A(n) Unfit Mother’s Take on Parenting

The October that Adrienne was ten months old, I pulled into a gas station with her asleep in her car seat. I filled the car…she didn’t wake. Rather than wake her, I locked the car doors and went inside to pay. I was parked at the pump nearest the building – when I was at the checkout counter, I was about ten feet from my car, able to see Adri through the glass door, keys in my hand. I laid my $20 bill on the counter, turned to go, and a woman burst through the door, shoving me aside.

She looked like she’d had a hard life. She had grizzled shoulder-length grey hair, and one of her front teeth was missing. At the top of her voice, she yelled, THERE IS A BABY ALONE IN THE CAR OUT THERE! WHOSE BABY IS THAT!?

Mine, I said, hand on the door.

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, LEAVING A BABY ALONE LIKE THAT? YOU ARE A UNFIT MOTHER!

I said something like, “She’s fine. And what you’re actually doing right now is keeping me from her,” and walked out the door.

“YOU ARE A UNFIT MOTHER,” she yelled again, at my retreating back.

This is when I knew that mom-shaming is really a thing. It was funny, but it also left me shaken. It was suddenly clear that just about anyone would feel free to judge my choices, and that as a mother, I was going to be held to a standard different than Anthony. (I doubt the same woman would have yelled at him this way.)

There are many similar experiences (don’t get me started on the time I forgot it was picture night at dance), but they all point to the same thing: parenting in the current culture means knowing that every decision can open you up to judgment.

Why? Why are we so into judgment and shame right now?

Because we’re scared. People who are comfortable with their own choices don’t need to judge the choices of others. In 1979, the mom next door didn’t give a shit what you were doing with your kids; she’d just made hers go outside and was about to light up a Virginia Slim and watch General Hospital.

But now none of us can be truly at ease with our choices – the world feels different, like the stakes are so high we can’t afford to be wrong. These high stakes, along with cultural pressure and the constant threat of judgment, drive us toward overparenting. We know this new intensive, competitive parenting isn’t good for us, and robs our kids of self-reliance and resilience. Still we can’t seem to stop.

This impacts every aspect of our kids’ lives, in school and out. It’s no secret that many of our kids are overscheduled. But in addition to doing more, the doing feels different. A generation or two ago, a kid who spent twenty hours a week at a single non-school activity was a rare bird – a musical prodigy, an ice skater with Olympic dreams. That’s not so unusual now; every activity seems to come with pressure attached to achieve, perform. Now you have to be an elite dancer, you have to be a gymnast or a martial artist or first chair – you can’t just be a kid who takes dance or tumbling or karate or noodles around on the oboe.

Don’t get me wrong, I think extracurriculars have great value. Setting and going after goals, working as a team, developing resilience in the face of failure, are all skills critical to adulthood that kids can develop through athletics and the arts. But once they became tied to the college application, some of these lessons were lost in service to achievement and performance. Activities ceased being ‘extras’ – and too often ceased being fun. Now we stack up our kids’ activities like gold bars, bring them out for those college applications as proof that a child excels in all areas, is ‘well-rounded.’ When in fact, the relentless pressure to achieve is creating kids that are the opposite of that.

Competitive parenting shows up in our bank accounts, too. This recent article in The Atlantic explores why so many people who have middle-class incomes are secretly in financial distress, to the point of being unable to come up with $400 in an emergency: because we spend to the brink for the kids’ education (most often paid for by where we buy our homes). It’s our kids’ shot at life. We judge, we overparent, we overschedule, all for the same reason we overspend: because “in a deeply unequal society, the gains to be made by being among the elite are enormous, and the consequences of not being among them are dire.”

Frankly, I was glad to know we’re not all just spendthrift assholes. I mean, aren’t you relieved? High five! Thanks, Atlantic!

But this is still the environment we have to parent in. How do we gain perspective, walk it back to something just a little more sensible in the short time we have to parent our children?

This pressure to be the perfect parent, to overextend yourself in every way possible in service to your children, is so pervasive that it’s hard to see outside it, hard to get any distance – like a fish can’t see the water. But over time, I’m learning to recognize signs of overparenting in myself, and sometimes, to catch them in time to change course:

Resentment. If I feel resentful, angry, or taken for granted, it’s a sure sign I’m either not communicating with my parenting partner, or I’m overdoing it on Adri’s behalf (usually on stuff she never even asked for). Most likely both. And that’s the point at which I need to back off what I’m driving myself to do for others, ask myself what I need, and try to give it. Martyrdom only serves the martyr; it doesn’t serve our kids. Nobody wants to be the person their parent “sacrificed everything” for. Don’t ask me how I know.

Invisibility. Our positions on the sidelines, as permanent cheerleaders, maids and chauffeurs for our kids, do a double disservice. First to our own lives, as we give up many of the things that make us whole. And also for our children. Everything I do models for my daughter how it is to be an adult woman – and not just the stuff I want her to see. I hope to show her that, while it means being there for your people, it sometimes also means they are there for you – that you too are seen, recognized and appreciated, and sometimes even take center stage.

Here’s what I know for sure. The things Anthony and I do, the limits we set that save our sanity and make everyday life worth living, are also the things most likely to make Adri a balanced, functioning human that others can stand to be around. That was true in early childhood (yes you must go to bed; no you do not get a present when it’s someone else’s birthday), it’s true now (sometimes mom and dad do stuff that doesn’t include you; it’s what grownups do), and I expect it to hold true in the future (our retirement account takes precedence over your college fund; you can thank us later). That knowledge is my life-ring in the sea of pressure and judgment – even if I sometimes lose my grip.

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