When it comes to being a mother, the struggle is real. It’s a nonstop, never-knowing, always-anticipating, and completely exhausting operation. It’s been hard since moms protected their kids from storms by sleeping in caves, and it will continue to be hard when moms are nursing their newborns in the back seats of flying cars. You go, girls! What’s less obvious, and rarely if ever discussed, is something I’ve seen play out in my research studies for years: the difference between struggling and suffering. There’s a distinct and often dangerous difference at play, and if you want to quiet the steady drumbeat of dread in your mind, then you can’t confuse the two. Struggling is to be expected. Suffering, however, is self-perpetuated, and it makes your job harder than it has to be. All moms find their kids’ actions confusing, challenging, and at times annoying—meaning they struggle. But they don’t all turn their frustrations into a personal indictment and proof that they flat-out suck. That is suffering, and it’s time to make it stop.

There’s a fine line between struggling and suffering, and one of my goals is to make sure you make it a firm line that you cross as infrequently as possible. That way, you can protect, defend, and honor the beautiful soul that’s inside you and tired of getting beaten up every day. To succeed at this involves recognizing your behavior when it happens so that you can mitigate it.

What you don’t want, but I suspect you feel, is for suffering to be the main theme of your story as a mother and person. You don’t want to suffer more than you struggle, because the more time you spend suffering, the more time you’ll spend battling your dragon of self-doubt with your happiness hanging in the balance. And as we’ve established, ain’t nobody got time for that.

I like to follow a simple rule for distinguishing between struggling and suffering that shows there’s more than alliterative semantics at play here. Struggles represent the chaos around you—the challenges that your eyes can see, such as the toddler who won’t get in his car seat or a teen’s bad report card. Suffering, on the other hand, represents the chaos inside you. It’s the pain your soul feels when you don’t believe you’re smart enough, tough enough, or patient enough to deal with the struggles that come with the grueling job of being a mother.

For instance, grocery shopping with two tired and hungry kids under the age of four and leaving the store without threatening to set their toys on fire is a struggle. Every mom, no matter how put together she felt when she left the house, will rightfully fall apart in this scenario and need to come up with an action plan to wrangle the external forces working against her. However, silently screaming insults at yourself when you can’t get the kids to calm down in this circumstance is an exercise in suffering. Browbeating yourself into thinking another mother would do a better job is suffering. And allowing this self-flagellation to make you feel so lousy that you have a hard time believing your kids or spouse when they compliment or say they love you—yup, more suffering. The thing is, suffering is needless, self-inflicted, and incredibly painful. You know you’re picking at yourself like a crusty old scab, and yet you can’t seem to stop.

Let’s see if you recognize yourself in any of these situations:

  • Struggling: “If my mom says one more thing about my son’s grades, I’m going to start buying wine in bulk.”
  • Suffering: “I’ve really let my son’s standards slip—even my own mother sees it. We both know he’ll probably end up in jail by the time he’s sixteen, and it will all be my fault.”
  • Struggling: “Can my boss stop emailing me 24/7? He needs to cool it. He knows I’m at the doctor.”
  • Suffering: “I know the gyno has her hand on my boob right now, but I need to email my boss back ASAP because everyone else at work is at the top of their email game, and it’s a miracle I still have a job.”

As you can see, your response to the challenge in front of you is what defines whether you struggle or suffer—and whether you destroy or feed that dragon of self-doubt inside of you.

Excerpt from the book Slay Like A Mother by Katherine Wintsch.

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  • Katherine Wintsch is the author of SLAY LIKE A MOTHERHow to Destroy What’s Holding You Back So You Can Live the Life You Want (Sourcebooks) and an internationally recognized expert on the topic of modern motherhood. As the founder and CEO of The Mom Complex, Katherine and her team study the passion and pain points of mothers around the world to help develop innovative new products, services, and strategies to make moms’ lives easier. They also develop marketing strategies for the world’s largest mom-focused brands. Katherine’s sought-after research and expertise have been featured by Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company. She regularly writes about the topic of motherhood on her Slay Like a Mother platform and for Working Mother magazine.