I used to believe being a good mom meant you never ran out of those little dishwasher pod things, or laundry soap, or toilet paper, or diapers. Your house was always company-ready and homemade snacks were a daily occurrence. Keeping track of the things and then using the things to clean and organize the house was the job of the wife/mother. Meals should be planned and made. Laundry was washed and folded. The house was vacuumed each night before bed. I blame The Brady Bunch and all the Nick at Nite sitcom moms for this.
Of course, this set me up to fail at my job quite regularly. My vision had nothing to do with who I really was, of course. It was as if I believed that after giving birth I magically turned into some completely different person, and this person was apparently a domestic goddess. I was totally deluded and completely ignored the fact that throughout college, I was the roommate most likely to drive everyone crazy with her giant pile of dirty dishes.
And as it turns out, giving birth not only didn’t change me, it also made something that was already challenging for me even harder, because now I thought I had to do all the hard things like organizing and cleaning, while simultaneously keeping 8 pounds of crying human alive. And keeping her alive involved sitting underneath said human while she was attached to my body for insanely large periods of time. This made basic functions like eating and sleeping more difficult, not to mention staying on top of the whole dishwasher soap and laundry detergent situation.
You would think a smart girl like me would catch on and say, “Woah, Nellie! I’ve got to get some help.” Nope. Instead, I set out to prove that I could do it all. Other moms seemed to be pulling this off, so I could too. Even after other life events, like going back to work and having four more babies, I still thought that all the things were my job. I had pushed out the babies, and now I had to do all the things. I’d like to blame sleep deprivation, but unfortunately, I think it was a giant load of pride that was driving my thinking.
This craziness led to some pretty fun breakdowns. Just ask my bewildered husband. I would alternate between stoically “proving” I could do it all by working like a mad woman and collapsing into full mental breakdowns.
While I was working on the proving, I disdained my husband’s help because, clearly, I was the only one who knew the right way to run this joint. I had pushed out the babies, remember? Instant expert. I was sure he would buy the wrong brand of soap, which would be tragic. Despite his college degree, he was certainly ill-equipped to do the laundry. One super shrunken pair of dry clean-only capris had sealed that deal. How would this man figure out how to cook us dinner? I just needed to do it myself, because apparently, I was just that amazing.
Except I wasn’t. The things just never seemed to get done.
The flip side of my attempts at amazingness were total breakdowns: I need some help! No, not that kind of help! I’m talking about the kind that is in my mind, but I don’t want to tell you about it because you should just know! Good grief, can you not read my mind, husband? You need to do all the things for me out of love just exactly as I would do them. And before I ask. And jump in a time machine while you’re at it, because if you don’t go back in time and change things you did wrong, then I will bring up every time you have failed me as a motivator.
You see, I was confusing being a good mom (and, let’s face it, wife) with being a good household manager. Managing my home is not one of my natural God-given gifts. And I didn’t get that it was separate from the mothering. For some reason, I came to the conclusion that if I was running my house well I was a good mom. Maybe it was because so many moms I knew were also good managers. I didn’t understand that this was just a coincidence. It wasn’t a rule. In real life, this has nothing to do with actually being a good mom to my kids. Heck, in most cases, my kids couldn’t care less if the joint is clean or if their socks match.
Unfortunately, it took years of this crazy proving/breakdown cycle for the light bulb to go on. I didn’t really get the error of my ways until my kids got older. I continued to feel like I needed to do their things too, even those they now could clearly do for themselves because that was what I’d always done. But now I was resenting even more people than just my poor husband. The kids got thrown into my proving/breakdown cycle. As you can imagine, this added a delightful element of mom guilt to the mix.
Then in one desperate moment, during epic meltdown No. 374, I stood in the kitchen in the middle of a crying jag, ranting, “No one ever helps me! Good grief, does anyone else have arms?! Are you people actually blind? Can you not see this mess?”
And then I realize — they could see the mess, and they should be helping. And it was actually OK for me to expect some help. And just like that, one of the best rules of my mothering was born, right out of my crazy tantrum: If you can do it for yourself, you should. Yup, this goes for making your bed, bussing your spot at the table, and folding your laundry. Really, any job — if you can do it yourself, you should.
I decided to fire myself as manager of the world and teach them all to manage themselves, because it turns out that if you decide to be the sole manager of your household, you might inadvertently train everyone in the home to depend on you when they shouldn’t. First, because you will fail them. No one can do it all, not even a mom. And second, my dear friends, because as they grow older, the people in your home are perfectly capable of getting off their hind ends and doing things for themselves. And I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by not involving all the players on our family team.
I am pretty sure this was a huge relief to my husband. He had been saying for years that he was perfectly capable of grocery shopping and cleaning and cooking and being a dad. So I decided to actually believe him, stop criticizing, and start being thankful he is such a helper. Turns out, he’s amazing, and he doesn’t even have to do any of the things the way I would. The things really just need to get done. Sometimes (gasp) his way is actually better. The kids now get a hot breakfast every morning, and I get fresh smoothies, so we’re happy he has taken over the a.m. routine.
The kids were not so relieved. At first, they insisted they could not possibly do what I asked. Mom is clearly the best at getting everyone ice water, so they really should just stay seated, right? But, alas, sweet children, “If you can do it for yourself, you should” is now the rule. And now they do, most of the time. Dishes, laundry, bedrooms, bathrooms, and even their own ice water at bedtime — all done at their level and often not on my timeline. These kids are learning to manage their worlds, and it is a messy and beautiful thing.
I’ve decided that I love them (and my sanity) too much to let them live a moment more in a world where mom is the maid while they sit back and relax from their very trying world of bike rides and homework and Snapchat checking. I’m seriously concerned they wouldn’t even want to tackle this parenting thing with my example. It was no model for teaching them to make the world a better place, either. We all need to be contributors to making the world better, and right now, our home is their world. Under this roof, that means making our home a better place by pitching in on all the jobs. We are learning together. We should be asking, “How can I help?” because we are a team.
Once I got my pride out of the way, I could see this was a gift to them — the gift of accomplishment, the gift of contributing, the gift of being the roommate that will (hopefully) clean their own dishes in a more timely fashion than I did. They are not always grateful for these lessons, but I am, because I can see their future. And it is good.
As a bonus, I am calmer. I freak out less. And now, when I serve my kids or offer to do the dishes when they have tons of homework, or clean their room for them, they are grateful. They don’t take these things for granted as much. They know the work is not easy because they have done it. Once or twice, they have even offered to do the same for me. They know no one owes them a clean room. I have learned there is a big difference between serving as a gift of love and enabling and entitling.
Ending mom as manager and maid leaves time for the stuff that I’m actually good at: nurturing their hearts and dreams, loving them with every single little fiber of my heart, talking to them into the night about friends and problems, laughing with them over funny TV shows, spending time being present with them — which sometimes looks like me sitting on a stool chatting with them while they wash all the dishes because I have been working all day for the love. These are the big motherhood jobs, and I could do them all much better once I quit my job as manager of the world.
So if you find yourself wondering about the ability of your people to see the mess right in front of them, if you’re feeling like you are the maid instead of the mom, or if you just want to challenge your family to get their own ice water, join me. Fire yourself and have a seat, my friends. Your kids will thank you for it — someday.