Dire consequences and desperate measures

A discussion last weekend at the playground with a creative, lovely, and wicked smart lady yielded the following observation: we’re all desperate to protect and justify our choices. After reading Peggy Orenstein’s Flux and The Atlantic Monthly’s article “The Case Against Breast-feeding,” the glaring truth to me is not that one side of each debate is right or that each side despises the other’s choices, but that we each have a lot at stake in making sure our decisions were at least good, if not the best.

Breast or bottle, nighttime parenting or cry-it-out, stay at home or work and daycare—we all have the same secret fears that the choice we are making is costing us more than it should. Hanna Rosin’s “The Case Against Breastfeeding” really isn’t a case against breastfeeding. It’s a case against the all-or-nothing mentality that has parents segregating into those who chose wisely and those who are ruining their children. And the root of our belief in our own choices and our disdain for any different points of view is the hope that we’re doing what’s best for our families. And if we’ve chosen incorrectly, we risk not only breaking our children, but also having lost all the effort we poured into our choice. Rosin is not arguing that women should not breastfeed. After nursing three children, she’s simply wondering why she felt that was the only choice, why the pedants on each side of the debate swear the others have lost their minds (or feminism or chance at a healthy child). Why the black-and-white thinking? Because we’ve all gone through a lot (a lot a lot a lot) of trouble to do what we’re doing, so it had better be right.

I postponed (at least0 or gave up (at worst) two outstanding careers, one potential career, and a path toward a PhD to stay at home with my son because I thought, given my endless research that confirmed nothing except that I’d eventually have to make a choice, that staying home was most likely to give him what he needed to grow into a delightfully useful member of society. If I’m wrong, and I should have focused more of my daylight hours on myself and my career, then maybe I’ve wasted these years and he will blame his miseries and failures on me. Or, even worse, I will be an empty shell of a person, having subjugated my only self for a person who becomes a serial killer and about whom the history books will only write that I ruined his life and sense of what the world should be and that he stabbed his neighbors.

Conversely, the women I know who work outside the home, who decided that they needed to create a family in which each person’s work is vital, in which attentive, loving care can come from a paid helper as long as it’s consistent and supportive (they hope) made their decision to give their children what they needed to grow into a delightfully useful members of society. If they are wrong, and they should have focused more of their daylight hours on their children, then maybe they’ve missed the most important years, and their children will blame their miseries and failures on parents who worked their children into the margins of their lives. Or, even worse, these parents will be bitter, unfulfilled shells of people, having chosen empty pursuits and subjugated their children’s needs, resulting in a generation who become a serial killers and about whom the history books will only write that their mothers ruined their lives and sense of what the world should be. And that they stabbed their neighbors.

Wait a minute, that’s exactly the same outcome as the other moms! We’re all screwed!

Or we’ll all just fine.

But nobody is going around saying, “I hope I made the right decision so that my children don’t stab their neighbors.” (At least in my neighborhood. But I lead a sheltered life. Maybe your neighbors say it. Maybe about your kids. Wait, which choices did you make? Quick, tell me, so I can judge you.) Instead, we secretly hope that we made the right decision, missing a large chunk of our children’s or our adult selves, counting each mistake, tallying each proud and loving moment, and hoping it’s all enough.

Ah crap, I didn’t nurse long enough. My child will be obese, stupid, and chronically ill.
Ah, crap, I nursed at the exclusion of my own sanity. My every waking moment has been for someone who really didn’t get that much from it.

Ah, crap, I let my child cry it out and now she’ll have insomnia and a sense of abandonment as an adult.
Ah, crap, I lost years of sleep attending to my child at night and now they’ll get to college and cry for me in the dorm every night.

And so on, ad nauseum.

Because if we made the wrong decision, we’ve screwed not only ourselves, but our children, as well.

So we disdain the people who make decisions different than our own, and align ourselves with likeminded people because we need to know that others feel our pain and share our justifications; because, deep down, we suspect it might be okay no matter what we do. And all things being equal, we might like a do-over. Or a medal. Or both.

Parenting ambivalence

One of my friends expressed great distress at a discussion the other day, wherein many moms detailed their children’s latest adorable moments, and I asked if we could please, please talk about something other than children. Had anybody read a good book or seen a good movie or disagreed with a politician’s stance on something? I got a few muted shrugs and one dirty look. (Yes, I need new friends. We’re moving. I’ll fix that part of my isolation soon enough.)

I’m often the mom at parties and in email volleys who brings up The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushart; who warns young couples talking excitedly about becoming parents that they are in for the best and the absolute worst time of their lives. Nobody seems to appreciate the warnings, or the realism, or the honesty. Well, they can go jump off a Hallmark-stacked bridge because the smarmy, simpering, rose-colored glasses crap does not help make you a better parent.

Here’s the thing: the parenting gig can be amazing. I love running, and I have never had more fun running, never felt so completely tickled with head-to-foot silly happiness than when Peanut and I are playing chase. I have never particularly liked the beach (or, more specifically, getting dirty and sandy and salty and seaweedy at the beach), but experienced top-ten delirious HOURS of joy one morning with Peanut and Spouse, running and splashing and wandering the tidepools. I have never felt more moments of pure, warm bliss than I do sprinkled throughout every week with my little family. And I genuinely relish them, bask in them, luxuriate in them. I process every nanosecond of joy with the small person and the large person, because those moments feed me. They have to. The rest of the week is a big bunch of physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting bull puckey. (Hi, grandpa. I miss you.)

Because as intense as the radiant joy can be, I have also never been more frustrated in my life than I am every single day. I’ve never been more angry at a small person than I am each time I gently, calmly, supportively offer two options for the eighth or ninth time. [Time number ten and your head will be forcibly removed, my little friend, so f*#&@g choose.] I have never wanted so badly to hurt a person as I have when Peanut willfully ignores a reasonable request or when Spouse sleeps through Peanut being particularly trying. They both need a good shaking. (I will never, never think it’s okay to strike a child, but I think it’s really very much okay to fantasize about it. If sex experts say it’s healthy to pictures others while with your monogamous partner, parenting experts must think it’s okay to picture throwing screaming your kid against the wall while you try to comfort her.) I never had to give myself timeouts in my professional jobs. I took a deep breath and reasoned with whomever was wrong. But there are often times now that my reaction needs to be managed, and it’s easier to just leave the room and announce that mommy’s in timeout because she needs to think and breathe. “I have to go…or I’ll beat the crap out of you,” I think as I press myself into a tiny corner.

I have never wanted so badly to just do some freaking dishes in peace. I don’t even dream of reading or write or having a job where colleagues respect my contributions. I crave just performing some mindless, productive, useful physical labor. It scares me how low my expectations have become. I find Zen moments of meditative stillness and presence in prepping green beans for the steamer, if there is a safe and self-entertained Peanut in another room.

So ambivalence dominates my parenting. That doesn’t, oh lady who wants to tell me everything about her kid’s funny snot and poop stories, and is horrified to hear that I’m all cute-kid storied out, make me a bad parent. I have given over every moment of my day, every drop of my energy for two years to helping Peanut become a good, decent, responsible, useful member of society. (It hasn’t worked yet, at least not the useful part, but I’m willing to brave the long-term gratification gamble to hope one day the President will call with a Supreme Court nomination. Or that some band will need a drummer. Or that some sweet neighbor lady needs a dog walker. I don’t have parameters within which I define productive member of society. Remember that part about my low expectations.)

If parenting was all playing and tickling and teaching I’d be ALL over it. But it’s not. It’s planning and patience and cleaning and cooking and lovingly getting up several times at night and staying intently focused all day and ignoring impulses to direct energy into personal needs (sleep, bathroom, showering, exercise, quiet, books). And I don’t like that. I just don’t.

And this phase ends, sure. The intense neediness of very smallness is already sunsetting. (That’s tomorrow’s post, unless the house sells.) Eventually children are more self sufficient. I’ve given myself over entirely because that’s what the Peanuts of the world need to be secure, reasonable, well-adjusted adults. But even if all the work pays off, they won’t do stuff my way, so why the heck bother with all the attachment parenting? (Because we wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I complain about not sleeping, someone tells me I can let my child cry. But that is not a real parenting option for us. Why in the name of all that is nurturing would we do that? When said child can get up to use the bathroom by himself, get himself a cup of water, and use soundly developed coping skills to get back to sleep, he will. Until then, any kid at my house who wakes from a deep slumber screaming in fear and sadness gets his mom. End of story.)

You know, ambivalence isn’t apathy. Maintaining a really passionate stand at two ends of a spectrum does not even slightly resemble meh. And while holding on so tight might be counterproductive, I’d rather struggle fiercely to control the pendulum than let go and founder in the fair-to-middling of just getting by.