Before I had my first baby, I was a perfect mother. I attended all my childbirth classes and breastfeeding classes, I read all the books. I was chock full of opinions and philosophies and good intentions, and I was not afraid to tell you all about them and why I really knew what I was talking about.
Then I had an actual baby, and I was knocked flat on my very sore back after many hours of labor and a somewhat traumatic birth (Did you know you can have multiple episiotomies? You can.). My first experience of motherhood was that it was nothing at all like I expected it to be. It was so much messier and more painful, both literally and figuratively. I was blindsided.
That feeling of being hit by a semi–the “Truck of Motherhood,” I call it–continued in the blurry days after my first son’s birth, when I was so weak I could barely walk and so bewildered I couldn’t think straight, and then it continued pretty much his whole first year. I’ve now been a mother for 13 years and…yeah, I still have no idea what I am doing.
But I have continued to mother that baby boy, now unbelievably 13, and his three younger siblings. Along the way, in between the wonderful, amazing things about nurturing human beings and watching them grow before your very eyes into full-fledged people, I’ve had every single opinion about parenthood and every single good intention systematically crushed, one after the other. If I dared to judge another mother for a certain parenting decision, I was almost certain to get knocked off my high horse in the next minute by some humbling moment courtesy of my own charming offspring. I have the stains and the scars to prove it.
No one is immune, I have learned: the parenting gods come down on all of us sooner or later. If you think you are an expert on baby sleep, your child will stop, pronto. If you think you’re the guru of potty training, just wait until you have a poop-withholder of your very own. You might give the side-eye to the mother of the preschool class biter today, but be careful–when your darling takes a chunk out of his neighbor’s arm next week, it will be your name on the incident report. Think you have avoided the whole picky eating thing because your baby loves kale? Many a 4-year-old has decided that everything he loved a week ago is now disgusting. It could happen to you. It has happened to me.
It’s funny, really: I don’t know any two adults who are exactly alike. I’m not sure, then, why we expect babies, toddlers, or children to respond equally well to any one-size-fits-all notion of good parenting. Now that I have three sons and a daughter–my own personal sample size of four–I can tell you that each of my sons is patently different, that gender stereotypes do not hold true in my house save for the fact that no, not one of my boys can actually pee in the toilet instead of around it, and that each and every child comes with his or her own perspective on the world, own needs, own complexities, own strengths, own weaknesses. I have none of these children mastered. I am winging it with each and every one of them.
Some judgment among mothers is inevitable; we make decisions about how to approach our own mothering by comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. That’s normal, and even essential, I would argue. Other mothers are our village, and we learn by watching them and using their examples either as resources or cautionary tales.
But parenting should be a discussion, not a debate. There are no winners here. When our babies are little, we spend a lot of time worrying about how we feed them, how we teach them to sleep, how we diaper them, when and how we teach them to use a potty, how we discipline them. All of these things seem monumental because we want so much to do right by them. But once your babies grow up a little, you might find yourself in doctors’ offices, facing decisions about therapies or diagnoses. You could sit across from a guidance counselor or a teacher and hold back tears while you try to figure out why your child struggles in school and whether or not he or she needs medication. You’ll hold your breath when you ask your child if he found someone to sit with at lunch his first day of middle school. You will likely find it hard to find the words to explain why your child needs to perform code red drills in his classroom, why it is imperative that he and his classmates stay silent if it happens so that no “bad guy” can find them. You’ll worry about screen time, and the Internet, and driving lessons, and the sex talk. You will, because we all do.
I used to look at other mothers sitting in the circle at toddler music class and envy how fast they lost the baby weight or how well their babies were talking; now I look around at the mothers in the preschool parking lot where my fourth child goes to school and I know that each of them has her own struggle, each of them is treading water somehow, all of them carry invisible saddlebags of paralyzing self doubt and torturous insecurity and the nagging fear that we will drop a ball somehow and everything will come crashing down around us.
If there is anything I have learned from growing and raising small human beings, it is that we are all, in fact, fallible. We all make mistakes, over and over again. It’s part of the process. And though I began my motherhood journey at the age of 27, I am now 41. I have reached the age where I have seen my friends mother while weathering chemo, mother while losing children, mother while losing their parents, mother while losing their spouses, mother while they themselves were dying. It has changed the way I think about motherhood and especially other mothers.
The most important thing to me now is not whether you feed your child formula or breastmilk, whether you co-sleep or not, whether you make all your own baby food or rely on the newfangled baby food pouches, whether you homeschool or send your children to private or public schools. It’s certainly not whether you stay at home with your children or work outside the home–I have done it both ways, and I found that either way, I was still, bottom line and first and foremost a mother, with all the challenges that come along with that name.
No, the most important thing to me about this whole journey is that we are all doing our best, we are all loving our best, and while there’s may be no way to be a perfect mother, there are a million different ways to be a good one. No one can support another mother better than someone who has been in her (well worn, probably desperately in need of replacement) shoes. No one can show another mother the kind of grace we all need sometimes better than someone who has also been in desperate need of the same grace, or will.
At the end of the day, we’re all mothers no matter how we do it, and being a mother is just freaking hard enough without being on–and by–each other’s sides. So if you need someone to say, “Me too,” come sit by me, and do the same for someone else.
I care about supporting other mothers no matter how different our parenting might be; after all, we share the most common goal: to love our children the best way we know how. Similac feels the same way, which is why they sponsored a panel last week in conjunction with The Sisterhood of Motherhood and TODAY’s Parenting Team to discuss judgment among and about mothers and how divisive and painful it can be. Similac and The Sisterhood of Motherhood have also teamed up with director Cynthia Wade to create a new documentary debuting in October, #EndMommyWars, following the lives of several new mothers on their parenting journeys. Through sharing their stories and ours, we all hope to remind ourselves that we are so much more alike than we are different. Watch the film’s trailer and see if you recognize yourself in the faces of these mothers.
This post was sponsored by Similac. Similac has partnered with bloggers for its Sisterhood of Motherhood program. As a part of this program, the Scary Mommy website has received compensation for this post, but all opinions are the writer’s own. Learn more here.