Q&A: Defeating Discouragement in Motherhood
Barbara: This discouragement is born primarily out of high expectations. We enter parenthood with high ideals and expectations, but we don’t realize that we are bound to fail some of the time. As a young mother, I naively felt that I was going to be the most successful parent ever because I was so committed to that role, and I was so committed to doing it as a Christian that I thought I could avoid all sorts of horrible mistakes.
Discouragement set in, though, from the moment our first child was born, because her birth process didn’t go the way it was supposed to go, and I felt like a failure. Then, when I began breastfeeding, it wasn’t working the way I had dreamed it would. I had never done it before, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Then there was teething … then potty training … and on and on.
With these new experiences come all kinds of new emotions. A young mother isn’t sure where they are coming from or how to handle them. Over the years I came to understand that, but it took a lot of time, because I didn’t enter my marriage feeling very mature emotionally. I didn’t even know what emotional maturity was.
Dennis: Many adults from our generation grew up in homes where expressing emotion was looked down upon. A part of our responsibility as parents is to help raise our children to express emotion, but before we can do that we need to come to emotional maturity ourselves. We need to realize that emotions are a part of God’s image imbedded and imprinted within us. What we’ve got to understand as adults is that we are made in the emotional image of God and we shouldn’t be afraid of those emotions in our lives when they crop up.
Barbara: I had trouble expressing my emotions, because I had never shared some of those feelings with anybody on the face of the earth. I felt at risk sharing them with Dennis, and a part of what we learned was that I just needed to be able to say what I felt to someone I trusted. I just needed him to listen.
Dennis: But I was doing the typical male thing when it comes to a problem. I wanted to solve the problem, to fix the situation. I know that this comes as bad news to most men, but a lot of emotions can’t be fixed. They just need to be expressed. We need to listen and to do our best to understand what our wives are trying to say to us.
I highly suggest that you develop the lost art of late night talks and walks. There have been a lot of nights in our marriage that seemed to last for days. When we lived in Boulder, Colorado, we’d take drives up into the mountains—Barbara talking and me just listening.
Barbara: I would encourage a husband to listen quietly until his wife asks or in some way communicates that she wants a response. However, that doesn’t mean that he should become silent or mentally check out. Then at some point he can begin to say, “Why do you feel that way? What do you think has contributed to your feelings?”
By discussing it, you can help her begin to understand her emotions. Often times a mom gets discouraged and doesn’t even know why. You can help her understand what the circumstances were that led to her becoming discouraged, and maybe help prevent similar discouragement in the future. The key, though, is for her husband to listen in a way that shows her that he cares and understands, and that it’s all going to be okay.
Dennis: One morning Barbara was really overwhelmed by things that were going on, and she asked me to help.
Barbara: I was getting the kids ready for school. I had to discipline one child for a lousy attitude. Another had sprained his ankle the night before and I was worried about whether or not I should have it X-rayed. Then, a third child told me that he had to be at school early for a disciplinary reason. I asked Dennis if he could help me by making breakfast for the kids.
Dennis: So I toasted 8 or 10 slices of bread and set them on a plate on the counter. When we got in the car to go to school, the kids said they hadn’t eaten breakfast. They had never seen the food, because they were expecting me to hand it to them like their mother always did.
Barbara: So they drove to school eating buttered toast in the car, and as I walked into the house I realized that Dennis didn’t carry the burden like I did. He did the task, but I was involved on a more emotional level with the kids, and I wanted to do everything perfectly.
The challenge was that I didn’t want to lower my standards, but to continue to aspire to those high standards was setting myself up for discouragement, disappointment, and failure. There isn’t a magic formula for success in raising kids. Kids have sinful natures just like we do, and even if we could do everything perfectly, they would still mess up.
You need to realize that you can’t do everything right, and even if you could, things still wouldn’t be perfect. God’s power is made perfect through your weakness, though. He is strong even when you are weak.
Dennis: Husbands, the incorrect response when your wife is discouraged is to say, “You shouldn’t be discouraged. It’s no big deal.” The correct response is to try to understand why she feels discouraged—the circumstances that caused it and the implications of those feelings.
Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself up for her.” As husbands we are called to assume responsibility for our wives’ emotional well-being and their emotional development. We are called to love our wives, and a part of that is attempting to understand them and connect with them emotionally instead of just trying to provide a solution or fix their emotions.
Early in our marriage, I found myself verbalizing my commitment to Barbara frequently. In fact, I was caught a little off guard by how insecure she was about my love. I realized that we had to build a relationship of trust, and I could do that by embracing her emotions and never belittling them. I just had to listen and then say, “Well, that’s interesting how you feel,” instead of immediately moving to a solution. I still can’t understand how a woman can have a problem and not want it immediately solved, but that is just part of the difference in the way men and women are made.
Barbara: Another time, Dennis and I were having lunch, and I began to express my frustration. I was feeling overwhelmed because our lives had been incredibly busy for the previous few weeks, and I hadn’t been home, and so consequently the house was a mess.
Dennis: At first, I took her discouragement personally. I said, “Well, I help around the house a lot.”
Barbara: What I wanted Dennis to do was to listen and to understand and then after awhile we could come up with a solution.
Dennis: This is the maddening part of being a man! I just wanted to fix the problem. We had to take a moment and regain our emotional balance, and once we did, we had a very pleasant lunch. I apologized for missing the point, and tried to support her with compassion and understanding like I should have in the first place. Eventually we worked toward a solution, and that night we had a clean-the-house campaign.
No relationships are perfect, but through the power of the Holy Spirit we can together learn to express, understand, and work through our emotions. Your struggle is not against your spouse, and if you don’t work together, your frustrations will only multiply.
Contributed by Barbara and Dennis Rainey