About ten years ago, when I was the exhausted and overwhelmed (oh – I could add a LONG list of descriptors to that) mother of two very different toddlers (who knew kids would come with different personalities?), I remember asking a mother in my acquaintance, who had teenagers at the time, if she would consider being a motherhood mentor of sorts, or starting a support group for young moms like me to whom parenting felt like traveling in a foreign country without a guide. She looked at me with a terrified look in her eyes and said something like “that would suggest that I actually think I know what the heck I’m doing! Oh no – I don’t feel capable of doing that AT ALL!”
I didn’t understand what that was about until years later when I’d been a parent for almost as long as she had. Oh my gosh! She’s right! It doesn’t get much clearer, does it? Here I am, with nearly 14 years of experience at this, and I still mostly feel like I’m floundering in a dark cave without a flashlight!
So… when Darrah asked me some interview questions about parenting (because she’s newly married and dreams of filling her home with the sounds of children some day), I had a similar reaction to the one I received. What the heck? You actually think I have a CLUE what it takes to be a good parent? Gulp.
It took me a long time to answer these questions, but here I go… trying to hold out a tiny dim flashlight for other mothers coming after me…
1. How has being a parent changed you?
Hmmm… well, for starters, it whalloped me with a great big dose of self-doubt. Seriously. I was a fairly self-confident person up until then, but suddenly I felt like I didn’t have a CLUE what I was doing and mostly I assumed I was probably doing it wrong. I’ve chilled out a lot since then (because, surprisingly, my kids aren’t turning out half bad!), but I still feel lost a lot of the time. What if I don’t make them eat everything on their plates – will they die of scurvy? What if I DO make them eat it all – will they develop eating disorders? What if I don’t make them go to bed before 10:00 – will they fail at school? Oh my gosh… the worry and fear and… well, you get the picture.
But there are also all those other things they tell you in the parenting books… Like the fact that you suddenly find yourself lost in a love so deep it feels like there’s no bottom. Like the instantaneous realization that you are no different from a mother bear and you have little doubt that you could kill someone who threatens your child. Like the fact that the world feels bigger than you could ever have imagined it feeling. And then there are the moments when you’re sitting around a campfire laughing with your partner and children and suddenly find yourself thinking “could there be any greater joy than this?”
And the funny thing is, as much as parenting contributed to my self-doubt, in a strange way it also made me a more confident person. It’s hard to explain how it feels to have little people in your life who need you and believe in you in a deeper way than anyone ever has.
2. What have you learned from your children?
Oh my – it’s hard to imagine all the things I’ve learned from them. For one thing, I became a leader shortly after becoming a parent, and I realized that I was a better leader because I’d learned some of my skills through parenting. For another thing, I learned just how different people can be. Each of my daughters is so unique that I’ve had to learn to relate to each of them (and discipline them) in very different ways. Interestingly enough, I started to learn things about my own personality and my husband’s when I started to see things that showed up in my kids. For example, I read a book about “raising your spirited child” (because I desperately needed it for my first, and then could have thrown it out when it came to my second) and there was something in there about “negative first response” that the oldest was doing that I also suddenly recognized in my dear husband. I was almost always ready to rush into new things, and here I was living with two people who made me stop and evaluate things first. It changed the way I approached things – made me slow down and learn to wait. AND I also came to realize that a tendency toward overstimulation was probably something that was inherited from me. I hadn’t recognized it before I saw it in my daughter.
3. What do you wish you had known before you had kids, but learned the hard way?
That when you are a parent, you will have to answer approximately TEN MILLION questions a day and you will have to make approximately TWELVE MILLION decisions. The moment you walk in the door, expect to hear some age-appropriate version of the following: “Can I invite Jessica over for a play date? Do you know where my new mitts are? Can you buy me a pair of mitts, ’cause I can’t find mine. Can we have chocolate ice cream for dessert? What time can Jessica come over? MOM – you PROMISED me you’d buy me some new pants, and NOW I have to wear the ones with the holes in them! Can I stay up late tonight, because there’s a show I really want to watch. When are you going to help me with my school project? If we can’t have chocolate ice cream, will you take me to the store for a Slurpee?” This can go on all night.
And your personal space – you know that space you used to guard so preciously, especially when you were tired or overstimulated? Yeah, give it up, ’cause it will be invaded about as many times as you have to make a decision. OH. MY. GOSH! I was not prepared for this. The constant demands for answers and touch and decisions! Some days, I’ve threatened to put up a sign that says “Mommy is on strike until further notice. No more decisions will be made today. Don’t even THINK about asking me if you can have another cookie!”
4. How do you juggle a career and THREE kids? It sounds super-human to me.
Oh yeah, I’m super-human, alright! Ha! Darrah, you’re a peach for saying so, but I am SO not super-human and most days I feel like I’m not doing any good at either motherhood OR the career-thing. And housework? THAT went out the window YEARS ago! You should see my laundry room or my refrigerator! You would very quickly retract that “super-human” comment!
The truth is, I couldn’t do this without a great co-parent. Marcel and I really are partners in this, and often (especially when I’m traveling) he ends up carrying a lot of the load. It helps when you have a partner who balances off your weaknesses. For example, if it were only up to me, the kids would miss half of their soccer practices, music lessons, etc., because he’s much more aware of what’s on the family calendar and who has to be where at what time than I am.
Just for fun, here are a few of the things I’ve learned (and keep learning) that have helped me cope…
a.) You’ve gotta pick your battles. If you’re exhausted and it just makes your life easier to say yes to that extra cookie, DO IT. The world will not come to an end. And your children will not become hardened criminals.
b.) Don’t sweat the small stuff AND don’t blame yourself for everything that goes wrong. If they happen to wear their clothes to bed instead of pajamas (because they can’t find them or because they’re too lazy) – it really doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. At least they’re sleeping at YOUR house and not a juvenile detention centre.
c.) Sometimes you’ve got to change your definition
of success. If your kids are interesting, decent citizens who have respect for the adults in their lives and they have moments of genuine kindness now and then, does it REALLY matter if their bedrooms resemble pig-pens?
d.) That super-mom crap that the media shoves down your throat? Give it up, ’cause it will only lead to failure and stress. If you don’t have time for home-baked goodies for the class party, the kids will be equally happy (maybe even more so) with Oreo cookies.
e.) Your kids will be better off in the long run if (within reason, of course) you don’t set aside everything you hold dear in order to cater to their every need. Do at least some of the things that give you joy, and learn to ignore the whining (which is mostly manipulation on their part) when they act like they should be getting ALL of your attention. As much as I sometimes feel guilty about it, I don’t think my kids have suffered from me doing the traveling I do. I think they’ve learned to be more self-sufficient and they’ve learned that it’s okay to follow your dream/calling.
f.) Be there for the tough emotional stuff they have to deal with, but don’t do everything for them. There’s no reason they can’t learn to pack their own lunches by the third grade or work through some of their sibling rivalry without you trying to keep the peace. Sometimes there’s a tendency to get overly involved in every little minutiae of your child’s life – avoid it. In the long run, everyone’s better off if you do.
Sorry, Darrah, if I’ve scared you out of child-rearing. 🙂 It definitely comes with its challenges, but in the end, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I could never have imagined just how much fun it can be to hang out with your own children. (Of course, I couldn’t have imagined how much emotional stress it will cause you either, but this was supposed to end on a positive note! 🙂