I was not a natural at being a mother. It was not something that I simply “grew into” once our first baby was born, as I thought it would. Like many things in life, I worked really hard to be good at being a mother, always comparing myself to my own mother who was and is incredible. You think that because you are in fact biologically a child’s mother, that you’ve gained some innate skills that make the act of modern day mothering a given, but I’m here to dispel that myth or perhaps I’m an outlier.
Yet, with such high expectations in front of me and the hard labor that goes into parenting today, none of it looked or felt easy from the beginning.
Don’t get me wrong, we wanted to start our family and were saddened as we saw it happening for all our friends but not us. In fact, we had the unfortunate experience of having a miscarriage within the first year of our marriage and so when we did end up having a successful pregnancy and delivery, I felt doubly sure that parenthood was something that we both really wanted.
I consumed so many parenting books during my pregnancy and then tons right afterwards, like a student cramming for a final exam. I felt like there was never enough information out there to make me feel proficient. There was always another theory about what I should be doing instead to sleep train, feed, burp, teach, soothe or love my child.
And it didn’t help that everyone around me kept assuring me that I was doing a great job. What yard stick were they using?? Did they know my mother??
I convinced myself that I knew what doing a good job looked like in my professional roles and this was definitely not it. I was flailing, holding on for dear life trying to keep this baby alive and well, coming up with new strategies each morning as I looked at the failings of the previous day and letting everything else become secondary to try to get this right.
In the beginning, there wasn’t a day that went by where I thought I had really killed it or even got a passable grade. I was just getting by. In my eyes, the job was unrelenting, took a ridiculous amount of time to accomplish much of anything if you were doing it “right” and remained thankless.
All at once you start to see all of the cracks in the system of parenthood before you. The lack of help for parents in general, the unrealistic amount of things to do and really no way to gauge whether you were doing an exceptional job or simply passing. After all, this was a pass/fail grade. Did you keep your baby alive, fed, safe, clothed and loved? If yes, you passed! Of those two options, I’m glad I passed but I’ve never been satisfied with just a passing grade, so this remained an unsatisfactory rating system from the start.
However, there was this sneaking suspicion that what I was experiencing wasn’t just the shock of new motherhood, but the removal of a film that had long clouded my eyes about what motherhood was, how it worked and how much of it was not slanted in favor of actual women.
How could so much of the work still fall upon women to accomplish, even when the tasks were completely predictable, mind numbingly boring and yet there weren’t systems in place yet and the work/school schedules still skewed to only fit a model where men worked and wives were full time housewives (I detest this terminology as it sounds like these women are married to their house…can’t think of a stupider moniker).
Didn’t feminism break through all of these things? Why had the revolution forgotten all this other stuff? Why do I feel like we were being set up for failure for those of us who swear we could actually do it all? And we wonder why the fertility rates are plunging world wide??
So like anything, you get used to your new normal as a parent. It’s no longer crazy to you that you wake up for 5 AM workouts (because the only time you get to yourself is when the rest of your household is unconscious). You plan to pick up things so far in advance in case you run out and see a pantry that looks like Costco as necessary to run your household. You work on the way to work, at work, on your way home from work and then at night after the kids go to sleep, all to make sure you are showing full career dedication. Then you find the few scraps of time for your relationship and friends wondering each time you get that brief respite why you don’t have more time for you.
And while you know this schedule is impossible to sustain forever, you don’t complain because everyone in your circle is doing the same thing. This is what you wished for. This is life. This is “normal”.
You don’t really have time to ask whether how you are parenting is exceptional or not. You’re playing hot potato just trying to get from one activity to the next.
The second guessing:
Being a parent felt like a never ending game of guessing what’s going to screw up my kids more.
Is letting them cry it out less harmful than soothing them when they cry? What about letting them fall so they learn what not to do next? What about letting them make the mistakes on their project so they learn to prepare more? What about letting them figure out what to do about an annoying kids at school? How about what friends they should hold onto or let go? Will any of this matter in the end? Will it all come back to bite me?
Some of these choices you can see play out to be right or troublesome shortly afterwards but many don’t become apparent until so much later and by then so much else has transpired it becomes hard to attribute it to just one thing.
The biggest second guess for us recently has been this gamble of uprooting our kids for this abroad experience. There are so many pros to this opportunity, but in the end will any of those matter if this becomes a source of stress & feeling unmoored?
Many other expats go through this back and forth debate of how long is too long to be away from their home country. When does the experience stop being beneficial (if ever) or does it harm the kids to be away from home during their formative years? There are lots of questions, but much like the baby years, seems like everyone is coming up with different answers.
The past year and a half has been so full of transition and uncertainty. And that’s following almost 2 years of pandemic insanity which, required its own level of adjusting and readjusting for the family as a whole. For the kids, their world’s actually shrunk and got even more insular until we uprooted them.
And within these periods of transition lied some big emotions that we needed to address. Only the answers were either complicated, hard to piece through or simply didn’t exist. I was handing the kids a whole lot of grey answers when they were used to a much simpler world. Things took a whole lot more time and patience to talk through.
Yet in those conversations, I found my stance as a parent become stronger. I knew how to deal with complex ideas and make them easier to digest. I knew how to sit with someone as they worked through their feelings & problem. I knew how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I finally felt my competence as a parent rise. (I write that with trepidation as who knows what the next stages of parenthood will require of me. But this is how I’m feeling today.)
And it wasn’t because I had all the answers, far from it. It’s because I felt able to sift through what I knew, what I didn’t and that we would make it from this moment to the next.
And I also understood how I was just one small piece in the puzzle of their lives, but if I played my cards right, would set myself up to be a trusted advisor. I could be a place where they could go to dispel some of the disinformation they got from friends, school yard bullies and life in general. I could be that sounding board.
The cycle repeats: (what happens when you then have to go back to step 1)
For my youngest, we aren’t yet in that place where I am able to dispel these jewels as he is still in that very magical world of childhood. And I have to mother him entirely differently than the way I mother my daughter. At this stage, he needs more assurances, more hugs and always wants to ensure he is getting “equal time” because the comparison to big sis is never ending.
I will say that something that gives me a better stance when parenting my second is that I have this blueprint of the stages ahead of me (or at least I think I do), so that I don’t have to get so concerned about this particular stage of life. I can see it for the season that it is, even when that season seems to drag on like a winter in NY.
3 things I’ve learned:
1. Cut myself a LOT more slack
You are not perfect and this is hard. No one has ever, in the history of mothers, become a perfect one. And the kids will be alright.
2. Know my presence sometimes is all that’s required
The kids know for a fact that you are this indisputable pillar in their lives. They know they can flourish because you will always be there to support them, show them right from wrong and be their biggest fan. That’s the job. The whole job. And you’re killing it. Even on days when you are about to collapse from exhaustion and ready to quit. Even then. Killing it.
3. Let my kids see all of me
You are not doing anyone any favors by only showing them your happiest self. It’s ok to show when you are upset, disappointed, sad and that you are a real person with your own hopes, dreams, mistakes and hangups. Let them see you as a fully flawed human, so they are free to be a fully flawed and fantastic person too.
Ok, onto my next parenting challenge! See you on the flip-side.