I loved having a baby. Her constant snuggles while sometimes left me feeling “touched out,” gave me new life. I remember feeling relieved when I finally got her to sleep at night, only to miss her immediately. Getting up to feed her in the night was tiresome, my whole body hurt for sleep and a sense of autonomy. But she smelled like heaven. Sometimes I still find myself longing for those sweet moments; just the two of us, her little hands reaching for me, the sound of her nursing, the little coos. It was magic. We created this little thing, my body could support her life. I marveled at all of this as though it had never been done before.
And then she turned 2. Or maybe it was 3. It’s all so blurry now. But somewhere around toddler, I found myself completely failing. I didn’t like her like I had before. There were tantrums at every turn. Gone were the days of constant snuggling and upon me was a child who ran everywhere, was easily brought to full blown fits of tears and I was not in love with this mothering thing anymore.
One night, upset I didn’t buy a toy for her at a department store, she threw a tantrum so epic in the dark parking lot that I had to pick her up off the ground and force her kicking and screaming little body into her carseat. I tried to ground myself in that short walk around to the driver’s seat of the car and I too burst into tears. I didn’t like handling my child that way but I assured myself that letting her carry on in the middle of a dark parking lot was not an option. I called my husband and he talked me off the ledge I was on. This was not the joyful mothering I thought I would be experiencing.
I called my friend “Seasoned Mom” and confessed what a terrible mother I’d become. I was out of patience, I needed sleep, I longed for the autonomy I’d once had and (gulp) I was certain I was ruining my child. What kind of mother loses her cool? What kind of Mom just wants to be alone, is tired of being touched, feels angry at her child’s normal toddler behavior. Her response? “Me.” “Me today when we were running late for school and someone had on mismatched shoes, breakfast was spilling all over the car and I lost my cool on the whole lot of them.”
I had never felt more relieved in my life. Seasoned Mom is one of the best parents I know. She is cool, calm, thoughtful and raising very different and all awesome kids. She felt overwhelmed at times? The certainty I was completely failing that sat on my chest like an anchor of grief, loneliness and shame dissipated.
I started going to a stay at home mom playgroup. I was working but worked opposite hours as my husband. They met at a church and I didn’t feel I had much in common with the other women. But they were warm and welcoming. I found out that being a Mom is a whole lot to have in common. We shared with each other the things that were working for us, and laughed heartily about the things that so very weren’t working. I stopped feeling alone and shameful. I gave myself a break. And I actually gained patience and calm just from letting go of the notion I was doing a horrible job.
I’ve learned to let go of a lot of things I thought I’d be in order to show up as myself. For the record, having spent over a decade as a social worker I have witnessed a full array of parenting styles. Including abuse and neglect. I now believe with much certainty that being a “good” parent requires a few basic things; love, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to acknowledge overwhelm. Otherwise there are so many, many, many great ways to be a parent.
Here, for the record, are things I thought I’d be great at and am not.
- I don’t enjoy toddlers for long periods of time. I’ll take my friend’s kids because I so clearly see their parents in them. I love to see the apple/tree and help somebody out. But that is a phase of childhood that I am not well suited for. I will never be a preschool teacher. It’s not my bag.
- I don’t love large groups of kids. There is a myth of mothering, especially of Moms who stay at home, that we are all “great with kids” and love coming up with activities and running them. “Bring me all the kids, I’m a Mom, I love it.” Not me. I used to run hospital groups of long-term, inpatient teenagers with violent tendencies. I loved it. I was good at it. But the little ones who run like ducks toward everything harmful and have attention spans of fleas? I’m better in a “participant” role than a leadership one, and it exhausts me.
- Coming up with activities. I went to watch a friend of mine’s twin toddler boys while she went to the doctor recently. When I walked in she had moved the furniture to the sides of the living room to make room for a giant box left over from remodeling. “They’re making a ship,” she said. “Should keep them busy for the morning.” I was in awe. This friend is the queen of creative, fun activities. I am not. When Lo was little I relied heavily on having her help me with things. Grocery shopping, baking, making meals, even cleaning the house were all shared projects. We went to the library, participated in public events for kids, I found a way to keep her engaged, happy and entertained. But I’ll admit; I have an entire pinterest board full of “fun, creative, engaging” activities of which we have maybe done two.
- Playing. Ok, I’ll be honest, I sometimes still feel bad about this one. I will color all day. Take on a craft. Baking? Oh man I love baking with my kid. But the moment you hand me a figurine and tell me my name is “Emma,” I’m at a loss. Adding insult to injury, I’m usually told I’m doing it “wrong.” “Emma wouldn’t say that, Emma likes pineapples not toast, Emma wants to play with her other friends….” Emma wears me out quickly. I know the importance of play for creativity. That’s why I love a good play date.
- While we are on the topic: Play dates with your boundary-less child. We have a handful of kids whose parents know they are always welcome at our house. When Lo has a playdate it actually gives me a bit of freedom to get other things done. I like watching my kid interact and resolve conflict. It’s all awesome. Until I get a kiddo over here who without their parent challenges every word I say. No thanks. Sorry, but really, no thanks.
I used to feel bad about all of those. Especially playing make-believe. I mean what kind of mother… (trails off into unintelligible blabber…) It turns out, Moms are actually diverse humans. Who like different things, are good at different things, and don’t suddenly become masters of all things personhood upon giving birth. It makes sense that some of us do great with babies while others long for the little guys to finally start articulating their needs. Some of us are amazing at making magic out of boxes and others at helping our teenagers navigate romance. This stuff is not all the same. The same joy cannot possibly come from all of it. And we show up to do the work of Motherhood with all of that potentially in store. We can at least give ourselves the break of knowing that every piece doesn’t have to be our best work. We aren’t actually super human.
I may not be good at playing or facilitating group activities, but I’m awesome at talking about feelings. I’m the bomb at getting my kiddo out of her shell when she retreats though I know she doesn’t want to. I am a master snuggler, boo-boo healer, pep talk giver and listener. I truly enjoy all of those things.
Sometimes I lead a group activity and feel completely drained. Because I signed up, because damn it my kid likes it when I do that stuff, because I can. But I’m not great, I’m not somehow inherently good at this stuff and that’s okay. I wore myself completely out before, believing that I was failing at this task because I thought it was supposed to be all joy, no nervous break-downs, and everyone else was getting it right. Life isn’t really like that.
So I said it. This is not all joy. I do not love poopy diapers, restless nights, or getting my butt kicked in the TJMaxx parking lot. I’m not as well suited for toddlerhood as I was for a baby or even the 7 year old I have now. I am sure that somewhere between the ages of 8 and forever I will find other stages challenging. There will be more hard years. But that doesn’t mean I’m failing. I will show up as my best self and let what isn’t me go. I will make sure I find my daughter support she needs when and if I’m not best suited for the task.
I love my kid. More than anything. And I love myself enough to let go of the notion I would master every part of my life as a Mom. In spite of what I thought it would look like, I believe I’m a damn good Mom. I bet you are too. Let’s give ourselves a break.