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Being someone’s mother doesn’t mean you have to be perfect.

Mom stroking son's back in bed
Photo credit: J. Quazi King for mater mea

Children have a special kind of belief in their mothers. They believe their mamas can slay any monster, answer any question, and even live forever. This is a belief that we as mothers sometimes encourage and even help to build. It comes from a good place: We want to protect our littles, and we want them to feel secure. But we do ourselves and our children a disservice when we feed into superhuman models of motherhood. 

I had difficulty with this concept of “vulnerable motherhood” at first. It felt like I was showing my children weakness, and I had been taught that mothers were supposed to be strong. I worried that showing my children my humanity would make them less confident in my ability to care for and guide them. I worried it might diminish their faith in me. 

Letting my child see how I navigate the complexities of being human helps them develop healthy expectations of and relationships with themselves.

But one of the promises I’d made to myself when I became a mother was that I would be honest with my children. And the truth is I am a mother, but I am also human, and being human doesn’t make me weak. I didn’t want to perpetuate the superwoman/superhuman myth with my children. 

Putting this into practice has taken more intentional effort and practice than I realized it would, and I don’t always get it right. But I have created these three guidelines for myself when mothering my littles. 

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1. Feel your feelings.

Everyone has off days. When I became a mother it didn’t make me impervious to sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, and other challenging emotions. And just like joy, happiness, and excitement, I have learned that I can share these more challenging emotions with my kids too. 

I may not share every nitty gritty detail of what I’m struggling with, but I do try to let my child know that I am working through something, and let them see me go through that process.

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2. Let them know that you don’t know.

My 6 year old took longer to speak than my other children, but once he began to talk, he also began asking questions. (Some days it feels like he never stopped.) 

When I pick him up from school, after “Hi, Mama,” the very next thing he usually says is “Can I ask you something?” Depending on the day, or how pressing the question is, he may or may not wait for me to say “Yes” before launching into whatever the question may be. Whether it is about how the pyramids were built, or whether I think there are megalodons still roaming the depths of the oceans, his questions often test the outer limits of my knowledge base. 

It’s because of this, in part, that I have gotten really good at saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t try to make up an answer, or stall to buy time, I tell him I don’t know—and this applies to all of my kids. When they ask me a question and I’m drawing a blank, I tell them whatever they’ve asked is a great question, and then we search for the answer together.

Being all-knowing is an unrealistic expectation to thrust upon myself. It’s important for my children and for me that I acknowledge and embrace the fact that I don’t have all the answers. 

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3. Apologize.

Being a mother is a difficult job. There are days when I am not as patient as I would like to be, when I draw an incorrect conclusion, or make an incorrect assumption about what my child has done. 

These missteps don’t make me a bad mother. They make me human. I acknowledge that humanity by noting my behavior, and apologizing to my children when the situation calls for it. Just because I’m their mom doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry. 

I have found that being vulnerable with my children in this way has strengthened our relationship. When I became a mother I had to learn (and continue to learn) that being someone’s mother doesn’t mean I have to be perfect. Committing to this practice of vulnerable motherhood has allowed my children to see me as a three-dimensional human being—a person with flaws and feelings. And because I model that for them, I also give them permission to be people with flaws and feelings. I make it ok for them to be stumped by a question or have an off day. 

Letting my child see how I navigate the complexities of being human helps them develop healthy expectations of and relationships with themselves. And it allows me the space to show up as a whole person and mother in a way that honors that.

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Satya Nelms is mater mea’s managing editor. She is a writer and community builder. She lives with her best friend and four littles just outside of Philadelphia.

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