I am often told that I’m a good mother. A great mother. An amazing mother. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to illustrate perspective. People who say this to me are usually people who only have a skin-deep acquaintance with me. Not that the people who know me intimately don’t think I’m a good mother, but they, of course, see my flaws and shortcomings in all their glory, and they understand what a struggle it is to strive to be a good parent and to often fall short of the mark. The compliments and kudos always make me somewhat uncomfortable, and I take them with a grain of salt. I often think that I get automatic bonus points in other people’s minds because of the mean feat of raising six kids and not completely cracking up (so far, anyway).
I don’t know if I’m a good mother. I know that before I had kids, I had very definite ideas of what kind of parent I would be (mostly what this consisted of was the vow to be Nothing Like My Own Parents) and, therefore, what kind of kids I would have – believing that the parenting shapes the kids. Which is true to an extent – certainly, particular types of parenting practices bring about certain responses and behaviors in kids. But kids come into the world prewired to a degree, and what I have found is that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting – not even within the same household.
For most of my life, well into childbearing, I was afraid to have a daughter. Seriously, my first two pregnancies, I knew they were boys. Just knew it in my bones. But there were those few moments of sudden uncertainty both times as I lay back on the table, anticipating the ultrasound wand that would determine my future (or so it felt), when a cold panic set in. What if it’s a girl? I didn’t want a girl. I was afraid to be a mother to a girl. The volatile and unhealthy relationship I shared with my own mother left me feeling completely incapable of having a healthy mother-daughter relationship – even if I was on the mother end of it rather than the daughter end.
And then I got pregnant with twins. And they both turned out to be girls! At the time, I was far more undone by the prospect of twins than of two girls. The idea of it grew on me – both the twins part and the girl part – and I was truly excited, finally, to be given the gift of daughters.
As it turns out, though, these two daughters of mine have turned out to be more challenging than any of my other kids. Daisy with her high emotions, and Annabelle with her strong-willedness (is that a word?). I often feel completely drained parenting these two, and very ill-equipped. And out of the two of them, my relationship with Annabelle breaks my heart the most. She and I spend so much time at odds with each other. Did I mention she’s strong-willed? She is a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum. She is a non-conformist. She doesn’t like rules. She doesn’t like “work.” She’s my good-time girl. And I have to be the heavy with her, the hard-ass. And she resents it, and we go around in circles so much of the time.
Recently at dinner, we were all joking around, and Michael asked Annabelle, “How would it be if you were in charge of the world?” Her response included the expected “lots of ice cream, no school, and no homework.” And then she said, “And no mommies.”
Wow. I’ll admit it – it hurt. I didn’t take the bait, though, I just let her have her fantasy. A world without mommies.
I know, I know. She’s six. She has no idea what she’s talking about. And I know she doesn’t really want “no mommies.” But it said something to me about what kind of mother I am to her. Yes, she’s challenging – very, very challenging – but I know I’m not doing the best job with her.
Sometimes I do something as a parent that makes me feel really, really good. I’ll handle a tricky situation well, or I’ll have a meaningful dialogue with one of my kids, or I’ll stay calm in the face of utter chaos. Other times, I do things as a parent that leave me feeling ashamed and regretful. This usually involves losing my temper and yelling, or displaying a general shortness of patience.
I think whether I’m a good mother varies from week to week, day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour.
But really, who makes the final judgment about what kind of mother I am? I have come to the conclusion that only my kids can rightly judge this – and only when they’re all grown up themselves. It doesn’t matter if my neighbor thinks I’m a good mother, or my friends, or the people who read my blog, or my husband, or even myself.
I have a friend who tells me the story of how when he was a kid, his dad told him that what he wanted for Father’s Day was a “World’s Greatest Dad” charm. As if wearing a charm that announced him as the World’s Greatest Dad would actually make him the World’s Greatest Dad. But I know my friend carries around wounds and anger left over from his childhood – so which says more, the charm or the wounds?
My own mother, I think, believes she was a good enough mother. Or at least, she certainly believes she’s excused by her circumstances for not being a better parent. And yet, I carry around scars and baggage from my childhood that no amount of therapy will dispel. So how much stock can really be put into her evaluation of her mothering?
And people can tell me I’m a good mother, a great mother, an amazing mother all the live long day. But if my kids grow up and are left wounded in some way that can be attributed to how they were parented, then none of those accolades mean much, do they?