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Speaking Your Peace

We can learn a lot from the mothers around us.

Last month, I picked up some valuable information from a fellow mom at back-to-school night. It was my son’s school and all the parents (95 percent of whom were moms) poured their adult-size bodies into second-grade-size chairs and pretended like we were comfortable doing so. The main task of the evening was to fill up the calendar of parental involvement for the entire school year. You know, things like building sets for musicals, driving kids to the pumpkin patch, coming up with original games for the winter party, or taking pictures during the Easter party. In other words, the stuff you hate committing to, but end up loving when you show up and deliver.

In this case, the room mothers sat in the front of the classroom and called out one activity at a time and signed up people according to the show of hands – paper products for the Valentine’s Day party, who’s in? Rounding up the yearbook photos, who’s got their hand up? Coordinating the coolest field day around, who’s coming with me?

It was my first time at this rodeo, and I’m not going to lie: I was scared.

My inner dialogue had its own field day as I watched the hands shoot up left, right, and center. Should I volunteer for more? I should, right? Because that’s what “good” mothers do – we show up for our kids. But I was torn. Between writing a book and working for The Mom Complex, signing up for anything other than bringing napkins would very likely result in a total and utter disaster.

And that’s when my new hero entered the room.

A mother to one of the boys in the class, this mom did not opt to sit in her son’s pint-size desk, but instead elected to stand in the doorway and magically disappear and reappear in regular intervals. Armed with a digital copy of the school calendar on her iPad, no matter where we were on assignments, she immediately caught up.

This woman was not afraid.

At one point, when she reappeared, we were at a stalemate for who would bring baked goods for some event I can’t even remember. One of the mothers immediately said to hero mom, “Hey, do you want to bake something for this event? We need one more volunteer.” And without the slightest pause, she replied, “Nope. Not my game. I know my strengths. I’m good at taking pictures and supplying paper products. I’ll sign up to be the photographer for dozens of different events, and I’ll even get the school logo printed on the napkins I bring. But I don’t do baking.”

I could have kissed her.

Show of hands: How many of you would have said yes under peer pressure in that moment? Thinking that somehow, you’re a better mom if you make chocolate chip double-dip brownies so the school can sell them for $1.50 each?

As soon as she spoke her truth, she freed me from all my worry. She was courageous enough to know her strengths, embrace her weaknesses, and say all of it out loud. She didn’t shift around nervously in her seat (she never actually sat down), stewing on whether she was volunteering for too much, not enough, or exactly enough.

It was kind of like being in yoga class, seeing another woman drop into child’s pose in the middle of a challenging sequence, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, thank God, I can take a knee too. It’s not the end of the world.” Sometimes we need to see other mothers taking a chill pill to know we can, too.

I’m sure you know how this story ended. Yep, with the two of us sitting at a bar, breaking down this thing called Life. We shared wine, laughter, and our perspectives. I learned that the reason she kept bouncing in and out of the calendar meeting was because she’s the mother of twin boys – one in each of the two second-grade classes. So, she was volunteering for two classes at once (wow). I also learned that she served our country as a pilot in the Navy (double-wow), and that she’s married to the love of her life and partner for twenty years.

And suddenly the world made sense to me.

This mom had had some different experiences from the average mama bear. For example, she’s seen the world blur beneath her as she’s flown covert Top Gun-style missions for our nation, she’s received enough judgment to last a lifetime when she expressed the truth about her sexuality, and she’s felt the thrill of being part of the first same-sex couple in Virginia to have both parents listed on their child’s birth certificate.

In comparison, telling a bunch of second-grade moms that she doesn’t bake brownies is a walk in the park.

I found her perspective and willingness to share breathtakingly liberating. She told me, “I guess I just finally recognized what is most important in life. I learned a long time ago that you can’t be everything to everyone, but most women still try.”

Yes, we do.

But maybe it’s time to stop. When she said her piece out loud, nobody thought less of her. I didn’t think she was a loser; I thought she was a hero. She showed me the power of respecting my time and talents (and lack thereof). And that’s exactly what I did. For the first time, I didn’t over-extend myself. I stayed true to what I can actually deliver at this point in my life without being a yes-man to anything more.

We often fear the judgment of other mothers, but what I learned from back-to-school night this year is that setting boundaries and saying no doesn’t irritate other mothers as much as you assume it will – sometimes it inspires them.

So, go ahead, draw the line. What are you waiting for?

Katherine Wintsch is a nationally recognized expert on modern motherhood, founder of The Mom Complex in Richmond, and author of “Slay Like a Mother.” The majority of her expertise comes from studying the passion and pain points of mothers around the world. The rest, she says, is accumulated from a little trial and a whole lot of error while raising her own two children, Layla and Alex.
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