Because it's easy to be deceived into thinking that the most important results are only the immediate ones.
One of the most frustrating things about being a stay-at-home mother is that you’re inevitably exhausted by the end of the day, but somehow, nothing you did seems to explain it. You changed a bunch of diapers, maybe you cooked and managed a few loads of laundry. You helped out with homework, you took the kids to the park … it’s just not that extraordinary.
If all of this domestic, everyday work suddenly stopped, you can bet people would notice. (Have you ever gotten the flu, and watched in alarm as the whole house descended into chaos?) A mother’s work, when it’s done day in and day out, becomes quickly invisible, sometimes even to the mother herself. It’s hard to remember that it counts.
Even when other people appreciate what I do, I rarely extend the same encouragement to myself. My husband will come home after a long day in the machine shop, and thank me for my hard work, but I feel silly accepting the gratitude — especially when I don’t have anything to show for the day, besides that all the kids are alive and relatively dry. At night, when it’s just me and my thoughts, I tell myself that I don’t deserve to be this exhausted. After all, what did I even do?
When I start giving myself a hard time, I’ve found that the best cure is to force myself to get specific with my complaints. “Okay, then, let’s test this theory,” I’ll say. “What exactly did I get done today?”
“ … Um,” (It’s hard to get started at first) … “I fed the kids breakfast, does that count?” So I force myself to recount the day, and make note of anything that would be noticed if it didn’t get done. Did I get supper on the table? Then I nourished the bodies of those I love, and provide my family a special time to connect with each other. Family dinners matter. Did I finally make that doctor’s appointment? Then I’m doing what it takes to keep their bodies healthy, and to guard the rest of the community from the potential spread of illness. Did I read a few books to the toddler, while dinner was in the oven? Then I showed him that he’s important to me, and that he’s worth my time. Can you imagine if he never learned that?
Just because your work isn’t visible doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Doing my to-do lists backwards is helping me remember this. Instead of remembering all the things I need to do tomorrow, I take a minute to remind myself of all the things I did today. Anything that’s only noticed when it’s neglected — no matter how small, no matter how ordinary — belongs on that list. The idea is to force yourself to acknowledge all the very real work you did do, both mental and physical, to refuse to buy into the narrative that only exciting work counts as work.
Remembering this truth can make a real difference for your self-esteem. Self-esteem, after all, isn’t narcissistic. Shouldn’t you have esteem for what’s genuinely valuable? Well, you are valuable. Your work is valuable. And you owe it to yourself, in justice, to acknowledge that.
Narcissism vs. self-esteem: How to tell the two apart