Are you a pessimistic mother?

It’s a Friday morning after a long week of hosting out of town guests and putting on a tea party for about 35 women. (Two separate events.) My kitchen is a shameful mess, my lower back is killing me, and I feel like I could sleep for about 2 days straight. But you know what? I’m happy.

I’m happy because I’ve trained myself to see these types of messes and fatigue as symbols of good times and hard work. Sound too Pollyanna? Maybe it is, but it works.

The truth is, it’s easier for most of us to see the negative. It’s one of those “natural tendencies” we all struggle with. (Like my tendency to want to stay in bed today with a bag of Ghiradelli’s salted dark chocolate caramels watching Netflix re-runs of all my favorite shows. Maybe that’s not a bad idea after all . . .) But did you know you can train yourself to be an optimist? There’s actually a legitimate term for it in the world of psychology: learned optimism.

I wish I had know about learned optimism when I first became a mother. To think I could have put all that negative energy I was burning focused on how motherhood was so hard into all the ways motherhood was so beautiful and amazing. I know this seems almost too simple, but as Winston Churchill famously stated, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” I can’t think of many other pursuits in life that come with as much difficulty and opportunity as motherhood. So why not focus on the opportunity?

Again, for those of you who think this sounds too Pollyanna, I hear you. I am a natural pessimist myself. (Science tells us that some people are more naturally optimistic than others, so we are justified in our gloomy ways–to a point.) When I’ve got PMS, and my kids aren’t listening to a word I say, and my house is a mess, and all the other annoying things we mothers endure on a regular basis, the last thing I want is for someone to tell me to think positive. How annoying! But I’ve come to realize that many optimists are not naturally sunny people; they are learned optimists who really have to work at it. And I’m ready to be one of those people; one of those mothers.

I think there are at least two reasons why we pessimists want to focus on the negative and have the whole world hear about it. 1) We’re trying to get some empathy and validation for our situation, and 2) we want to make our challenges seem like a big deal. And sometimes they are a big deal! When my husband was working over 100 hours a week and I was home alone with a toddler and a baby trying to teach piano lessons, participate in a mom run preschool, lead the girls youth group at church, and do it all with very little sleep and hardly any money, that was tough. And when we’re going through tough times as mothers, we want to be seen and heard. We all need empathy and validation at times.

But (and you knew there was a but), I can’t hep but think we are feeding the wrong animal when we continue to stay in that place of discontent, annoyance, anger, and resentment for too long. It just doesn’t get us anywhere, and it feels awful. Personally, I don’t like to feel that way for too long.

It makes me think of something I read recently from a prominent figure in my church. He told the story of a woman who overcame severe abuse in her childhood to live a life of joy and gratitude as an adult. He said that, “for her, the best path for healing was to understand and accept that darkness exists—but not to dwell there. For, as she now knew, light also exists—and that is where she chose to dwell.” Even if you aren’t a religious person, the principle still applies. Everyone can recognize that darkness and light co-exist in this world in one form or another. Dwell in the light!

I’ll wrap this up with the words from one of my favorite workout songs I like to listen to when I need a little shot of learned optimism. It’s called “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel, and these are the words that really speak to me:

Did you ever think

There might be another way

To just feel better,

Just feel better about today

If you want to be somebody else,

If you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself

If you want to be somebody else

Change your mind…

(And for a bonus, you can watch this amazing YouTube video–scroll down to view–based on a popular commencement address, but perfectly applicable to learned optimism and motherhood.)

Okay, that’s enough preaching for today. I need to go get started on those dirty dishes that are the result of being able to generously feed my family, our wonderful friends who came to visit, and those lovely ladies at the tea party whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. (See how this works?)

But first, just a few Ghiradelli chocolates.

QUESTION: Are you a pessimist or an optimist? If you are an optimist, natural or learned? How do you feel your pessimism or optimism affects your mothering?

CHALLENGE: If you’re a natural pessimist like me, practice learned optimism by consciously dwelling in the light and changing your mind whenever you feel the tendency toward pessimism creeping in.


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