Mom Guilt – I Will Do Better

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My head is heavy on my pillow. I roll over in my bed, trying to turn my brain off. It is time to sleep for hopefully three hours until the baby wakes me for his midnight snack. Instead I endure a mental pummeling. Why did I get so impatient when my four-year old treated the minivan like a jungle gym? I raise my voice too often. I tell them to hurry too much. I’m not a fun mom. I don’t read enough with the baby, his bedtime routine is non-existent. I was on the phone when I should have been playing with my three-year-old. I must schedule more special individual time with each of my kids.

Thoughts hit rapid fire, they don’t listen, is there something wrong with them, do other preschoolers listen better? Is their behavior normal? Is there something wrong with my parenting? Are my expectations too high? Am I putting unnecessary pressure on my oldest? Should I sleep train the baby? Will sleep training cause emotional problems?

I am so tired.

Pow. Bang. Boom. The punches keep coming. I take the blows like a professional, but I feel them hard in my gut. I gasp for breath, the guilt. I am a crappy mom. I must do better! I feel defeated.

I make a promise to myself.

Tomorrow I won’t raise my voice. Tomorrow I will be “fun” mommy. Tomorrow I will be less stressed and smile more. Tomorrow I will look at my phone less and play with my kids more. Tomorrow we will eat healthy foods. Tomorrow everyone will brush teeth morning and night. Tomorrow there will be less screen time. Tomorrow I will participate in child directed imaginary play (good for their self-esteem). Tomorrow I will get two loads of laundry done at least. I will return friends’ phone calls. I will be a better mom. I will be a better wife. I will be a better friend. I will be the fun parent.

                                                                       *****

I suffer from mom guilt. Every night I unleash an internal assault upon myself. It has gotten worse since the girls have gotten older and seem to deliberately antagonize each other and myself. I know I’m not alone. We all feel it. However, recently I discovered a temporary scapegoat for my mom guilt rage – Hands Free Mama.

Instead of directing my frustration at myself, my husband, my children or my dogs, I am directing my mom guilt anger at the Hands Free Mama. Her essays about putting the phone down, not yelling and not telling her children to hurry up have gone viral. I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is as important as the time we spend with our children. Further, she insists that we must focus on our young children because we will never get this precious time back (a true but very guilt inducing message).

She has one post in particular, The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry Up that makes me feel exceedingly guilty. The angelic mama eliminated “hurry up” from her vocabulary. One of her children was a “stop and smell the roses” type of child. Before becoming Hands Free, the writer lived a frazzled life. She told the child to hurry up. Then enlightenment struck, she realized she bullied her child by rushing her and decided that she would be more patient. Just like that, she reformed. She accepted her child for who she was and started scheduling herself at her daughter’s pace. Sometimes they were late, but she acknowledged “… I will be late only for a few years, if that, while she is young”.

In theory, I agree with the Hands Free Mama. My children are paramount. My time with them is priceless and I must do my best to enjoy my time with them without distraction. But, and this is a big but, I must do this in the context of the real world.

Hands Free Mama makes me (and possibly others) feel like bad mothers. Her perfection makes me mad. Maybe my anger stems from jealousy of her seemingly endless patience and energy? Or maybe it’s because she makes millions of women feel guilty because we fail to live up to her standards by setting our agendas to our preschoolers’ time clocks. We aspire to live as she does, but we fail because we are women who have jobs, household responsibilities and other children, in other words, full and busy lives.

American society has become very child-centric. Parenting theories a la the Hands Free Mama, tell us that we must focus even more on our children. If they act out, they are feeling ignored, so we must have time-ins rather than time-outs. We must never raise our voices. We must never be distracted when we interact with them. We must schedule our lives around endless afternoon activities. We must never get frustrated when our children don’t listen. We must. We must … And if we don’t, we are parenting failures.

We put too much pressure on ourselves to be too many things. We are human. Humans raise their voices. Humans get impatient. Humans sometimes need to make phone calls, respond to emails or meet work deadlines when their children are present.

Being human is not a disservice to our children. The real world is not going to revolve around our grown children.  As adults they will have to show up on time to school, interviews and work. Their future bosses, acquaintances, friends, husbands and wives will be human. They will be human and sometimes will raise their voices, make mistakes, be distracted and be busy. We must teach our children to forgive them when they do these things.

Children learn what it means to be human from their parents. Isn’t it best that we prepare our children for an imperfect world? I aspire to spend undistracted time with my children, to refrain from telling them to hurry up, to not raise my voice, to be patient and to spend quality time with each of them.

Most likely through the course of a day, I will sometimes be patient, undistracted, calm and fun, but I will also sometimes raise my voice, be impatient and distracted. If I am the un-pretty version of myself, I will apologize to them, I will try to do better and I will try to forgive myself for not being a“perfect” parent. My children will learn that I am human (as they are too) and make mistakes, but also learn the importance of taking responsibility for their own mistakes and saying sorry.

Babies and the Female Anatomy

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“Mama, how do babies come out of their mommies’ bellies?”  My three and a half year old asks as I am tucking her in bed.  We have already read a story, she will want water in a moment, and will shortly thereafter call me back to get her another book for her to read on her own.  The tug of war that is the bedtime routine, the struggle for me to get downstairs and have a glass of wine and her to keep a hold of me for one more minute.  I’m used to her delaying tactics, but this is a new question and I am completely unprepared.  I didn’t think we had to worry about the birds and the bees until at least elementary school.  Isn’t there a story about a stork that brings a baby in the basket?  Hmmm… what to say???

“Honey, Daddy is a doctor and he can tell you all about that in the morning.” The tennis ball is now back on her side of the court, will she hit it back, or will she let the ball pass her, so I can leave the room.

“But Mommy, how does a baby come out of someone’s belly?”  She repeats persistently.

“Please, can we talk about this with Daddy tomorrow?” I implore desperately.  “It’s really late and you know I get very cranky if I don’t get my sleep.” Panic, I don’t want to talk about body parts at all.

“Mom, how do they come out?” She rallies back, accurately placing the ball deep on my side of the court.  Hmmm, what is socially appropriate for a three year old?   The stork keeps popping in my head.

“Well, sometimes a doctor has to cut a woman’s stomach open to pull out the baby.”  The minute the words come out of my mouth I realize how scary this sounds.  Issues, is it really that hard to say vagina???

She looks at me with a confused expression and asks, “Food is in our stomach and comes out our bottoms – do babies come out of our bottoms with our poopies too?  Do they get poopies on them when they’re born?” She asks a little scared.  I smile happy that she is not stuck on the doctor cutting a baby out of a stomach slip up.

“No, a baby comes out of a woman’s vagina,” I say a little more embarrassed than I should be, but at least I’m answering honestly.  I can picture her sitting next to her grey haired, Jesus loving, preschool teacher Ms. Alice, discussing vaginas and babies tomorrow.  We may be the only non-church goers in the class, Jewish father, and now my daughter is going to bring vagina talk to school.  It’s the biology of birth, but is it appropriate to tell a three year old?  I make a mental note to ask my teacher friend tomorrow…

Now she is even more wide-eyed than she was before.  “HOW do they come out of vaginas?”  She asks incredulously, this fact clearly seems crazy to her, the physics of it seems crazy to me too.  “Do they have peepees on them?”  The ball is flying right back at me, she is consistent and persistent, I need to just put the ball away and run from the room as quickly as possible.  However, the put away shot is not my specialty.

“I guess they may have some peepees on them, but they get a bath immediately.  Remember that picture of you in a towel from the hospital?  Let’s just talk to Daddy in the morning.”  I say kissing her forehead.  Her head smells like the honey shampoo that only her father splurges to buy.

“Bonzai (her stuffed hyena) has a baby coming out of his vagina, but it’s okay because we’ll just give the baby a bath,” she explains very matter-of-fact.  I could just smile and leave, but Bonzai is a boy, so this statement is just factually impossible.

“Sweet heart, Bonzai doesn’t have a baby in his belly because he is a boy.  He doesn’t have a vagina either.  Only girls have vaginas and only women grow babies in their bellies.”  Since she only has a little sister, she knows nothing of penises, and I don’t want to explain that one to her now.  She nuzzles her head into the pillow and I pull up the covers and tuck them around her chin.  She is losing steam.

“The baby came out of Georgia’s vagina then,” she says, (Georgia is her stuffed dog).  I smile picturing the vagina talk with old Ms. Alice on Wednesday.  One of the best parts about having children is seeing everything again for the first time through their eyes.  Holidays are new again, colors are brighter, and an ice cream cone may really be the answer to all that ails you (we now eat them on a weekly basis).

“I love you so much honey.”

*****

I walk down the stairs and lie down on the couch next to my husband.  “Big girl asked me how babies come out of bellies,” I tell him.  “I told her that they are cut out by a doctor.”

“Wow, that’s not a scary answer,” he says laughing.

“I guess I was unprepared for the question,” I smile, “don’t worry I eventually told her they come out of vaginas and to talk to you.”  I take a sip of red wine and curl my feet under the blanket on the couch, my dog cuddles up in the nook behind my knees.  The day is done and all is how it should be.

“MAMA, WATER!” I hear her calling from upstairs.

“Your turn,” I say to my husband.

Alone in a Room Full of Mothers

After leaving parent-tot class with my daughter, a feeling of inadequacy hung over my head. The dark cloud that haunts me on my lowest days of parenthood, despair, wondering why other moms seem to have it figured out while I drift through my days with no purpose other than to take care of my little brood.

The problem is, I’m unwilling to sacrifice my time with my children, but not having anything other than motherhood makes me feel worthless and less than the working mothers around me.  I am especially envious of all the part-timers, who maintain their careers by working 20 hours a week and still manage being home with their children.  How did these women find their jobs?  How come they had the foresight to embark on a career that allowed them to work part-time?  Why didn’t anyone warn me about work/life balance before I chose to go to law school?  Post-feminist society passionately believes that women can be anything they want to be, but no one addresses whether a chosen career path is compatible with having a family.  I know some mothers happily work intense hours outside the home, but pre-kids working 50+ hours, I struggled dropping my dogs at daycare, I never comprehended how difficult it would be to leave my children.

“Are you starting your own photography studio?”  I shyly asked another mother in class.  “I’ve been feeling that I need to start something too, do something separate from parenting, but I don’t know what to do, ” I confided, possibly revealing too much to a woman I did not know.

“Oh, I have a real job, this is just my creative outlet, you know, an escape for a couple of hours on the weekends.”  Suddenly – a wall – I’m hypersensitive, but her words “real job” hit me like a ton of bricks, quickly defining herself as a working mother and me as “other”. I recoiled, humiliated I felt myself shrivel. I am lucky to be home with my children, so it is embarrassing to struggle to feel good about myself while choosing to be a stay at home mother.

As an attorney, my work fueled me. I upheld the law, telling the human stories of those charged with crimes. Work consumed me.  I worked nights, weekends, and returned home exhausted with no energy for myself or for my husband.  I was unhealthy, medicated, and ate bi-weekly Jimmy John’s sandwiches.  Fortunately, my husband was in his medical residency, so he didn’t have energy either. I failed balancing my work, my health, my family, and my friendships.

After becoming pregnant, my job became unbearable.   The fear of panic attacks haunted me. I worried constantly about my juvenile clients and not about the baby growing inside of me.  Then my second trimester, I stepped off an airplane and blood poured through my pants.  Immediately, I was put on partial bed rest.  My body sent a message – this stress will hurt my growing family.  There was no part-time work option, no way to handle my anxiety, so I quit.  I intended to go back.

After the birth of my daughter, I didn’t want to return to my old job.  I wanted to give that energy to my family instead.  I dedicated myself to them. One year became two, then my second daughter was born.   My second pregnancy was a breeze. I was healthier mentally, physically, and emotionally. But I missed a part of me, the working part, the intellectual part, the part that contributed in the world.  I secretly marveled at my ex co-workers who balanced their work life with their family life.  They returned to work without being insanely jealous of those that cared for their children (again, I know how spoiled that sounds). I questioned why I did not feel confident enough to do the same.

Now, leaving a parent-tot class, I wonder why large groups of mothers often make me feel isolated?  Why our differences create chasms among us, while our similarities hide below the surface?  Why I feel insecure watching other mothers confidently stride through their days, balancing work and life? Why is it that sometimes there is nothing like a room full of mothers to make me feel alone?

*****

SUDDENLY, editing this post, bells ringing inside my head, maybe the answer is, when we DEDICATE ourselves to staying home and taking care of our family, we need to DEDICATE ourselves to taking care of ourselves, as individuals too.  Writing, long dog walks, yoga, reading, time DEDICATED to me, fills me up and provides the purpose missing on those dreary days.