I had a tough, unstable childhood. My family moved around often — I attended six different elementary schools in five different towns. We moved up and down the East Coast when I was younger, and then up and down the West Coast when I was older. My parents divorced when I was 8, and my father remarried almost instantly. When I was 12, my parents went to court over custody issues and stopped speaking to each other soon after.
It was a jarring, ugly, stressful childhood in many ways. My parents were good people, they instilled good values in me, and they did their best. But I always wished things were different. I always felt like I was searching for home, for family. I idealized other families — the ones who had two loving parents, seemingly stable homes. I’m sure these families had flaws I didn’t see, but I craved something else, a perfection I saw in the rest of the world as my own world seemed to crumble right before my eyes.
I was anxious to start my own family as soon as possible. I met my husband in high school. I had a fantasy that we would both just ditch college and start having babies ASAP, but he was a little more sensible than I was. We both went to college and then grad school, got married, and had our first baby in our late 20s.
I am blessed to have found a good husband, someone who shares my visions for family, homemaking, and childrearing. When we welcomed our first child, I had all kinds of ideas for how things should go. Basically, I wanted everything to be flawless, beautiful, lovely. I wanted my son’s childhood to be better than mine. I wanted him to have all the things I didn’t have.
When he was young, I struggled, but I continued to strive toward that ideal. I focused all my energy on giving him a great babyhood and toddlerhood. I breastfed him around the clock, almost never put him down, and was rarely separated from him. I fed him organic foods, played him classical music, and severely limited his screen time. I don’t think he saw one second of television until he was past 2 years old.
And then I cracked — I fell apart. I’d always tended toward anxiety and had suffered debilitating panic attacks on and off throughout my life. I had increasing anxiety postpartum, but I sort of brushed that off. But when my son was 2 1/2, things came to a head, and I felt as though I was losing my mind.
It was the most raw, all-consuming anxiety I’d ever had. The anxiety was partly triggered by a miscarriage I suffered at the time, as well as a scary trip to the ER with my son. (He was fine, but it was terrifying, nonetheless.) But it was also a build-up of all the stress and anxiety I’d had since he was born — and much of that was centered on this perfection-seeking attitude I’d had about his childhood, and motherhood in general.
I wanted so much to make everything just right, to rectify the things that had gone wrong in my own childhood, that I had driven myself mad.
Luckily, I got help for my anxiety attacks soon enough, and though it was a very long, difficult process, I began to feel better.
But along the way, I had to give up certain things. I had to let go of the idea of perfection, to remember that life doesn’t always happen just the way you want it to, and that’s okay. I had to remember that my children are their own beings — that they are meant to make mistakes and experience the difficult parts of life too.
Now that I see that motherhood is messy — and that childhood is supposed to be just as imperfect — I have been more able to relax into parenthood. I have two sons now. I try my best to give them what I can. I do believe stability is important for them, and I want our home to be generally peaceful. But I have also stepped back. I know I can’t control everything, that all I can do is my best.
I see my sons squealing as they roughhouse on the bed, grinning ear to ear as they run through the sprinklers, and giggling like mad as we all huddle together at night reading Dr. Seuss. I see that childhood can’t be perfect, but there will be moments scattered throughout that feel pretty damn close to that.
I think my sons are having a good childhood, and I see that in many ways it’s better than mine. But I also know it’s their own childhood, one that only they get to experience, one that they will evaluate on their own terms as they get older.
I want them to know I tried, I loved, I stepped back when I needed to — and that I never stopped believing in their innate beauty, their sweetness, and their resilience.
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