This article was originally published on February 6, 2014.
In the darkness, I lie completely still on my right side. But my insides are churning—as they have been for the last month with pregnancy-induced nausea—and my mind is churning, too, as I think ahead to the two more months of enduring this feeling day after day, hour after hour.
I always feel worse at night, and, thankfully, my husband is now home and feeding our toddler his only nutritious meal of the day. But I stay here, away from the sights and smells that make life unbearable these days. And the tears pour out. Because even though I know that this is temporary and is nothing compared to trials that others face, I feel emotionally weak and physically exhausted. And I wonder, how will I make it? Because I feel like dying.
Looking back now, as I’m in the 34th week of pregnancy and feeling incomparably better than I did during those miserable first 20 weeks, I am so grateful to have those difficult months behind me. But I’m also grateful for what I learned.
One of the things that helped me through that dark time was thinking about the Stockdale Paradox. It is a concept described in the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t by Jim Collins, and, although a business strategy principle, it applies remarkably well to life.
The paradox is based on the experience of James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy admiral who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over seven years. Stockdale was the highest ranking leader captured, and, although tortured most brutally throughout his imprisonment, he was able to survive until his release, while many others did not.
When author Jim Collins interviewed Stockdale about his experience, Stockdale explained why he survived: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins then asked who it was that didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Surprisingly, Stockdale answered, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists . . . Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Stockdale then added, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (85).
In other words, just hoping you will survive is not enough; you have to actually do the hard stuff in order to get there. So, the Stockdale Paradox is the necessity of having both faith and discipline—both the optimism that you will succeed and the realistic determination to do what needs to be done. It’s a paradox because optimism—something essential to your success—can be your undoing if applied in excess or without some realism.
Isn’t this also true of motherhood?
While suffering from morning sickness, I had faith that it would end, but it was much harder to have the determination to get through it. But I tried.
Inspired by Stockdale, I confronted the facts of my then-current reality: I let people know I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my normal responsibilities, I asked friends to go grocery shopping for me, I sought out sympathy and advice from other mothers, and I let my toddler watch an embarrassing amount of TV. In short, I lowered my expectations about what I could do—by a lot.
And I’m sure it comes as no surprise: I survived!
But the challenge of pregnancy nausea pales in comparison to the more painful, uncertain, and lasting hardships in motherhood: death, divorce, infertility, chronic or terminal illness, addiction, disability, financial problems, . How is it possible to have both faith and discipline during these heart-wrenching trials?
One answer comes from the book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and The Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell. In the middle of the story, Luttrell describes his rigorous and, in my opinion, ruthless training as a Navy Seal.
I haven’t read the whole book, but my husband and I did watch a TV special about Navy Seal training. I was shocked—and frankly horrified—by the things they were asked to do, including going days without sleep and performing complicated tasks underwater that are practically impossible to perform without drowning. If you came up for air, you failed. If you passed out under water, they would pull you out, resuscitate you, and you could try again.
I thought to myself, “There is no way I could ever get through that!” And there are few people who do. But Luttrell explains the key advice his training officer, Captain Maguire, gave them during training:
“Don’t let your thoughts run away with you, don’t start planning to bail out because you’re worried about the future and how much you can take. Don’t look ahead to the pain. Just get through the day, and there’s a wonderful career ahead of you” (124).
To me, this is the key to achieving the Stockdale Paradox, the key to being both optimistic and disciplined: don’t let your thoughts run away with you, don’t think about how much you can take, don’t look ahead to the pain.
Honestly, much of my suffering—and crying—during those difficult months of morning sickness came because I did let my thoughts run away with me. And I did look ahead to the pain, even though my husband often reminded me, “Take it one day at a time”, back pain was always that used to get me in a really bad mood until I was lucky enough to find a back pain exercise that helped me. Easier said than done, right?
Somehow, if we can train our minds to think only of today—and to view getting through today as a great victory—we can have the strength to live through those long, hard struggles. And we will come out stronger, wiser, and more compassionate.
Like James Stockdale, we can make our hardest experiences into the defining events of our lives—events which, in retrospect, we would not trade.
QUESTION: In the hardest parts of your life, how do you stop yourself from looking ahead to the pain? Please comment below because we want to learn from you!
CHALLENGE: Think of a challenge you are currently facing. How can you combine both optimism and realistic determination to face your challenge? Plan a way to hold onto your confidence of ultimate success while exercising the discipline needed to face the real, day-to-day challenges you encounter.
Image by Microsoft Office Clip Art with graphics by Julie Finlayson.
Kimber Albrechtsen says
I loved this! Lately I’ve been challenged by long days full of caring for a toddler and baby, and sometimes I get discouraged thinking about how this will be my life for the next several years. Focusing on getting through TODAY as best as I can seems like it will be more productive than moaning about years of the challenges of mothering young children. Also, this is exactly how I got through two natural childbirths. Don’t think about how much further you have to go–think about what you have to do right now to get through it, and take it as it comes.
Sarah Monson says
Thank you, Kimber! Since I’m about to have this baby, your comment was perfect! Going through labor will be a good opportunity to try to put this principle into practice. 🙂 Wish me luck!
Wow. What an inspiration.
Sara, a new book just came out about POWs who resisted captors in the Hanoi Hilton so much that they were sent to “alcatraz.” Stockdale was one of them. It’s called “Defiant: The POWs who Endured Vietnam’s most infamous prison, the women who fought for them, and the one who didn’t return.” by A. Townley.
Full disclosure: I have nothing to do with the book, but my cousin, Bob Shumaker was another POW. This may not seem directly relevant to parenting – but Bob has always talked about the dangers of isolation. If you’re in trouble, reach out to someone. Parents can feel isolated with their struggles, and that makes the troubles worse. Connecting with others can help lift the burden.
Sarah Monson says
Thank you, Beth! I love what you said about the dangers of isolation. What a powerful lesson from you cousin’s experience! And thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that out.
Awesome perspective! My twin girls are 4 months old, and there have been some ROUGH days. I often find myself doing one of two things: either I look ahead and think it is going to get so much easier or I look ahead and realize there will always be new challenges and difficulties that come with raising twins. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and wonder how we will do it. But my husband’s favorite phrase to say to me is “Just take it one day at a time.” Some days, it is more like just take it one hour at a time! As I’ve made a conscious effort to focus on what I need to do in the moment, I have indeed felt victorious. I’m certain there is a mommy-fail moment in my near future, but rather than worry about that I’m choosing to celebrate that we just made it through the morning meltdown!
My family started with twins. One day at a time has become 35 years. Sometimes I long to go back for just a short visit to the time they were little.
Don’t wish away those precious early years. They will go by all on their own.
Sarah Monson says
Laurel, you are an inspiration! I love what you said about “choosing to celebrate that we just made it through the morning without a meltdown” because I think that is a key to taking things one day (or one hour) at a time. If we can celebrate the little things, we can feel successful. You are definitely in a challenging part of motherhood, but it sounds like you have the right attitude! I hope I can think like you when I’m sleep-deprived and overwhelmed in the coming months. Thank you for your thoughts!
I learned about this way of thinking during my masters program. It is very inspiring. I am going to put this to more use in my daily life.
Gertrude Miller Slabach says
Many times when we feel overwhelmed with the unending responsibilities of mothering, we become depressed and don’t even know it. After all, we’ve got wonderful kids we’d die for and while we’re tired, we’re healthy. Life is good, after all, so why should I be depressed? We had moved to a new location and I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My hubby saw a story hour at the local library and told me I had to go and take the kids (ages 6 months and 2 years). I didn’t want to go. It took too much energy. Second Best thing I ever did. I met other moms and got some books for ME to read. Then I joined a mom’s group. Best thing I ever did. You have to surround yourself with other moms – and with older women who have been there. You have to take care of yourself. So if you’re going to be moving or taking on something new, remember to take care of yourself first. If you’re depressed you won’t have the energy to do what you have to do. One day at a time. Worry depletes us of energy. I have had to make a conscious practice of not worrying. Make it through one day, one event at a time.
Sarah Monson says
Very wise words! Thank you for sharing your experience, Gertrude!
Beth Mallett says
I’ve followed the Stockdale paradox for 14 years as a parent as my challenges have gotten harder and harder, not easier, as many parents before me have assured me they would be. That just wasn’t the path our family was meant to take, though we’ve followed all “the rules” for building a healthy, strong, loving family. At this point, I’ll admit that my optimism is starting to crack, so I am reaching out in new directions for help – in fact I just attended my first support group meeting this morning for parents in my unique situation, and my husband and I hired advocates and experts to help us make the best choices. 🙂 Thanks for giving me some great inspiration just when I needed it – James Stockdale and the Navy Seals I am not, but I can aspire to learn from their great determination and if I can apply it to my own challenges by not projecting into the future but by thinking positive thoughts and taking the small actions each day that help me get toward my goals, I may achieve success in the long run! At least I won’t sink myself today with a negative, defeatist attitude.