A few weeks ago, I got an email from a woman I know only through the Internet. The subject line read “I think I’m an unfit mother.” Concerned, I opened it right away and started reading.
The email said things like the following: I love my kids, but sometimes I don’t like them. I am miserable. My husband and I rarely have sex. I try to teach my kids right from wrong, and in public they are usually pretty good, but at home they are out of control. They have no manners. They say things to me like, “You are the worst mom in the world.” I have tried positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, all kinds of reinforcement, and nothing works. I feel like a failure. I feel like my kids deserve a better mom and my husband deserves a better wife. I’m afraid I’ve fucked my kids up for life.
Oh. Ummm…that’s all?
Girl, if those things make you an unfit mother, then we are all unfit! Every single one of us!
I know for a fact I am not the only mother in the world who has said, “You would never treat your teacher that way! I am your mother! I am the one who takes care of you! You can’t talk to me like that! You know better!” And back when I was a teacher, I had dozens of report card conferences with parents where I would tell a mom and dad how great their son or daughter was only to have them reply, “Well, you should see him at home!” or “Are we talking about the same kid?”
We all want the same thing. We want our kids to be kind, responsible, compassionate, caring human beings. We want them to be productive and respectful members of society. Because when they are all of those things, well, first, being a parent is more fun, and second, we feel like we have done our jobs well—to the best of our ability.
We all want to be proud of the things we create. When you are a kid and you work really hard drawing and coloring in a picture, you can’t wait to show it to your mom. You are proud of your creation. When you are a student, you want to get an A+ on a paper or a test. When you are working on a project at work, you want your boss to tell you that you did a fantastic job, because you worked hard and it’s nice to be rewarded for that.
The biggest creation you will ever make, though, is a child—especially if you are a mom, because you grew that person inside of you. You literally made your kids. When they are born, they are perfect: beautiful and innocent and flawless. And then reality sets in. The hard work wasn’t in growing, incubating and popping out that baby. That was the easy part. Your work isn’t done. It’s actually only just starting. Incubating your child was a cakewalk.
Now that your kid is on the outside, you’ve got to program them. Programming is fucking hard. And it’s tiring. And even though you think you are programming them the right way, sometimes you aren’t. And the longer you program your kid the wrong way, the longer it takes to debug them.
I post plenty of pictures of my kids doing the right things on Facebook. The things we all hope our kids will do. I show pictures of them cooking and reading and cooperating. Why? Because it feels good when your kids are doing the things you have been trying to teach them to do, because I’m proud of them, and I’m also proud of myself. It’s no different than your 3-year-old showing you a picture of a circle with two lines coming out of it with tremendous pride like she’s just recreated the Mona Lisa. “Mommy! Look at my picture! It’s you! Do you like it? Do you like it, Mommy? Mommy, do you like it do you like it do you like it!?”
When you work hard on something and it turns out the way you had hoped, it’s natural to want to show it off, especially when the moments of success might only be a reflection of what your life is like 10 percent of the time. You want to hold on to those. Because the other 90 percent, they are never picture perfect for any of us. And for a good number of us, 50 percent of the time isn’t just not perfect—it totally blows. Fifty percent of the time your kids are pushing your very last button for the 27th time that morning.
That’s when it gets tiring. And you know there is more you should be doing. You know you shouldn’t be letting the kids watch five consecutive hours of television on a weekday. You know you shouldn’t be giving them goldfish and fruit snacks for dinner. You know you should brush their teeth or give them a bath, but you put them into bed without having done either one, because you just don’t have it in you. People don’t post pictures of that on Instagram. But I promise you, they do it.
We were recently on vacation. We stayed in a condo on the second floor. There was a unit above us, a unit below us and a bunch of units next to us. One day as we were trying to get out the door to go to the beach, every single kid had a meltdown of epic proportions. One kid had sunscreen in her eyes. One kid couldn’t find his basketball. One didn’t want to go to the beach at all. One kid started annoying the crap out of another kid, and the two of them just started beating the shit out of each other. And then the littlest one got her finger slammed in the screen door.
It was mayhem. Every kid was either screaming or fighting or crying. I’m sure there were several residents who were ready to call either the police or child protective services, or both. It was not a Facebook moment. But it was reality. Sometimes reality bites, whether we publicly document it or not.
My kids know right from wrong. They know that hitting isn’t OK. They know what is expected of them. Sometimes they follow the rules and meet our expectations. During those times, I am sure I’m doing all the right things. Other times, like that moment on vacation, I’m not convinced I’m doing any of them, and I’m not sure I’m fit to be their mother. And those other times occur much more often than I’d like.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, your kids are going to be douchey. It is their nature to test the waters. Push the envelope. See how much they can get away with. Those are the times when you just hold on. Ride out the storm until things calm down. Take time to assess, reflect and come up with a plan.
There will come a time when things settle down and you have a little more energy. You have more patience. You have the stamina to try a new approach. It might be in a day or two, or it may not be until next year. Until then, remember that your kids are not fucked up for life. And you are not an unfit mother.
The goal isn’t perfection. The goal isn’t baking cookies and Pinterest projects and a picture worthy of posting on Facebook. Sometimes the goal is simply to keep everyone alive. And that doesn’t make you an unfit mom. That just makes you a normal one.