to the lousy mom on mother’s day (a letter to myself)

I see you.

Introverted and overwhelmed. Keeping on day after day, thinking too deeply about every challenge and stage and parenting suggestion. The kids need you all the time, even when you follow all the rules about teaching them to play alone. You worry about misunderstanding what is their personality and what is defiant behavior and what is just being a kid. You have a mama tribe and they are amazing, but somehow you’re still lonely and longing for something you can’t name. Another life maybe?  You’ve always been reliable and stable and on top of things but now you’re maxed out and nothing is working and you’re not quite sure who are anymore.

I see you.

His 2 year molars are coming in and he’s been screaming and biting and chucking toys at you and everyone all day. For two weeks. You dig deep for the last reserves of tenderness when he brings you a book and climbs into your lap. 20 seconds later and he’s changed his mind about the book so he’s screaming in your ear and clocks you in the chin throwing his massive head back in a tantrum, and you’re screaming back “NO! We are reading the book you picked out or we aren’t reading anything at all!” (As he throws himself to the floor you notice this library find is called “The Big Book of Happy”. Of course.)

I see you.

She’s trying so hard to talk but every word sounds like some variation on “ball” or “shadow” or “water”. Everything you do must be identified, step by step, item by item, in the toddler’s own words. You must confirm what she says or she will continue to scream it at you, banging her head on your hip, pulling at your arm until you figure out what she means. You melt down first: “SHUT YOUR FACE. STOP SCREAMING AT ME.” She sobs. You hate yourself.

I see you.

I want to tell you there is grace for your parenting and that the expectations for motherhood today are ridiculous and your life is really stressful and you’re pulled in too many directions and your children are exceptionally needy and your family are all half a country away and so it’s okay that you’re not doing so well. I want to tell you of all that because it’s true. 100%. But I think this is the bigger thing: you do kind of suck at this. And also: you’ve never been so bad at something that you could not quit. 

Remember when you were 15 and went out for cross country? You were halfway athletic but still monstrous compared to the lean leggy girls on the team and you were so embarrassed in the locker room every day, changing into your team shorts that made your thighs rub together until they chafed. You were slow and terrible and not built for running but you learned to love the solace of the trails and found an amazing community at the back of the pack where they celebrated every PR like it was winning gold. But then remember when you tried to run track later that year and you went to one pre-season practice and ran 1 painful mile and then never went back because it was so miserable to have everyone watching you toil like a hamster on a wheel? And it felt so good not going back.

Remember when you started nannying for that b-list movie star and her twin babies? And she was really nice but it was really weird and there were three other round-the-clock nannies and the hours were horrible and then you were having a panic attack in the middle of a sleepless night thinking about how you’d have to be up in two hours to catch the 4am street car and so you just texted her that you were sick and couldn’t make it and she texted back that it was really unprofessional and that you were fired. And remember you expected to feel so guilty but instead you felt instant relief?

Remember when you were so bad at math senior year that you convinced your teacher to let you drop the class and take an online remedial tutorial instead? And remember when it said your algebra skills were stuck somewhere around the middle of 7th grade? And remember how nobody really kept track of your progress so you sort of just did the bare minimum until graduation?  Remember how you were juggling a job and too many AP classes and club responsibilities and you were so grateful to just disappear under the radar for an hour every day? Bliss.

But this? You can’t quit motherhood, no matter how terrible you may be. And sure, the yardstick that measures your mom-skills is totally warped by pinterest and mommy blogs and everything google-able. But still. You’re intense and introverted and have a very low tolerance for touch and noise. Toddlerhood is about as good a fit for you as a rave. You put so much energy and thoughtfulness into your parenting style and activities and schedule and then try to ditch the schedule and go with the flow and none of it matters. They don’t know what they want except that they want all of you, all the time. More than you can give.

And you can’t quit. And you feel the walls closing in. And the guilt and the rage and the tears all mix together. And oh hey, it’s mother’s day! But you want to do is run away. From the kids and the guilt and the laundry and everything you thought you could be. Should be.

That’s the rub, I think. You have been dreaming of your motherhood for so long. You tried for months and then you lost the baby. Then you tried for one and got two. The pregnancy shut your life down. The first year was a blur, but you pushed through.Year two was hazy but improving and sometimes even really fun. Now, entering year three and it’s so hard again and your magical mom self hasn’t materialized. You’re stuck with this volatile burnt-out woman who suggests fun family baking projects and then finds herself melting down when the little hands go right into the flour bin and the bowl gets tipped over and they’re just always grab grab grabbing before she can get anything ready.

So what do you need? Time away, for sure. More sleep. Exercise. Adult conversation and also no conversation, sitting alone for a few hours in a quiet room. And also you need to let go of everything you are convinced you should be. In the vacuum of your mind your idealism and virtue builds this superwoman and you long to bring her to life. But it’s okay, in fact: it’s time to let her go. She is lovely, but there are no overwhelming children in there with her and so all her amazing parenting values and clever hacks are meaningless.

This is so cliche, but : embrace who you are and what you can be today. Set the bar low and then kick it a notch lower. Take care of the basic needs, theirs and yours, and then find something joyful to do together. When it becomes miserable, let it go. Leave the messes until you can’t handle them any longer and then shut your children in their rooms or give them all the screen time it takes to give you dish washing in solitude. Let them be joyful and naked, or don’t and duct tape those sagging diapers onto your wild child. Feed them whatever you’re eating because you aren’t a short order cook, or feed them whatever you know they’ll eat and not throw on the floor. Bathe them as often as you want which might be as often as you remember. Teach them their colors and numbers and shapes and letters, but when you start to lose your mind identifying every color of every object in sight, tell them you don’t know and that the colors are “all gone.” Act as surprised as they are.

You are a mom. Period. You don’t need qualifying labels of success, but you absolutely need to know your efforts are not in vain. This is a long and wearying journey, walking your kids towards autonomy and kindness and teaching them how to be thoughtful citizens of the world. Motherhood doesn’t come with performance evaluations to help troubleshoot challenges or awards banquets to recognize all the late nights and dedication you’ve put in along the way. Sometimes you have to be brave and ask for the mentors and peers this journey requires. Tell them when you’re feeling low and when you need them to cheer you on.

There is no shame in needing some back-of-the-packers to slog through the race with you. You can’t quit, but nobody can force you to kill yourself trying to keep up with the rest. Walk, crawl, dance, lie down and take a nap while they watch Cars for the 479th time, do whatever it takes to get through today. Don’t stop dreaming about tomorrow. Make plans that will fill you up. Listen to good music. Eat a huge delicious salad and lots of dessert. Watch bad tv. Read young adult fiction and get lost in other worlds. Reach out over and over until you get what you need. We are all in this together, even when we all want to be alone.

I see you. You are going to make it. Mother’s Day does not have to be happy, but it is for you. For all that you are and have been for all those who need need need you. Don’t let your growing go unnoticed, even if it means you’re mediating on your growth while sitting quietly in the bathroom in the dark, hiding from your offspring.

You do you, mama. I see you and you are beautiful. Inspiring. Your little people are going to be as messy and wonderful as you are for them. Gifts to the world.

Dear friends, may you have the best possible Happy Awful Crazy Absurd Joyful Mother’s Day, tomorrow and every day after.

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6 thoughts on “to the lousy mom on mother’s day (a letter to myself)

  1. I recently read a fb quote that was like, “only goal of motherhood: give your children a childhood they don’t have to recover from.” i love that. here’s to kicking the bar lower.
    Happy to be your running mate at the back of the pack.

  2. Thank you for this! I didn’t write a Mother’s Day post because I wasn’t sure what to say. Thanks for seeing us all, and for writing all of our our shared mommy story so well.

    “Set the bar low and then kick it a notch lower.” Amen.

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