Since I’m in the poor man’s business of giving opinions, here’s one I like to hand out to struggling moms:
I used to think the goals of all parents, big and small, were just a derivative of a singular goal – which is to not screw their children up as much as their parents screwed them up. Family business is tough.
I used to blame my parents for all my peculiar emotional twists. “If Dad had said ‘I love you’ more…” “If mom had asked me what went wrong at school instead of kicking me out of the suburban at soccer practice….” Nick-At-Night and its repetitious playing of Leave It to Beaver was also a killer. And I didn’t even watch Leave It to Beaver. I just heard through the therapy circuit that it screws a lot of people up.
I suppose it’s the Universe’s cruel joke, but I didn’t realize my parents were human until I became one myself. And after living on the planet for a while, I guess I’ve come to understand that most people are just doing the best they can with what they have to work with. I was an incredibly selfish teenager and I didn’t know how to appreciate dysfunction. Their vindication came with a letter I wrote a week before graduating college. I told them they did well in “raising a child in the way they should go.” The drama-queen-prodigal-daughter had finally come home, waving her apologetic banner like a distress signal: “You were right!”
So now I have a kid of my own – a four-year-old if you want to get specific about it. She’s in the defiance stage, and I’ve found myself in the muddy, crayon-filled trenches of parenthood, trying my best to teach her principles. This is what gratitude is; this is what selfishness and unselfishness are; you better eat that oatmeal I made or all hell is going to break loose.
And man, she’s not having it. As the mother of the house, I feel like what I say should be treated like gospel. I am the law. I am the supreme ruler. And I’m just a tad bit self-righteous. With each step on the path of motherhood, I’ve learned more and more that I have no clue what I’m doing. That’s scary to admit on a public forum, but it’s true. When Ava was small, it was easy to do lots of things right. I fed her, I changed her, I bathed her, I put her to sleep. End of story. But as she’s grown older and learned she has a mind of her own, and that other people are on the planet besides me and the rest of her family, it’s become a lot harder to raise her. And in those books I’ve skimmed over the years, I don’t hear a lot of them talk about being human – the idea that you’re going to try, and fail. A lot.
Like any spiritually inclined person, I decided to talk to Ava about the concept of God. It’s no secret that a spiritual way of life was lost on me for well over a decade. But now I say prayers. I do that. It helps. Anyway, I tried to introduce Ava to that practice. She’s been getting in trouble at school for her behavior and suggested we say a prayer about that.
In a sweet, motherly voice: “Sometimes mommy doesn’t know how to behave, so I ask for help with that. You can, too.”
“I don’t want to pray, mama!”
Oh God. I’m raising a heathen. My tone grew frustrated. “Well, it’s just an idea. It helps. And if you get in trouble again at school today then you’re not watching a movie tonight and THERE WILL BE NO HOT CHOCOLATE,” I said. This was met by a loud whine – the kind that makes you want to stick your fingers in your ears and scream louder than the kid doing the whining.
My thoughts as I grimaced: For God’s sake, Ava. You have a bed to sleep in, you have food to eat, you have clothes to wear! Life is not that bad! Some people have it much worse! THERE ARE WOMEN RIGHT NOW HITTING A CRACK PIPE AND YELLING AT THEIR KID TO GET AWAY FROM THE BATHROOM DOOR!
This particular day, instead of being a perfect example of a mother, I turned into a 4-year-old myself. After my dramatic explanation of life that was barely intelligible through my muttering, I got hit with a humbling epiphany. The words I had uttered minutes before about prayer and behavior hit me square in the chest. “Mommy doesn’t know how to behave sometimes and she needs help with that.”
Guess what, guys. Mommy doesn’t know how to be a mommy sometimes.
That whole cliché about there being no manual is a real thing. Plenty of authors with degrees from highly esteemed universities have made millions off trying to sell flailing parents the answers. But the truth is there isn’t one single formula for how to do this incredibly daunting task of raising a child in the way they should go. It’s not a paint-by-numbers. It’s a mix of happiness and frustration, and you just do your best and hope they don’t grow up to be a murderer.
All of this isn’t to say I’m a complete moron with no clue how to perform basic tasks. I’m a smart girl, and don’t you forget it. But I’m also as human as I’ve ever been. For me, and this is just for me, parenting is a series of tempered freak-outs. Each day is a new mission, and each night is a time to reflect on what I’ve learned by trying to teach, and what I’ve realized I’m still not perfect at. This is one of the rewards of parenting for me. It’s the reminder that I’m a human being on the planet and so is Ava. In our own way, we’re growing up together.
June Cleaver was a character made up by a team of writers to sell dish soap and household appliances during a time of economic prosperity. She never really raised those damn kids. Susan Duty is a real 28-year-old woman, fallible in her own right, who was assigned the very real job of mothering Ava. There are no commercial breaks, no second takes, and no advertising revenue.
They say motherhood is the hardest job you’ll ever love, and that’s true. It has a wealth of rewards that can’t be obtained through any other means. But instilling morals and principles in a child that doesn’t innately possess them is a grueling task, especially at an age when they’re the center of their own universe. And the grand ol’ irony of the whole thing is I’m still learning a lot of these lessons myself. I guess I’ll always be learning them.
I used to think I had to have all the answers. I guess I should help Dr. So-And-So-Who-Probably-Doesn’t-Even-Have-Kids pay for their condo in Boca Raton and buy one of those fancy parenting books. Whatever.
My parents did a good job of giving me the tools I need to survive here. In the process of transferring said tools, I wrote them off as total idiots. In the time between then and now, Life has served me up a hearty piece of humble pie. I’ll never be able to accurately express how much I love them for exactly who they are – strengths, faults and all.
I have one wish and one demand. My wish is that these principles I’m trying to instill in Ava cement themselves in her little soul somewhere. My demand is that when Ava inevitably comes running back home like the prodigal daughter, she does more than wave a banner. I expect fireworks and a hug.