My mother was far from perfect at raising my sister and me. But for all of the things she didn’t do right — for all the wounds and scars I bear — I know she tried.
We weren’t an ‘I love you’ family. There were no mushy words of encouragement and undiluted support. She never told me I was great, or even good, at anything. There were no congratulations for trying hard unless the grades were perfect. There was a lot of criticism, mockery, high standards, and comparison to other more perfect children that we would never be as good as.
At the time, it didn’t bother me because it was what I knew and it was all I knew. I would not know any different until I became older and developed a consciousness of how things happened in other homes.
When I began to realize that there were other ways, that some parents were softer, gentler, and that other ‘children’ (now adults) didn’t worry constantly about disappointing their parents, I took a good look at myself and started trying to figure out how I’d become ‘me’ and what I might want to do differently as a parent to my own children.
It’s not unique. It’s something that so many of us do – develop our own standards of parenting based on not doing what our own parents did, what we’re sure turned us into the screwed-up adult we’ve become. I did it, I do it, and I’ll probably never stop trying to ‘do better.’
So, do we know better now? Or will our generation, too, like so many before, also raise children who say ‘I won’t be like my mother’ and parent in direct opposition to everything we are doing right now, while they are young and forming?
Here I am now, in this today world, where we are drowning in different ways to do things ‘right,’ which, really, is just different ways to instil and bolster our anxiety about every little thing we are doing ‘wrong,’ effectively killing any trust we have in our own inherent parenting instincts.
For every move we make (every breath we take), there is a resource to tell us how we could have done it better, how what we did is like a little paper cut on our child’s tender psyche. If we let our children dictate their own diet, we are spoiling them. If we are too strict, we are stifling their individuality.
There are parenting experts, psychology experts, play experts, literacy experts, nutritionists, behavior specialists, development specialists, and so on. And, never mind the other moms we meet in online forums, schoolyards, and coffee shops whose kid slept through the night at 4 weeks, eats 5-10 serving of vegetables a day, and has never ever once talked back.
So, we are supported by countless experts, and we can find one to support whatever it is we want to believe. But, the catch to having all this expertise constantly accessible is that we no longer have faith in ourselves. This is particularly awful because, more often than not, the first opinion we face is one of sanctimonious judgment from other parents. Cue the self-doubt and the self-loathing for being a shitty parent.
Then, as we sit there feeling sorry for ourselves, we’re told (we tell ourselves) to buck up because this isn’t about us. We need to get over ourselves, check ourselves, to make sure we aren’t imparting our own messy baggage onto our children (as, of course, our parents’ baggage was thrust upon us). We spend our non-parenting hours wondering and web searching and chatting with others about whether we are breaking our children because of our own failures, because we yelled at them when we know we’re supposed to be swaddling them with love and rainbows.
Then we bear the burden of that failure and we lose sleep, and start the next day already exhausted and out of patience for the child who is complaining about the sandwich that you are packing them for lunch. Cue the arguing, yelling, crying, and subsequent apology, complete with hugs and kisses as we drop our little monkeys off at daycare and school for the day.
Then, we drive away, self-castigating for being a bad parent, get to work and post an ‘I messed up, please help’ question in a parenting group where we are actually just seeking validation from others that losing your shit is normal and okay. For good measure, though, we make an appointment with our therapist to untwist our own inner knots lest we unleash the best on our little ones again, then do a quick mindfulness exercise so we can carry on through our day without drowning in guilt.
It’s just all too much.
Related: Mom Guilt: 10 Ways to Deal With It
When I was growing up, my parents didn’t once ask me what I wanted to eat. They served dinner, and I ate it or I didn’t. They didn’t once apologize for yelling at me or chasing me around the house with a wooden spoon while screaming ‘I’m going to get you!” as I ran away, crying in fear, eventually wedging myself up against my bedroom doorknob so they couldn’t get in. (oh, how we laugh about it now!)
They had no qualms about using me as a messenger to relay their hateful messages back and forth during their divorce. They never once worried about how their behavior might affect me.
I am not saying that I long for the ‘good old days’ or that parenting was better then than it is now. I am absolutely and most definitely not saying that, and I have the emotional and psychological scars to prove it.
But, nor am I sure that the way we’re doing it today makes us better parents. As I go through this exhausting and exhilarating rigamarole of parenting every day, I’ve realized I don’t even know if I’m one of those born-to-be-a-mother mothers or if I’m just, quite ably, moving through it, as so many mothers do. It has made me realize that every mother, every parent, is part of the same story, that we’re all carrying on, trudging forward and swiping at vines, trying to do right by our kids, trying – at best – to raise incredible humans and – at worst – not to break them.
For some, it’s easy. For others, it’s not.
On those days when I’m convinced that there aren’t enough therapists in the world to untangle the knots from my upbringing, I remind myself of this, of the fact that my mother was just trying to get through the days, trying her best, and that I’m as blind as she was when she had young children. She made mistakes. I’m making mistakes.
I’m sure my children will be in therapy talking about me soon enough. I just hope they know how hard I try to be the best mother I know how to be.