Here’s the thing: I have a sinking suspicion I’m not that great of a mom.
I’m not saying I’m the worst parent out there. I work in the mental health field and have been exposed to enough legit sh*tty parents to know I’m nowhere near as bad as it gets. And I can already hear the chorus of those who know me (or my children) rising to contradict and reassure—but you can all save your breath.
I know the truth.
At a back-to-school event many years ago, I scanned the walls of my seven-year-old’s classroom, hunting for examples of his work. I’d like to say I wanted nothing more than to delight in his budding artistry, his youthful attempts at writing, the breathtaking cuteness of it all. But that wouldn’t be true (and I suspect isn’t true for a lot of parents). I mean, who isn’t making comparisons to little Max’s perfectly rendered jack-o’-lantern, or little Susie’s ridiculously legible handwriting?
Eventually, I came across a display where the children had been prompted to highlight some of the attributes and qualities they’d acquired from their parents.
I found my son’s offering, and with a sense of foreboding read the first sentence prompt: From my dad I’ve learned Algebra.
Now, my son’s father is a math teacher, and it’s likely that the two of them were already engaging in simple algebraic equations such as, if x + 1 = 2, what is the value of x? Nothin’ wrong with that; algebra is a wonderful thing for a seven-year-old to be learning. How advanced!
The second prompt read: From my mom I’ve learned…how to eat ice cream.
Um, ice cream?!? I don’t even like ice- cream!
When I told my friends and family about it, they tried to reassure me by pointing out the joys of ice cream, some even going to far as to suggest that the ice cream was meant as a metaphor for the sweetness of life. Nonsense. My seven-year-old may be able to do simple algebra, but he definitely wasn’t manufacturing complex philosophical metaphors for his parents’ benefit.
Around the same time, my ex and I were engaged in therapy in an effort to co-parent more effectively (which was, I’m sorry to admit, a euphemism for less antagonistically). When I expressed the belief that my ex didn’t think I was a good parent, the therapist asked him if that were true. After a pause, he replied, “I believe Allison does the best that she can.”
When clients express powerful emotions—especially painful ones—I’ll sometimes ask, “Is this a new feeling or an old feeling?” Meaning, “Are you experiencing this feeling for the first time, or is this feeling a familiar refrain in your emotional repertoire?”
(Spoiler alert—nearly all painful feelings are old feelings.)
In my case, the feeling of not having anything of value to offer is definitely an old one. Back in high school, when I suffered from chronic insomnia and possibly some undiagnosed ADD, I had plenty of friends but did poorly in school. My brother, on the other hand, was an academic wunderkind. While I was retaking algebra 2 at the local community college, he was taking college-level French courses and competing for valedictorian. I was into “General Hospital,” Little Debbie Cakes, and Stephen King novels. My brother mastered the piano, composed music, and ran his own neighborhood lawn-mowing business.
When I complained to my mom about how much more successful my brother was at all the things that mattered, she would say, “But honey, success isn’t all about grades! You light up a room!”
I know she was being kind (and even truthful: folks did tend to enjoy my company), but who cares about being liked? Liked doesn’t get you into Mount Holyoke. Liked doesn’t pay the bills. Liked doesn’t come with accolades or rewards.
And that’s how I feel about myself as a parent.
What feels old (and painful, and shameful) is the idea that I have nothing of real value to offer my kids. Yes, I keep them alive and make sure they have food and clothing and shelter—but you and I both know that’s all bottom-of-Maslow’s-hierarchy-type stuff. In what ways am I inspiring them? What am I teaching them, other than how to tidy up the house, or floss their teeth? What wisdom am I imparting beyond when to throw out the milk and how often to get a haircut?
In a culture obsessed with the bottom line and measurable outcomes, is there room for folks whose main claim to fame is lighting up a room? Is there room for folks who are doing the best that they can?
I understand that I’ve been helped along in this negative view of myself by a disparaging (former) partner and the constant social media barrage of academically enriched and well-adjusted families. I know being divorced from my son’s father heightens the emotional stakes on my individual parenting skills. And maybe I was simply born in the wrong decade. If I were a mom in the 1950s, I’m pretty sure I’d be killing it.
Still. Shouldn’t I be playing with them more? Or feeling more interested in the things they’re interested in? Shouldn’t I be more willing to play soccer in the basement, or get on the Xbox, or learn the intricacies of Magic the Gathering? Shouldn’t I be a little less excited about an evening to myself?
My precious boys are 13 and 16, people, and I’m running out of time.
I know this is the part where I’m supposed to say f*ck it to society’s expectations and inspire others to parent their children on their own terms. I had a therapist years ago who introduced me to the idea of a good enough parent. As in, what if I let myself off the hook in terms of being the perfect parent, and allowed myself to simply be good enough? While I desperately want to relax into that notion (or tell society to stick its unrealistic expectations up its you-know-what) it always ends up feeling like a cop-out.
That being said, there are days when I’m able to get my mindfulness bearings, pan out, and remember that there’s always more than one thing going on.
Am I down on the floor building Legos? No. Am I meeting with my son’s teachers and advocating with regard to his ADHD diagnosis? Yes.
Am I up for a bike ride to the abandoned warehouse? Doubtful. Do I make sure my kids have dynamic summers packed with great trips and fun camps? You betcha.
Am I bouncing on the trampolines at Sky Zone? I am not. (To be honest, at age 49 bouncing makes me pee myself a little bit.) But I’ll spend an hour on a Saturday morning stenciling a science fair title onto a display board, no questions asked.
I don’t have to dismiss the notion that there are ways in which I could be stepping it up in order to allow space for the ways in which I’m flourishing. I can hold both.
Parenting is fraught. Throw divorce, old insecurities, and a few ill-conceived school projects into the mix and the results can be agonizing. Earlier, I wrote I know the truth, but the truth isn’t always (is rarely, actually) about a single data point. To the other parents out there who may sometimes wonder whether they’re good enough, try surveying the bigger picture for additional data points to consider. A wider lens won’t make the ugly stuff disappear, but it might help it fade into the background a little bit.
And on the days when that doesn’t work, know you’re not alone.