When I started this blog last fall, I was ready to write about the many vivid experiences I’ve had over the past few years as a way of sharing and offering hope to others who may face similar challenges. At the time, I said flat-out that this is not an advice column.
Certainly you will not get parenting advice from me. First of all, I am dancing as fast as I can with my one daughter and soon-to-be stepson. So I am supremely unqualified; I’m sure you know more than I do. And frankly, I loathe the whole “mommy lit” genre and think most of it: a) is written to allay the fears of the writer or enter the writer in the aforementioned female pissing contest (see last blog); and b) makes no sense, since what works for one kid, more often than not, won’t for another. Like I said before, there is no cookie cutter way to parent. Because kids ain’t cookies.
But after my last post, I feel like I need to do a little bit of cheerleading to the moms (and sometimes dads) out there. The good news is, I got enough feedback to believe I didn’t make all this stuff up about our generation being a little too obsessional/worried about the way we parent. The unfortunate news is, if it is true that maybe we’re overthinking it, well, that’s probably not a good thing for us.
So, for those of you suffering from parent angst, I’d like to take a moment to be your cheerleader. I know you’re doing a better job than you give yourself credit for. Really. If you don’t believe me, because I may not be there to see it, OK, that’s fair. So go ask your husband (or wife). And then really listen to his (her) answer. Ask your best friend. And then listen to her answer. Would they lie to you? No! If you’re still feeling unsure, ask for specifics. Then listen. Repeat as necessary.
Here’s one little thing I do that helps me–and maybe it is sort of advice (but it’s not really parenting advice). When you have a less-than-stellar parenting day, where you wish there was a “replay” button, call it a Bad Mommy Moment™ (or Bad Daddy Moment™, or come up with your own term that works for you). My Bad Mommy Moments™ (BMM) help me deal with my imperfect actions and move on. After I’ve christened it a de facto BMM, I usually either: a) vent to spouse and seek reassurance that I’m not evil; or b) apologize to child; or, if needed, c) both. I acknowledge my sub-par performance, take action to rectify, take a deep breath to clear my head, and then I move on. There. Because it is a moment. I do not live in that bad mommy place, because I am not evil or usually a bad mommy. I had a bad moment. (As in moment in time–because one snappish evening is really a moment in time, in the grand scheme of things.)
More than anyone, my second-grade daughter has taught me that perfectionism is more curse than attribute. I’ve seen first-hand how her perfectionism has frustrated her and held her back. With the help of some fantastic teachers, though, she is now able to fully immerse herself in activities like art, reading and writing instead of stopping dead in her tracks at the first sign of a mistake. Though she is a natural student with an innately curious mind, E’s perfectionist streak is her biggest learning challenge.
Finally, when you have a “Good Mommy Moment™” (GMM), acknowledge that. Maybe just to yourself if you don’t want to seem like you’re bragging. But take a moment to feel good about yourself and the fun day you just shared with your kids. I am willing to bet there are far more of those than the bad ones.
To my mind, Tiger Mom author and Yale academician Amy Chua is a genius–in much the the same way Madonna is. Her double whammy book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” are quickly becoming runaway best-seller material. Kudos to Chua for deftly tapping into two of American society‘s most vulnerable trigger points right now: the “How can we stop America from falling behind?” and the “How do I measure up as a mom?” nerves. I’m going to address the latter here; I doubt I have anything enlightening to say about the former.
Make no mistake: My parenting style bears absolutely no resemblance to Ms. Chua’s, nor would I want it to. I disagree with most of her points, except the part about how sometimes you have to nudge your children in their pursuits–be they academic or extracurricular activities–to get them to reach a level of self-satisfaction and, eventually, mastery. I’ve seen this first-hand with my daughter in her study of karate. It wasn’t until she reached orange belt this past December that she started to really look forward to attending class. Still many years away, the vision of receiving her black belt seems tangible to her now. So I will keep pushing her to achieve that goal.
I don’t object to Chua’s ideas even though I may disagree with many of them. What troubles me more than her controversial parenting techniques is our reaction to them. The Tiger Mom is the most current popular culture example of our collective obsession with being the “perfect mom.” This pursuit has become competitive sport to some, elevating motherhood to the female equivalent of a pissing contest. And this, in my view, is not only misguided, it’s damaging on both a personal and communal level.
I first came to abhor this obsession with perfection when my daughter was a baby. Then, there was much talk–and misguided criticism–directed at Brooke Shields, who wrote a courageous book about postpartum depression, Down Came The Rain. The book hit home for me, as I suffered from several months of postpartum anxiety; a talented therapist worked me through it without the use of drugs, though in retrospect it may have resolved sooner had I medicated. At the time, I was dumbfounded by the hoopla this book received–it is estimated that one-third of all women experience some form of postpartum issues, be they “baby blues” or all-out depression–and that this percentage is likely low because many women are ashamed to admit anything but joy after giving birth. When I told my friends and family what I feared was happening to me, I was shocked to learn that two of my closest friends had similar experiences. They didn’t tell me, they said, because they didn’t want to admit it. It felt like defeat.
This again leads me to the conclusion that we are striving for an impossible standard: perfection. I’m not sure where we got this messaging, but it makes no sense to me. As if motherhood weren’t hard enough, do we need to make it harder on ourselves? In a word, no. No, we don’t. And we shouldn’t.
But for some reason, my generation of parents seems to be über aware of how we parent. We seem to revel in being “on” 24/7 for our kids. This is why we’ve been dubbed “helicopter parents.” My friends and I joke about how different parents today are versus when we were kids, basically left to our own devices for hours at a time, parents having only a vague notion of where we were. (“I’m going to the park.” From upstairs, “OK, be home before dinner.”) Parents today don’t let their kids walk to school alone before middle school. We pre-screen films (I know some who will watch a whole film before letting their kids see it.) Meanwhile, back in the fast-and-loose 1970s, I vividly recall my dad taking my brother and me to Animal House when I was eight! I’ll cut him some slack for this one; he mistakenly thought it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “This movie is a classic!” He said as we entered the theater. Ha! But why he took us to The Shining a year later, I have no idea. Thirty years later I still shudder, able to vividly recall the scene with the twin girls in the elevator. I still cannot watch horror films.
When I was new to motherhood, I recall the advice my father’s first cousin, Richard, an uncle figure to me, gave me. He said, “Don’t try so hard to be good all the time. Just be good enough.” (said slowly with emphasis. He is a theater director so he knows how to deliver a line.) You know in “The Graduate” when one of Ben’s father’s friends advises him that the future is all about “plastics”? But Ben, though now an adult, doesn’t live in his parents’ world of security and conventionality. He is experiencing a generational disconnect–this advice makes no sense to him at all. When Richard told me to strive for “good enough,” I couldn’t connect it, either. Shouldn’t I try to be the best?
But unlike “plastics,” I get Richard’s point now. And it’s a good one.
Let me ask you: Do you love your kids? Do you show them and tell them? Do you try to teach them right from wrong, how to work hard and achieve goals, how to be a good future citizen of the world, how to be a good friend, how to deal with disappointment? Are you there to celebrate their victories and listen to their sorrows? OK. So, some more questions: Do you make mistakes? Do you sometimes yell or act impatiently with them? Do you have trouble knowing what to say or do, and sometimes say the wrong thing? Do you worry about your children too much? Yeah. Me, too. Nobody’s perfect–not even moms! Many people seem to accept their imperfections with the rest of their lives, but don’t cut themselves enough slack when it comes to their parenting.
I’m not trying to be an apologist for mediocre parenting here. I think it’s good to be the best you can be and keep working on getting better. My strategy for continuous improvement involves keeping an open mind and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, leaning into the strengths and working on the weaknesses. My natural tendency, for example, is to be nurturing, empathetic and fun; I didn’t come into this role as a terribly good disciplinarian. Acknowledging what you lack and then working on these skills is half the battle. But just like the rest of your life, effective parenting is always a work-in-progress. There is no cookie cutter approach to it.
So no, I will never be a Tiger Mom. Or a perfect mom. I’m happy with being “good enough” now. Because in calm moments, I like to take a deep breath and think about what my daughter will be like when she grows up. I know that one day she’ll look back and think that I was good enough for her. And that’s the standard I hope to live up to.
I ran into a friend at the supermarket yesterday. We first met when our daughters went to pre-school together several years back. Then, I didn’t know her all that well, though I always liked her; last year, we reconnected as Facebook friends. We bonded because her son was going through a serious heath problem at the same time my daughter, E, was. His condition has vastly improved, luckily, as has E’s. Unfortunately, now her husband is grappling with a health crisis, meaning that this is her second year as caregiver, chief worrier, and schlepper to and from the hospital, her unwitting home away from home.
I noticed her latest post mentioned that she was back from the hospital, but I guess I haven’t kept up with his progress as I should have; last I heard he seemed to be making great strides. But when I saw her and inquired, immediately I could see the heartbreak. Things, it seemed, were not good right now. I felt guilty I hadn’t kept up, didn’t know what to say. What can you say? Thoughts like, Clearly, life is not fair! Why should you have to go through this again? God, I hope this gets better for you soon! What can I do? crowded my thought bubble, but we were at different checkout counters and it was just before 3pm, meaning school would be out soon. I hoped my expression conveyed the empathy and sorrow I was feeling for her, and vowed to reach out after in an e-mail to follow up.
When I was little, maybe five or six, my dad bought me one of those Hallmark porcelain figurines. It was a little girl standing holding a daisy, wearing a sweet sundress, big doe eyes and close-lipped, shy smile. There may or may not have been a cat at her feet–I can’t recall. (My memory says cat, but it is not to be fully trusted.) Underneath it read, “When You Love Someone, Tell Them.” For years, I looked to that statuette, with its moralistic slogan, for comfort and counsel. I still think of it today.
Last year, I learned first-hand that the comfort of family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues can lift you up in times of distress, uncertainty, and sorrow. It might seem trite to leave a comment on Facebook, or to say words like, “If there’s anything I can do” in a supermarket aisle, but it’s not. Even in our darkest days, when E’s health was in peril, I always knew we were supported. Friends telling me I was brave, when I didn’t feel it at all, helped give me the courage to go on and face another difficult day. Sometimes not saying anything at all, but just listening, allowing me to vent, offering a knowing look or a hug, writing a little “thinking of you both” on my FB wall, lifted my spirits so I could then lift E’s. It made a difference.
If I can offer any advice at all, I would pass along what my little porcelain figurine taught me: When you love someone, tell them. Tell them especially when they need you most. Tell them in little ways, even if you think you’re saying what everyone else is saying. You don’t have to use the word “love” if that’s not right–just showing you care, that you’re thinking of them is meaningful. Even if you think they’re overwhelmed by all the attention they’re getting, it will make a difference. I promise you.