Over the past few days, I’ve had three close friends tell me something I never expected to hear. According to them, I am living the dream.
I’m a mom, with a seemingly stable relationship. That’s what they’re dreaming of.
It may not surprise you that I think they’re living the dream. They’re focusing on their careers and interests, traveling whenever and wherever they can, and just basically able to do things like go food shopping without stressing over the possibility othat another human being in their care is going to have a meltdown because the wheelie basket he’s pushing isn’t taking corners well.
It’s not that I started thinking this way when I became a mom; I’ve always thought this way. Lots of people say that kids are your legacy, that being a parent is the most important thing you can do, but — really? Like what about people who’ve developed vaccines and saved millions or even billions of us? What about artists whose works go on to inspire and move humanity every day?
Meryl Streep is a mom, but does that matter to you more than her acting career? Leonardi da Vinci didn’t have kids, but does that make his masterpieces any less important?
Growing up, other girls wanted a family and children. They played house and liked to babysit. I loved my fairytale character paper dolls and preferred to dress up our (unwilling) cats in bonnets than babysit. Instead of having babies, I dreamt that I’d one day be a famous published author, accomplished good witch, marine biologist, and/or mermaid.
When my son was born, my mom told me, “I’m glad you have a boy. You were so good with your brother when he was little.” I was moved, but as time goes on, I realize more every day, every moment, that hanging out and sharing things and watching over and bonding with your kid brother (who remains one of your favorite people in the world to this day) may have its challenging or tiring moments, but it is NOTHING compared to being an actual parent. I didn’t have to change my brother’s diapers, or wake up with him in the middle of the night, or — worst of all — potty train him.
Ugh. Fucking potty training.
When I told my friends all this, reminded them that from the minute you get pregnant, you’ll never be free again, not really, they laughed. “You should have some wine!” one gamely suggested. No, no, wine doesn’t do it for me. And I need to be a functioning adult around my son. Chocolate is my poison…and just about anything edible that will numb the stress. I used to blame the 10–20 pounds (I am afraid to actually weigh myself) that I accumulated after giving birth and that I can’t shake, to a slowed metabolism or hormonal imbalance, but really, it’s just eating my feelings. I keep telling myself it’s a better choice than the alternative. I have a mom friend who is absolutely stunning, with a flawless figure. She must meditate! No, she smokes, like, two packs of cigarettes a day. We are concerned.
It’s not that parenting is all bad. I love my son, and we have had some amazing moments together — in fact, we have special moments and shared laughs, and, in recent months, even an appreciation for each other’s sense of humor — every day. And there are personal challenges I’ve overcome because of being a mom. In many ways, I’m stronger, IDGAF-ier, and braver, because of parenthood.
But, to borrow a Dickens-like turn of phrase (fun fact: Dickens had a ton of kids, but does that mean more to general humanity than A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations?), parenting has made me the best version of myself and the worst version of myself.
Most people who’ve known me for a long time will say I can be a pushover. I once had a friend tell me that if I ever yelled at or even said something unkind to someone, it would be so powerful, since those are things I never do. It’s not that I never thought bad things; I just had the restraint, the inner calm, I suppose, to hold back. I used to be a bit vain about my patience, in fact. I considered Jane Austen (no kids — doesn’t matter, she fucking wrote some of the most amazing, real characters in literature and was witty and had a great imagination) my spiritual teacher. Forbearance and wit were among the social qualities I most valued in myself.
And now, cut to just about any given day — I regularly Hulk out. My yelling even scares my husband sometimes. I see him and my son cower and I feel horrible. And yet…look...tonight, for example, after repeatedly being told not to, my son threw a toy car, which broke, which then led him to throw a tantrum, culminating in forgetting his newly found discipline regarding the potty, and peeing all over the floor, including on said toy car. How could I not yell?
Would Jane Austen have yelled? Tough call. If she were watching someone’s kid, I feel like she might have simply been horrified or even made a joke — or probably just called a nanny or wet nurse to come help. But if it was her own child, and he was three years old, and she had been alone with him for hours and there was no nanny or wet nurse, then…maybe? No, no, I don’t think she would have.
I feel terrible for yelling. I talked about it with a child psychologist at the children’s health center we go to. It wasn’t a planned thing; it just came up. This lady, who dresses like a sort of chic Parisian Stevie Nicks, simply shrugged and told me, “That’s just how you are. When you are finished yelling and things are calm, explain to your son, ‘I am sorry I yelled but — tant pis — what are you going to do? This is how I am, and it is not the best thing maybe but I love you and it will be okay.’”
That was the most soothing thing I’ve heard in at least a year and a half.
And I guess there is some logic to it. I grew up surrounded by loud Italian-American families (including my own), where words were not always minced and volume was not controlled. On the other side of my family, an uncle I adore who is usually super low-key, used to startle me as a child when he’d suddenly bust out and exasperatedly roar at his kids when they did something wrong (I would never have imagined that I’d follow in his footsteps). And yet, no one I know seems damaged or traumatized by parents who yelled at them.
I’m not talking about being verbally abusive, of course, and I worry that sometimes there is that fine line you can cross. I work hard not to tell my son things like, “Stop being an idiot” but rather, “Stop acting foolish”, or at the very least, “Stop acting like an idiot.” I hope this is all right. I mean, we do regularly praise him for being a smart boy (which he is), and generally fawn over him. But I don’t know, and sometimes that makes my stomach turn.
My own dad used to condescendingly say, “You’re a smart boy/girl…” and then, with controlled fury, ask why we would have done the thing we just did. I get it now, and I admire his restraint. I think he must have read or heard about this technique somewhere and it was his own way to avoid saying something even worse.
So, all this to say, parenting has made me a monster.
But in other moments, it’s also transformed me into a secular Virgin Mary. There I am, every day before naptime and bedtime, cradling my son and softly singing to him as he hugs me. There I am, happily chatting with him as we walk around outside. There I am, so excited about taking him to New York and showing him the dinosaurs and the blue whale at the Museum of Natural history. There I am, doing voices for his toys, telling him about the Mona Lisa, marveling wistfully about how much he’s grown up, savoring an impromptu hug, laughing with him in delight when we see a really cool truck.
That’s the mom I wish I could be all the time. I know it’s impossible for most human beings to be a perfect parent all the time. But still, I wish it.
No one says being a parent is easy — no, scratch that, some people do. They also often say that having two kids or three is the same as having one. I don’t believe them for a second.
For whatever reason — and I think there are many: appearances, tradition, helplessness, survival of the species/family, doggedness, and pure love — so many people make parenting sound totally, flawlessly awesome. For them, and for those who’ve listened to them, it’s clearly every human being’s ultimate goal.
It doesn’t have to be.