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Flunking Mothering 101: should be no surprise

September 18th, 2004 · 4 Comments

Before we left on our vacation, I spied Lisa Williams’ post on modern motherhood but I didn’t have time to link to it. Since then Rayne has also written a thoughtful and provocative post on how it ain’t easy to be a mom today.

I think there are a number of reasons why parenting seems to be such a mountain of a task today, to use Lisa’s picture. Part of it, from my experience, comes from the greater perspective and deeper knowledge we have of childhood development. We are aware of many needs children have, and we are responsible to provide them all. Every day I wonder whether each of my daughters is getting the right kind of exercise and stimulation that she needs, according to the various diagnoses we have heard. A plethora of specialists and books are available to help parents in their task – but often with conflicting advice and fees attached. Being a Good Parent has a complex scientific definition now with known consequences. Nevermind the educational requirements and extracurricular activities needed for college acceptance and thereby careers and [supposed] success in later life.

Parenting has become an issue of identity, self-esteem and pride. I know it has for me at times. When we moved to Silicon Valley, I soon realized that one of the first questions asked was “What company do you work for?” We are a culture where employment and career define us. How often have I mumbled beneath my breath, as if ashamed: I’m just a stay-at-home mom?!

Moms – or dads – who have made choices to be at home with children, often feel they must make their sacrifice mean something – something that others will notice too. We have to be Good Parents. It is all we are. All we can do in a day. And what we do is who we are. We lack the titles or business cards, pay checks or promotions that provide respect and a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes I wonder what I have done at the end of the day – sometimes there is nothing I can point to as an enduring achievement.

Whether or not we work outside the home, our children define us. How they behave in a store – or on a standardized test – tells others how to value us as parents and as people, whether or not we have worth. We also judge (condemn?!) ourselves based on our ability to produce what we think should be good parenting or good children. As Lisa said, compassion and understanding can be hard to find, and as this new mother has already experienced, simple praise can be powerful.

Before I had children, I wondered why women, when asked, often identified themselves first as “moms”. Weren’t they wives before they were moms? How about even “I’m a woman.”? But being a mom has become a consuming issue of guilt and identity. These emotions begin before birth, even when discussing various means of conception, as getupgrrl pointed out in her recent post.

Parenting also faces other pressures in our society. As Rayne noted, kids can’t play alone outside today. At the moment, I am reading through some books written fifty to a hundred years ago and noticing how parents sent their children outside to play for the day. But the world is not safe. No responsible parent would send children outside unsupervised for an entire day. And fractured families have resulted in more isolation for parents, meaning that grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins aren’t around to help.

Then again sometimes family isn’t a good thing. As Owlmother’s post and comments point out {via Lisa}, some of us were hurt by our families when we were children. The scars are strong. And we worry and wonder how we can avoid hurting our own children. We look at our own mothers and in various ways hope that we won’t make the same mistakes or do what they did. But it’s a dangerous, delicate dance.

I know I make many mistakes. Some days I feel I must be flunking Parenting 101. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s the truth.

Take, for example, the day we left on vacation. I took the girls to the doctor before we left to make sure they were not too ill for the trip. But I failed to be sensitive to one of our daughter’s needs while we were at the clinic. I could have helped her more in the situation, but I didn’t. I forgot. I was distracted. I didn’t think. I didn’t do what I should have done for her.

Then I came home and fed my daughters moldy bread for lunch. I was too busy packing to watch them eat, but Ted told me that one of the girls took the green stuff off of her slice while the other one noticed and didn’t eat it. I didn’t notice the mold. At least my girls aren’t immune-suppressed and susceptible to aspergillosis…

I packed the garbage can wrong so Ted had to take out all the garbage and re-pack it himself. But I forgot to pack Tylenol for the sick girls. I packed three kinds of thermometers (we are at that stage in life where each girl uses a different one!) but no medicine.

By the time we got to our rented house, I felt I was an incredible failure as a parent.

But it didn’t hit me too hard. I’ve given up on being a Good Parent. That myth of Motherhood won’t be mine. Not that I am not trying to be the best mom I can be. But I know I’ll never be who I want to be. I’ll always make mistakes. Making mistakes as a mom is scary. If I make mistakes as a wife, it’s not great, but I know Ted will understand and somehow survive. Making mistakes as someone in authority over a child is frightening. I know that in my days with my daughters I am shaping something in them. It will last their lifetime. They will remember me, Their Mother. I hope I can do it right.

But I know I won’t do it right all the time every day. I’ll forget. Fail. Do it wrong. I believe parenting is a quilt. It is sewn together with grace and mercy given by God. I’ve got to believe there is a higher power, someone who can help smooth my errors and put the pieces together. I want to do my best. I will. But I also believe that there is someone who has a plan for the mistakes I make as a mom. I’ve got to believe there is someone bigger and better than me and my humanity.

After all, I don’t know much about this job. No matter how many books or experts I consult, I don’t have a lot of experience. I didn’t get a degree in daughters. I’m going to mess up. I am as young at parenting as my children are old. Thinking about my mothering brings to mind the pictures my daughters draw, stick figures with dots for eyes and lines for hands. Even my best efforts at parenting are childish.

The same day I read Lisa’s piece, I also read Richard’s post describing those who blog about their lives. What he wrote encouraged me, while also reminding me why I write about my life. His last paragraph spoke loudly to me that day of thinking about mothering and what a mess of a mother I am at times….

Writing about your personal life means that failures as well as successes should be catalogued if the impression you’re trying to convey to someone is to closer to the person you actually are. Some people would say that writing about your personal failures makes you look like a failure. To me, it makes you look flawed, which is to say, human.

Tags: motherhood

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob V // Sep 18, 2004 at 9:18 am

    Great points, Julie! It seems to me that many new parents have a model of parenting in mind that views their children as a chunk of playdough. If they make the wrong decision about whether to play Bach or Mozart to them while they are in the womb, then they will become stupid, be made fun of by their peers, and end up in a state school.

    Reality is so much different though. With all the bad parenting going around, the world seems to somehow still function. Children aren’t playdough. They are strong, have decision-making capabilities, and won’t eat mold. Who they are is a more important determinant of where they will go than who their parents are.

    (This isn’t to say every parent shouldn’t do everything they can do to become a better parent. That stuff does matter. My point is that it isn’t the only thing that matters.)

  • 2 Julie // Sep 19, 2004 at 12:45 am

    Thanks, Bob, for your encouragement. I agree with you. Parenting has it’s playdough aspects, but also, Ted and I think it is a bit like sculpting and a bit like gardening and a bit like a roller coaster ride out of our control…Kids are pretty resilient too.

  • 3 Rayne // Sep 19, 2004 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for the validation, Julie. We are all human first, prone to errors and omissions. And highly prone to guilt trips, too. I think about the dramatic change in infant-child mortality rates over the last couple of centuries here in the U.S. and I have to wonder whether we skipped that part in school; we’re all so terrified of the consequences of our actions as parents, and yet our children will survive in spite of anything and everything we do. The real threats have been removed from their world, like diptheria and typhoid and polio…

    Which makes me wonder if after 50,00+ years we’re still programmed to worry about these illnesses (ones that still threaten the third world) and now project that worry elsewhere since the core programming hasn’t changed. Hmm.

    Think about it; a mother in 17th century America might have given her child beer and moldy bread for breakfast, praying he wouldn’t get influenza or mumps or yellow fever. Now we’re worrying about the bread that didn’t kill them hundreds of years ago. How do we shut it off, all the worry?

  • 4 Julie // Sep 22, 2004 at 12:23 am

    Thank you, Rayne, for your insightful comments as always. Yes, it is hard to shut off all the worry. It probably has some genetic program 🙂 Thinking about what you wrote tonight gave me comfort. I was worrying about something a bit silly – like the fact that I fed my kids trail mix for dinner – when I started to think about all the things I don’t really have to worry about as a mom any more. The girls and I have been reading books from different cultures, times and places – it gives me gratitude to realize what I’ve got! Thank you for the conversation and support…