Thoughts On Mother’s Day
If there’s one thing I’m learning about motherhood, it’s that it’s a constant game of comparisons. I wouldn’t be asking myself “Am I doing this right?” so often if there weren’t so many agents out there reminding us that there IS a wrong (and a right) way to “do” motherhood. Of course, if you ask my husband, my mom, or my close friends, they’ll probably roll their eyes and pat me on the shoulder with that “you adorable idiot, you” face and remind me that I’m doing just fine. Then they’ll rip into a rant about the hundreds of people in this world legitimately fucking up their kids. So far, my kid isn’t dying of starvation or exposure, so, according to them, I seem to be nailing some things.
Others things? Other things not so much.
They might as well hand you a kit to deal with all the mom guilt you’ll be having when you leave the hospital. Here you are ma’am: your formula samples, your adult diapers, and ah yes, your Guilt Belt. Be sure to wear this every day for the rest of your life or you won’t be a real mother. Oh, chin up, lass, it’s not so bad! Everyone else is wearing one, too! What’s wrong? Are you already feeling bad about what the next eighteen years are going to look like even though your kid is only hours old? Ah then, wonderful! It’s working already and it’s not even on you!
The cycle goes like this: I wake up, I see that tiny face, still crusty with sleep, next to mine (because we co-sleep, and, no, we don’t drink our own urine for sustenance or live in a burlap yurt) and I think: YES! Here she is! The love of my life! The cutest baby EVER! She starts with the gurgles and the cooing and the sounding out of whatever it is she’s thinking about and I think: you are SO STINKIN’ CUTE! I love you so much! She starts her climb up my face (using my nose as a bouldering grip) and I think: no, seriously, I have the strongest, cutest baby ever. She’s going to be a rock star, the President of the United States, AND a beauty queen. And I made her! With kale salads and yoga! I made her! And she’s amazing!
And then we venture out of the bedroom and it all sort of goes downhill from there.
The comparison game starts.
It begins with coffee. I probably drink too much of it than is healthy for a developing baby brain. But I drink it anyway because my kid wakes up no less than three times a night to eat, and by the time she’s ready to be up and at ‘em, I’m not. I’m groggy. To prevent injury to us both, I drink coffee to stay awake. It works. But before the first sip even hits my stomach, I’m thinking: what about those babies NOT getting caffeine in their breastmilk? Are they more… I don’t know… likely to be amazing human beings? And by the time I’m done with my cup, I’ve already imagined my child being hauled off to prison for robbing a 7-11 while the news feed below footage of her arrest reads “scientists beginning to make connection between infant caffeine intake and impulse control.”
I’ve imagined brain damage in my child and it’s not even 9 am yet. Damn.
Then we move on to the “play with the baby” portion of the morning, which, let’s be honest, I’m not really cut out for. Crafting? Reading? Answering why the sky is blue or how long ago the dinosaurs lived? Making up stories up and acting them out? I can do that. You want me to build you a stage and sell tickets to your pint- sized performance, kid? I’m ON IT. You want me to put the star-shaped block through the star-shaped hole OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER again? Oh, and now you’re arching your back and screeching because I’m not letting you eat the soil out of the potted ficus? I just can’t. I can’t do it.
So now I imagine that every OTHER child in America is in baby college, learning hand eye coordination, to play the bongos, and how to differentiate a sonnet from a senryu, and mine is at home, licking the same filthy spot on my slippers while I stand at the sink all zombie-like surveying how much dried carrot puree needs to be scrubbed from every single surface in the kitchen.
So not only is my child over caffeinated, she’s under stimulated. Kids her age will have memories of going to children’s theater and Disneyland and playing with all the latest toys. Mine? Mine will be the master of extracting the stuffing from my vintage ottoman and shoving it into her mouth.
I tried a mommy group. I did. I went, my kid licked the floor and the other kids’ toys, and I listened to a bunch of twenty-somethings complain about their mothers-in-law. My kid got a fever and a runny nose the next day, and I swore off mommy groups. My kid though, I could tell, LOVED it. Like, really loved it. She wanted to interact with all those kids. And then I felt awful afterwards because all I could think was: I hate this. My kid loves it. No doubt this is setting up a pattern for the rest of our lives. Great.
The guilt belt was starting to feel REALLY tight by now.
I’ve stopped reading all those studies that keep popping up on social media about how more more/less exposure to X yields Y in babies. There was one recently that showed up in my feed, something about how it wasn’t the amount, it was the quality of time that turned your kid into a not-psycho-killer. In theory, I should have felt better from just the headline. I was spending quality time with my kid. I mean, the way in which I lovingly slid the star-shaped toy into the star-shaped hole- and the not the hundreds of times I did it- that was the thing that was making my baby into a well rounded human being. Right? But even that made me question myself. C’mon. Was I really that loving with the star-shaped toy? Wasn’t I really checking my text messages with my other hand while I was doing the star thing?
The guilt belt was making me feel short of breath.
My kid doesn’t really sit still long enough to do much star-shaped toy stuff anyway. She’s off trying to shove the whole remote in her mouth or turn the kitchen stool on its side as soon as she gets the chance. My kid is strong as hell. Both Mr. Burdy and I got wrist injuries- real, doctor-inspected wrist injuries!- from holding her, picking her up, and restraining her from pulling the refrigerator down onto herself. She’s a tough cookie with a mind of her own. I can’t just plop her down in front of a stuffed toy or a puzzle for even a second before she’s off trying to get into something. So I have this strong, healthy, curious baby. And there are families out there dealing with sick babies, injured babies, dying babies, and the loss of babies. There are families are dealing with not being able to have babies of their own. And here I am complaining about the repetitive nature of playing with a seven-month-old.
Here is where the guilt belt nearly cuts me in half. It makes me ask myself: who in the HELL am I to complain about motherhood? What did I think I was signing up for? An eighteen-year-long Anne Geddes photoshoot? Did I not know about these endless hours of boredom and spit-up? You have a perfectly good baby, I tell myself. Now go do the star-shaped toy thing and SHUT UP.
My mom, man. If there was anyone cut out to slide a star-shaped toy into a star- shaped hole all day, it was that woman. She LOVED having kids. Now, my mom is no saint. She has PLENTY of issues that I’ll tell you about one day. But she wanted kids from the get-go and she had four of us. And she loved it. She also had us young. She had (I presume) a lot more energy and less of an established career/routine than I did. She also didn’t suffer the compulsion to write and make art out of trash, which I do, and which, on same days, drives me to such distraction that I can’t focus on anything.
So when I’m listlessly pushing a tub toy through the water for my kid and thinking about how the dishes are piled up and the bed unmade and the words unwritten and the letters unsent and the sewing project sitting half-finished on the only one of two seating areas we have in the house, I think of my mom and how she did this with gusto, times four. With a pretty damned clean house. And without a car for a good chunk of that time. And with a shoestring budget to work with. And without the Internet and no friends close by.
Then I start thinking about my ancestors, with four kids at a minimum, toiling away without electricity, or plumbing, and in a country under threat of war… and I feel like an even bigger jerk for complaining about my active, healthy baby.
The guilt belt tightens some more.
The guilt belt makes me think my complaints are not valid because they don’t involve death or dying or loss. This is guilt doing its best work. This is how generations of mothers learn to endure their long hours of boredom and loneliness in silence. They think: but others have it harder, so who am I to complain? And it makes us bottle up our grievances, which, petty or not, are toxic to our well being.
It also makes me think the absolute worst thought of all: maybe I didn’t want this enough.
And that is how I end up in this tailspin after five hours of star-shaped toy-ing and attempting to get a load of laundry done. I email all my friends and ask them “Is this how you should do it? Am I a shitty mom because all I want to do right now is (insert writing/crafting project here) ?” And they all call me back in turn and leave me voicemails that translate into pats on the shoulder and, “Hey, you adorable idiot, you’re doing FINE”.
If I had the knowhow to do it, here’s the app I would invent: a service that lets you dial in your level of stress/not-wanting-to-deal-with the star-shaped toys for a day, and you get, in response, a custom message on your voicemail, from a gentle and concerned voice that says, “Hey. You’re doing great. Your kid’s good. You’re good. Everything’s alright”.
My mom is awesome at reminding me that I’m doing great. She constantly has me look backwards at those awful nights during the first six weeks when my child was wailing inconsolably for hours, or even just a few months ago when I thought I would go out of my mind with breastfeeding issues. She reminds me that, Hey! You lived! You did alright! Neither you nor your child were harmed in the process! You’re doing FINE.
Most importantly, my mom and all my friends remind me of this: I can take the guilt belt off whenever you want. I can! I don’t need to feel bad for doing the best I can. My child will understand one day the way we all eventually do: that moms are people, that I was a person, with hobbies and interests and a life, before I became a mother. I was doing the best I could. I, just like every other mother out there, had my own set of insecurities and crap to work through while I was sliding around a star shaped toy. More to the point: my kid is likely not going to wind up on a therapist’s couch because I couldn’t work myself up into a frenzy over a shape sorting toy, so maybe I should relax a little.
What escapes me in the sleep-deprived hours I dedicate to wondering about the costs of my kid’s therapy bills is this: humans are resilient. Kids, especially. But you don’t just intrinsically know this with your first kid. You can’t. It’s impossible. You have to hear it from other people to understand it. Your kid will live through your disinterest in her star shaped toys. In fact, your kid will be amazing when she grows up. To think otherwise is to deny that kid’s resilience and her spirit. Kids DO have spirits of their own. We don’t remember this when we’re suffocating inside the Guilt Belt. We think, as moms, we have to be responsible for every last thing. The whole world is looking at us to raise a good kid. If the kid “fails”, it’s our fault. If the kid has therapy bills, it’s because of us.
So how do we manage accepting responsibility for what we can, and letting go when even our most responsible selves don’t produce the desired outcome? I don’t know, honestly. I think this is what people refer to when they talk about the loneliness of motherhood. This is the limbo that every mom hangs out in while she’s holding a star-shaped toy. This is the not-knowing that allows that guilt belt to tighten another notch.
For today, anyway, what I have to offer my kid is going to have to be enough. I have to trust that my cocktail of coffee and ennui isn’t eventually going to turn my kid into an anti-social basketcase. And you know what? Even if it does? I will still love my kid. I will teach her to navigate the world, as best I can, given her unique qualities. She will have a permanent ally on this earth in me, her mom. She will understand that her mom, even though she was staring longingly at a pile of fabric or a drawer full of stationary instead of paying attention to her, loved her endlessly. One day, if she holds a baby of her own, she’ll be overcome with the feeling I’m having now about my mother, this feeling that connects all of us, mothers or not: we’re all human. We’re all doing the best we can.