“Those” parents

MAJOR verbal processing by an admitted highly-sensitive type ahead. Whatever. It’s my blog. And it’s cheaper than therapy copays.

I blame masochism. It’s the only thing to account for why I click on certain articles on the net.

They all have really charming titles, but the latest one was “I don’t care about your baby.” Subhead: “It’s not that I hate your little sprog — quite the contrary! Just don’t ask me to indulge your narcissism.”

I know what’s coming, and I click anyway. Because I’m an idiot. “This does not mean I resent your baby or resent the fact that you have less time to bro-down with me on a weekend. What I resent is the singularity of focus that some new parents bring toward parenthood.”

I am one of THOSE parents, for sure. I know I am. I’ve been that parent for 4 years and I’m about to leap right back into Stage 1: Newborn, where I’m too tired for anything but a singularity of focus on sleep, diaper-changing, and nursing.

So just imagine this picture with one more baby in it.
So just imagine this picture with one more baby in it.

You’d think that feeling self-conscious would slow me down some, but a glance at my Facebook page any day of the week and it’s clear where my focus (mostly) lies these days. I’m not very interesting unless you have a penchant for mildly amusing kid quotes and little-boy shenanigans captured via Instagram. (Or, in the case of the past few weeks, updates on trying to get rid of MRSA, which, I’ll be honest, freaked me out a little).

On my good days, I win the battle in my head. On my good days I think the things Justin would say. Smart things like “Who gives a shit what anyone else thinks? We decide what works for us.” (My husband is sort of a walking “Look at all the fucks I give” meme. On any given day I’d pay good money for a lasting dose of his perspective).

On my bad days, not so much. I compare, compare, compare. I replay the snippets of complaints I’ve heard from folks in our longtime social circle about how we’re not doing it right because, since we’ve had kids, we don’t show up to watch them get drunk group events enough, or how we make way too big a deal over our kids’ relatively mild challenges.

I know not everyone feels this way, but it’s weird how big the sentiment can feel, how much it stings all the same. No one wants to feel like a bad friend, or even like a no-longer-fun friend.

I’d love to be the mythical cool parent who checks all the boxes — has a growing career, a vibrant social life, and a loved, thriving kid, who doesn’t miss a beat, who doesn’t seem like they’ve lost chunks of their time or their identity to parenthood.

And while the truth is that I have had more on my plate than I ever expected, the truth is that the “extras” aren’t an excuse. Even if my kids had been textbook normal, I’m not sure I ever was going to get the balance right. When had I ever accomplished that kind of rational balance, even before kids?

Miss a beat? Hell, I’ve missed years.

I work hard, but right now I take just enough projects to support my stay-at-home-mom habit. I take pride in the business I’ve built, in the income I bring in for our family, but I’m by no means the major breadwinner. When things go haywire with the kids via illness or therapy, my schedule is the more flexible one, so usually it’s me missing the work time. (For example, I spent all of last week’s office hours in the ER or at the doctor’s this past week, thank you MRSA).

Thankfully I have good clients who feel I write them well, and I’m probably still decently reliable as artist-types go, so they’re gracious with the occasional hiccup. Still, I have to say: these are not the years where I get to look like the consummate professional. And with another baby on the way, it’ll be a while before my studio reaches its full potential, if ever.

I’m interested in what’s going on in my friends’ lives, and am better than I used to be at asking how things are going. It’s definitely a work in progress. But when I’m asked what’s going on with me, chances are a lot of that is going to have to do with my kids.

That’s where I live right now. It’s most of my life. My kids are small and they are dependent and they are demanding. “Slightly crazy” is our midpoint, when everyone is healthy and things are working as they should. Life being what it is, even reaching the midpoint is a challenge sometimes.

A good morning:

Somewhere between 6:15 and 6:30 am I wake up to the older child climbing into bed with me. A few minutes later, the littler one will yell for me to come open his door. A will ask for the Roku remote to turn on a show. F will “snuggle” me, which means that he’ll cling to my head with his entire body, pausing at times to kiss me, a process that for some reason involves teeth. I accept this arrangement because a) this is F’s sweetest, most affectionate time of day, and b) it allows me 2-3 minutes of dozing at a time for a half hour to forty-five minutes until I’m a less hateful, angry individual capable of more patient parenting.

I dress the kids, then I shower (some days). F, who is in the middle of potty-training, often takes my unavailability as a sign that it’s a good moment to need to poop. As I turn off the water, he takes great pride in handing me my towel and congratulating me on another successful shower. “Dood job, Mom. Dood job. You did it. High five.”

I dress for at-home (yoga pants and a maternity tank) or public (jeans! fancy!). I brush my teeth (most days) between breaking up an argument that’s erupted over a not-important item like a hairbrush or a plastic toy hammer. Sometimes the little one just follows me around crying because he wants to be held while the other one yells “I’m hun-dry, Mom! I’m HUN-DRY!”

“JUFF A MI-NUTE! I AM BURSHING MY TEEF!”

Breakfast time it is. A’s cold. They both want the purple bowl. And a blanket. And honey-bear on their Cheerios. And juice. Immediately. Simultaneously.

Brush teeth. Wash face. Gel the hair. Socks, orthotics, shoes. Sweatshirt, coat, backpack. We wait outside for A to catch his bus. Then F and I come inside and play until the nanny rescues me (on work days) or until it’s time to pick up A from the bus.

I have a system down, but I don’t have a system down that doesn’t slightly exhaust me. I’m not a routines person — and nothing requires routine like small children. Even when I complete all the steps, inside I often feel messy and stressed.

And yet. I love being mother to these kids. I love watching them learn and grow. It’s hard work and totally overwhelming, but for me it really is the good stuff, the beautiful stuff, the stuff that makes a life. Stress and wonder come in equal measure right now.

When I hear or read things like “You never seem to have much room for anything in your head other than your kids,” all I can say is, “YOU THINK?”

Narcissism? I’ll allow that some of that’s fair. I think there might be some sort of vital evolutionary programming there that makes us feel like our kids are (to us) the most hilarious, interesting, adorable little humans . . . as Michael Lewis says, when you provide regular care for something, you begin to love it. We get obsessed. We focus inward.

But it’s also something else.

Nothing has ever felt as important as getting this right. Nothing.

(Pause to say that my marriage is just as important. But because in marriage I’m partnered with a grown, independent adult as opposed to an unformed, vulnerable child that I carried in my own belly, the feelings around it are different. They just are. Justin does not depend on me to keep him alive, to help him understand the world, to learn how to operate in it with respect and kindness. Justin doesn’t need extra time and practice to learn how to speak clearly. My kids do).

I also don’t mean to say that “getting it right” means that my success as a person is reflected in how my kids turn out. They aren’t my masterpieces. I directly influence them for a season only, and so much of their lives depends on them. I just mean that I put a higher value on trying to be a nurturing, attentive, instructive mother than most other things. I’m far from perfect, but I know it’s up to me and Justin to help them get a loved-up, secure start in the world. That dictates a lot of our decisions in terms of how we spend our time — and most nights, we choose getting them to bed on time.

While I know of no one who feels they’re checking all the boxes perfectly, I know there are people who are so much better at the balancing act, whose friends are far less likely to complain that they’re in kid-land. And while I’m jealous, I don’t resent them or get all smug, thinking that they’re putting less in.

A lot of it just comes down to personality, I think. I’m an idealist through and through. Every. little. thing. feels like it matters. I have big feelings that don’t compartmentalize well. Few things bring out those feelings, that sense of “this matters” like my children, so they get a lot of the oomph that isn’t contractually required by work and other necessary tasks. I can’t be good at everything right now, so please! God! Let me be a good mom.

When I fell for Justin, you’d have been hard pressed to hear anything else from me. I was caught up in one of the great adventures of my life, and I think even then I knew it. My family and closest friends would have been annoyed (or more annoyed) were they not quite happy for me. They were patient and gracious and gave me time and space to figure out my new identity — still me, but me as half of my new family. That grace is why we’re still close today.

There’s an article floating around right now called “What happens to a woman when she becomes a mother.” “What scientists do know, Feldman says, is that becoming a parent looks—at least in the brain—a lot like falling in love. Which helps explain how many new parents describe feeling when they meet their newborns. At the brain level, the networks that become especially sensitized are those that involve vigilance and social salience—the amygdala—as well as dopamine networks that incentivize prioritizing the infant. “In our research, we find that periods of social bonding involve change in the same ‘affiliative’ circuits,” Feldman said. “We showed that during the first months of ‘falling in love’ some similar changes occur between romantic partners.

I’ve said more than once that I get mama-highs from loving on my kiddos. Now that they’re a little bigger, I also have small heart explosions when I see them be loving toward others:

—F cries his eyes out and thrashes and spits every time we have to force his antibiotics down his throat. It’s an ugly battle. For the past two nights, A has quietly grabbed the iPad and set up F’s favorite movie to watch to help distract him from the yucky taste. He holds the screen up so F can see — no matter what crazy contortion F has achieved — and says comforting things to his brother.

—F tells me “Dood job” every time I successfully use the big potty.

—A told me I’m a really good helper today after I put up his sun-shade in the van.

Mama pride — off the charts.

***

All that to say: my life probably won’t always look like this. I hope it feels a little less crazy as my kids grow and become more independent. I’d like to think I might eventually have time for more reading and writing and occasional evenings out. I might eventually have more interesting things to say, things completely unrelated to parenting.

But my brain is different, my heart is different, I’m different. My calendar may change, but somehow I don’t think my priorities are going to.

The greatest brain changes occur with a mother’s first child, though it’s not clear whether a mother’s brain ever goes back to what it was like before childbirth.”

My kids come first.

It’s not selflessness and no one’s looking for any parenting martyrdom awards here.

But neither is it selfishness or narcissism.

It’s love. Love, and lots and lots of oxytocin.

2 thoughts on ““Those” parents”

  1. I’m right there with you on this one. Granted, we are in a less crazy stage and it’s a bit easier now on me physically. But emotionally, it’s the same. We’ve traded filling sippies and cracker bowls 24/7 to driving them to and from practices and school events.

    You are doing a dood job mom and I think, “Who give a shit what anybody else thinks” is a great mantra. Let’s take that one and meditate on it together because I know that mind set is hard for both of us.

  2. I’ve pretty much isolated myself from the life and many relationships I had prior to children. This certainly isn’t on purpose, it’s circumstantial. And although it can be incredibly lonely at times, the reminder that this season is fleeting is always enough to bring me to tears. It’s fleeting and pivotal. Nothing to take lightly.

    It’s so important that we feel we’re doing it wrong, somehow. And others have it mastered. Pure lies. We’re all bumbling through.

    It doesn’t take much to see you’re such a good mama. And the affection they’re showing to you and others already, further proves that. Keep the stories, updates and sweet pictures coming. Those of us in the same season appreciate and understand.

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