I’m endlessly curious. As an Enneagram 5, it’s in my nature.
Of course, when I became a parent, this fascination took a new turn. I immediately wanted to consume everything I could find on being a parent, raising children, and what it would all be like. Yes, I know you can never actually know what it’ll be like – there’s no book or guide that will give you an exact path through motherhood. But it satisfies my soul to learn.
As I get further into motherhood, I find that my endless curiosity with the world and its people does me well. I soak up information like a sponge, and instead of overwhelming me, it gives me an opportunity to hone my own thoughts and beliefs, to practice reflection without judgment, and to carefully curate a database of advice in my mind – one that mirrors pieces of me that I own, that I would like to work on, or that I aspire to be.
And what I’m finding by continually diving into other women’s perspectives, experiences, and stories is that we can learn so much from those around us. In that spirit, I’m diving into a new series – one that explores the influences of another mother on my own parenting journey.
Having recently finished the great Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, her story and persona is fresh on my mind. So, here are five motherhood lessons I learned from Shonda Rhimes.
1. Be unapologetic
One thing that attracts me greatly to Shonda Rhimes is her ability to be outwardly unapologetic. It’s something that I struggle to do even in the smallest sense, and after learning more about Rhimes, I know that it likely doesn’t come naturally to her either – it’s probably something that she’s worked toward overtime that’s made either slightly easier or much more difficult with continued growth, confidence, and success.
You’ll often hear Rhimes mention that she owns Thursday nights (she does) or that she’s built an empire out of her imagination (she has). And though I have no real desire to do either of those things, her unapologetic approach to her self-awareness, talent, and earned success is something that I admire and aspire towards.
In relation to my parenting, I want my kids to hold this quality in them as they get older – to know their worth, demand what they deserve, and find immense joy and awareness in themselves. But they’ll need a model for that, and it’s about time I step up.
2. Keep laying the track
Rhimes talks a lot about the creative process in her book (which as a writer, I love), and in one of my favorite excerpts from Year of Yes, she says this about the writing process: “Every single writer I met likened writing for television to one thing – laying track for an oncoming, speeding train. The story is the track, and you gotta keep laying it down because of the train. That train is production. You keep writing, you keep laying track down, no matter what, because the train of production is coming toward you – no matter what. I always feel the heat of the speeding train on the backs of my thighs, on the heels of my feet, on my shoulder blades and elbows, on the seat of my pants as it threatens to run me down. But I don’t step back and let the cool wind hit my face as I watch the train speed by. I never step back.”
Now, if that isn’t a perfect analogy of what parenting is like for me, I’m not sure what is. For me, as a mother, the story isn’t the track (though I most definitely feel the heat of the train when it comes to my work life). The track in parenting is our path – our ideals and values and aspirations. The track is the plan – how we want to parent, what we strive to teach, who we want to raise our kids to be. And the train? Well, the train is everything – our responsibilities, our commitments, the expectations, the demands, the comparisons, the needs of our families and homes and careers and communities.
Feeling the heat of the train is real. So is the pressure of continuing to lay the track. Some days, the train is too close, and our track gets laid haphazardly in an effort to get it done at all. Some days, the train is a good distance away, and we can take care to lay the track in a careful way. But what I find solace in is the belief of the track itself – that if I continue to lay it as best as I can day after day, my kids will have a successful ride into their own adulthood, and I will feel in my heart that I gave them what I could.
3. It’s normal to be affected by your introverted nature
As a lifelong introvert, I truly struggle with my ability to present myself. Group settings are not where I excel – I trip, stumble over my words, say the wrong thing. I can’t push my way to the front or wax poetically about my latest endeavors or successes. It just doesn’t work.
Rhimes touches on her own introverted nature often in her book, and the stories of her feelings and behavior at parties, award shows, and a particularly humorous live TV stint on Jimmy Kimmel were so relatable. But she also is firm in the fact that confidence is not a trait that is designated solely for extroverts. Different personalities have different strengths, she says, and how you harness your self-esteem is what matters.
For most of my life, I thought there was something wrong with me – I’ve been told that I am “too shy,” “too quiet,” and that I “don’t participate” so often it could be my epitaph. But it won’t be because now I’m learning the power in the quiet and gifts of my silence. And because of my own experiences, I am committed to teaching my kids the value of their own strengths and differences. I want them to feel comfortable and confident in exactly who they are.
4. You can’t do it all
Rhimes is refreshingly honest about this common expectation placed on women and her thoughts reflect my own – you cannot do it all. Though Rhimes has been vocal about this for much of her public life, it was her commencement speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth, that truly drove the point home.
She says people always ask her how she does it all, and she replies that she doesn’t. “Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life,” she says in her speech. “If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and storytime at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing.”
As a working mother, I find so much truth in that – if I am excelling at one thing, I’m undoubtedly failing at the other. It can feel consuming at times, but I know that because it’s important to me, it’s worth continuing to do. As Rhimes says later in the speech, “The woman I am because I get to run Shondaland, because I get write all day, because I get to spend my days making things up, that woman is a better person — and a better mother. Because that woman is happy. That woman is fulfilled. That woman is whole. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who didn’t get to do this all day long. I wouldn’t want them to know the me who wasn’t doing.”
I am a better mother because I work. I am a better mother because I am happy and fulfilled. I am a better mother because I spend my days writing and creating. I am a better mother because I can use my work to provide for my family. There’s no apologizing for that.
5. Dreams don’t always come true
My favorite part from Year of Yes is an honest, unapologetic, deeply insightful perspective of the nature of dreaming versus doing. “Don’t be a dreamer,” she says, “be a doer.” Hard work is the catalyst for creating life and for creating change, she tells us. Dreams are just pretty things to look at.
As a family, we teach our kids to do – to dream yes, because it’s fun and fantasizing often leads you to places you didn’t know were within your reach – but to commit to something and to do it. As a society, we tell our kids to Dream Big, and they should. But the work ethic that it takes to actually make dreams come true is entirely different – it requires persistence and patience and perseverance, and it’s one that I plan on instilling in my kids.
In true Shonda fashion, Rhimes wraps it all up with this incredible quote: “My dreams did not come true. But I worked really hard. And I ended up building an empire out of my imagination. So my dreams can suck it.”
And if I take anything along with me on this road down motherhood from the life experiences and wisdom of Shonda Rhimes, it’s that – work really hard and you can build a life out of your imagination.