

“When You Feel Inadequate as a Mother,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 23

Women and the Church

When You Feel Inadequate as a Mother

“What is all this resistance to motherhood?” I asked myself. One of my most outstanding friends had just come to me with an honest confession that she felt inadequate in her role as mother. Two other friends had also come separately, but almost simultaneously. (I assume that since my husband is a child psychiatrist, they felt they had to confess before I observed for myself the “mistakes” they were making.) They were each astounded when I told them quite honestly that I looked at them as exemplary mothers.

Ann somewhat abashedly admitted, “I hate Mother’s Day sermons. They make me feel awful—depressed and guilty. I know I should feel exhilarated and proud instead, but I’m just not that ideal mother they’re talking about.”

Ruth, one of the loveliest women I know, remained sitting during our last Relief Society meeting when it was time for those in the Mother Education class to go to another room for the lesson. Responding to my questioning glance, she whispered, “Today I’m going to attend the social relations class. I just can’t take Mother Education today. I already feel terribly inadequate.”

Rebecca, an outstanding woman who is well-respected by her friends, felt, “I’m just not cut out to be a mother.” Yet she has seven remarkable children.

Why did these capable, spiritual sisters feel so inadequate in this most important role? As I thought carefully about them, and about my own feelings as well, I discovered three possible reasons:

1. We all seem to measure ourselves by what we see in others, and that’s others at their best, scrubbed and polished physically and emotionally. Yet we judge ourselves by how we feel when we’re at our worst. Consequently, we’re sure to come out on the short end of the stick, always inadequate.

2. We hear the proponents of planned parenthood and women’s liberation expounding the virtues of not tying oneself exclusively to the home. I think that we are subconsciously influenced to have negative feelings we can’t explain logically to ourselves.

3. But the most significant reason is that we all begin motherhood inexperienced and unprepared. As girls, we usually see more roses than rain in this great adventure, so the first showers make us feel like failures. I didn’t realize that there are maturing stages of parenthood and that I couldn’t become a mature mother without passing through the intermediary stages of childhood and adolescence. I wish I had known that the mothers I admired also had frustrations and discouragements. Probably every mother at one time or another, not just Ruth, Ann, and Rebecca, feels that they have taken on a bigger project than they’d bargained for.

But I can testify that the true joy of motherhood awaits those who do not retreat from their commitment. The Lord gives no commandment unless he provides a way for us to accomplish his desires. My own experiences and emotions are proof of that.

Infancy. This beginning stage of motherhood is very idealistic and, I’m afraid, naive. When my husband and I had our first child, we were excited and eager. I was convinced that I would become the perfect mother and raise perfect children—after all, I’d read dozens of books on child care. Only under extraordinary circumstances would I ever make any of the mistakes that I’d seen others make. I felt I could accomplish any task.

Childhood. I was shocked to realize that there was much more to child rearing than I’d learned from reading. My children obviously hadn’t read the same books as I had about how they were to behave. My mind swarmed with myriads of questions. I was inquisitive, puzzled, insatiable for information. When I was around experienced mothers. I lapped up their suggestions and experiences.

Adolescence. If we could choose to avoid any stage of motherhood development, it would be nice to avoid this one. However, few are so fortunate, even though with some it is mild and soon over. Mothers with young, or few, children may have trouble believing this stage really occurs. Some may find it sacrilegious to think that any mother could actually and honestly rebel against motherhood, particularly against such precious spirits. For those who find such feelings unimaginable, don’t say it will never happen to you—at least not before witnesses. The timetable for each person who enters this stage is different.

It came to me after five years of marriage with four children under the age of five. Normal sibling rivalries zoomed with the birth of our fourth child. Each child seemed determined to get more attention than the baby, and they had many creative methods of getting negative attention. I was always tired, often impatient. The baby’s irregular schedule made if impossible to have meals on the table when their dinnerbells went ding! Then tempers would flare.

As I fed our new son (the only time I got to sit down, it seemed!), I thought about those books on raising children and fumed. I questioned the validity of the material and the authority of the authors. They seemed to treat child raising as an exact science: if you accomplish A and B, you always achieve C. Consciously I rejected the writers, but subconsciously I was blaming myself for not being more competent.

Secretly I longed for freedom. I felt certain I was not cut out to be a mother. I looked forward to the time when our baby would be old enough that I could do something I was good at—some community projects where success would help me maintain my emotional equilibrium. In my anguish, I even wondered about having any more children because I simply felt incapable of raising them the way I felt the Lord wanted them raised.

Maturity. This ultimate stage of development is marked by a real testimony that perfection is a process that takes a lifetime, by truly internalizing this feeling and feeling comfortable with it, by accepting a problem and calmly working on it rather than fighting it and feeling frustrated and inadequate. Several important motivations nudged me out of my adolescent rebellion toward maturity.

1. Time. Early in our marriage my husband taught me reassuringly that “learning from living” solves more problems than “book learning.” On an intellectual level, I understood that very well, but it took me some fifteen years to accept this truth emotionally, internalize it, and act on it. Only life itself can give you that kind of experience.

Another benefit of time is that I began to see the results of my teaching. For years I had worked with my children, trying to teach them consideration and thoughtfulness. I was thrilled to see it blossom last Mother’s Day when my fourteen-year-old daughter surprised me with a dress she had made. The following morning, I was overcome when she presented me with a second dress she’d stayed up nearly all night to make. Few things have touched me so deeply as her sacrifice and thoughtfulness.

2. Fasting, prayer, and scripture study. As I became diligent in these activities, the Lord seemed to guide me to the scriptures I needed. One important scripture was 2 Nephi 9:28–29:

“O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

“But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” [2 Ne. 9:28–29] I realized that my first great mistake was putting too much faith in the wisdom of men and not taking sufficient counsel from the Lord’s hand.

The second scripture that came to have great meaning to me was 2 Nephi 2:11. [2 Ne. 2:11] Lehi’s lesson to Jacob, that there must be opposition in all things, branded my heart. I had read that scripture many times. Why had I never applied it to my difficulties as a mother? If there must be opposition in all things, didn’t that include motherhood? Why had I expected everything to run as flawlessly for me as for Maria in The Sound of Music?

The third scripture that came forcefully to me was King Benjamin’s teaching that “the natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19.) Why did I expect my children to be so different? It was natural for my children to exhibit some negative traits. It was not because they were abnormal or because I was a bad mother. Instead, it would be my work and my glory to help them put off the natural man and become spiritual.

The fourth scripture that helped me onto the road of maturity resulted from Joseph Smith’s despondency in Liberty Jail. The Lord responded: “Peace be unto thy soul. …

“All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

“The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 121:7; D&C 122:7–8.)

What a powerful impact this had! Was I really justified in feeling sorry for myself? Was I greater than Joseph Smith? I had regained my perspective.

My life as a mother changed because my attitude changed. These scriptures were like a mirror reflecting a true image of what I needed to become. I had been trying to change my children, but I was the one who needed to change. Finally I realized that to become a better mother I had to become a better person; everything began to fall into place.

I no longer focused on my failures, but rather on my successes. I remember a small incident that nailed down this discovery for me. I sent our four-year-old down to his room to get his Sunday clothes and followed him down fifteen minutes later to see what had sidetracked him. He was throwing a basketball into the hamper.

Instead of being angry, I said. “My, you’re getting it in every single time. I’m really impressed.” He smiled at me shyly and said, “That’s why I’m doing it. So you’ll be impressed.” I was touched that he cared enough for me to try and please me, even though I would have preferred that he’d done it by finding his clothes. I was also gratified that he felt comfortable expressing his feelings to me. And I could see, in my ability to control my impatience, the blessing of being able to share positive feelings with my children.

Experiences like this give me faith that “plateaus of little progress” are also part of the plan and that with the help of the Lord I can become the kind of mother he wishes me to be. The road will be long and bumpy, and I’ll make wrong turns, but I know that I can reach my destination. The realization has come to me that in the process of refining my children I myself am becoming refined. Pressure is tempering me into steel; friction is beginning to polish off the rough edges.

It is my testimony that the Lord does love us. We are truly in partnership with God as we bring these little spirits into the world. Our reward will be great, not only because of the end result, but also because of the spiritual development we experience in the process. The Lord left the world unfinished, the lessons unlearned, the testimonies unformed and the abilities undeveloped that we might share in his work and therefore his glory. Not only is the end result rewarding, but the means to that end will refine us and purify us until, when we see our Heavenly Father, he will greet us with divine approval.

  • Claudia Tidwell Goates, a homemaker and member of the Federal Heights Ward, Salt Lake Emigration Stake, serves as a writer on the Instructional Development Committee of the Church.

Illustrated by Parry Merkley