I remember reading this article in The Atlantic called “How to Land your Kid in Therapy” when A was just a baby (read it, it’s a good one) and one particular line from Wendy Mogel stood out:
“Our children are not our masterpieces.”
I mm-hmmed and nodded my head and sent the link to Justin. YES. THIS! I embraced it, tucked it away in my heart as one of those guiding principles freakishly idealistic people like me are so fond of.
Fast forward a few years and another baby: mothering is hard.
It’s not the hardest job ever — people who say otherwise probably haven’t served in Afghanistan or performed a heart transplant or picked fruit all day in 100+ degree weather.
But what I mean to say is that motherhood is hard for me. It’s day-in, day-out, and while people who say it’s the hardest job are totally full of it, I admit their reports of not ever getting sick days are accurate.
Babies and small children are just such bottomless pits of need and want. The sheer amount of potty-taking, butt-wiping, diaper-changing, food-making, face-wiping, booger-extracting, juice-getting, lego-building, share-that-with-your-brother-ing, jacket-donning, walk-taking, owie-kissing, bath-giving, nail-trimming, hair-combing, teeth-brushing, bedtime-story-ing and back-to-bed-ing-ad-nauseum that goes into a mere 24 hours blows my mind a little.
Most days I really do enjoy it, but it takes a toll. I’m a fraction of my former self mentally, emotionally, physically. And sometimes I just NEED to know that I’m doing something right, that my kids are somehow benefiting from spending the majority of their day with this particular mama, instead of, say, the proverbial pack of wolves.
On a gut level I know my kids are not my masterpieces. OF COURSE I know that. But a few levels down from that healthy, well-adjusted place — a spot where it’s reeeeally hard to be honest — I know I want some definitive proof, something I can point to and think: “Huh. I guess I’m doing alright.”
And, sadly, below that, there’s this: the place where I need other people to think I’m doing a good job.
And that, friends, is where we come to Thanksgiving dinner with our extended family on Justin’s side.
Oh. My. God.
Let me just say: we all got off to a rather bumpy start. Things are better now, but I’m still a bundle of nerves in their presence, not wanting anything to disturb what still sometimes feels like a fragile peace.
Names have been changed to protect the indulgent, but A sat next to Bart Simpson at dinner. Every naughty thing A did was HI-larious. Egged on and encouraged, even. “No” isn’t really in Bart’s lexicon. “Let’s be little a-holes at dinner” was more like it.
I was at the far end of the table, asking A to eat his food, asking him to stop spitting and making messes, utilizing every “mom-look” in my repertoire.
It was a constant battle. None of it worked.
Toddlers are as smart as they are ruthless. And where there is weakness, they will always win. Bart Simpson was a weakness, our inability to enact home rules was a weakness, and my darling son exploited every bit of it. He’s no dummy.
We took a tantrum-y time out on the front porch in the middle of a totally beautiful, heart-felt what-I’m-thankful-for session — my favorite part of these gatherings and the most opportune moment to strengthen the bond with my in-laws.
Ugh. It wasn’t his last time-out, and he needed far more than he got.
In the midst of our next attempt at course correction, Bart Simpson told us to “oh, calm down.” And in that moment I’m not sure which felt worse: the worry that people would think I’m a bad mom, or that — far more likely — they’d think I’m a critical, over-bearing one who can’t just let boys be boys.
We still had a pretty good time, and I was glad to see everyone, but it took a few days before I was thinking from that happy, well-adjusted place again instead of feeling awful and worrying what people may have thought or not thought. (Large groups: welcome to my nightmare).
I’ve been turning it round and round in my head, and it seems that as a mom you just have to get real comfortable with making calls that not everyone is going to agree with.
Good. ‘Cause that’s easy.
(If any of you have figured it out, please let me know your secret).
I’ve gotten this far: not in every case, but in many, I know what’s best for my son and at almost 3 years old, consistency and good boundaries seem to serve him — and others — well. They keep him safe, they keep him nourished, they keep him kind. When he knows he can’t get away with murder, he’s a pretty happy, chilled-out kid, prone to only normal levels of shenanigans.
Anyone who spends lots of time in our home knows that. And the thing is, I know it too. So why the worry?
He’s not my masterpiece. He is his own and if I’m lucky he’ll let me help him learn how to hold the paintbrush.
But this past few days has me thinking: if I can start living and loving and mothering from a place of comfort and confidence, caring about our family’s wellbeing instead of what other people might think . . . well, that would be something. I feel like I could point to that and be pretty damn proud of myself.
Sometimes it feels like it might be my life’s great work.