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The Perfect Storm of Parenting Fears

It was the perfect emotional storm: coming down from a perfect memory-creating day at the White House with the kids, the movie This is 40, and a New York Times piece on Mommy Guilt and reading the accompanying comments.  I ended up letting a cup of ice cream melt while I sobbed.

I will unapologetically admit this: in the middle of every single moment whether it is checking out books at the library or eating soup at Panera or taking them to cover an event at the White House or volunteering at their school, I mentally check out of the present and project myself into the future, wondering if what I’m doing is helping or damaging the case all adults silently make with their full-grown children: please still have me in your life.  Of course, I can’t know the answer until it happens.  And it doesn’t really help to read the comments on something like the New York Times piece because you realize just how little we are able to guide the situation.

Oh, and you also realize how much human beings like to belittle another person’s feelings.  But that’s sort of par for the course with any New York Times piece.

There are small things I can do to try to have a good relationship with the twins because of their obvious cause-effect.  Put down the phone and listen to them, for instance.  And no, this doesn’t mean being available to our kids (or any other human being) 24/7 when all things are equal.  I check my email in front of the kids, and I’ve even been known to lie and tell them that I’m changing into my swimsuit while taking five minutes to myself to play Candy Crush (and then lying even more when I am called out on it by the Wolvog, and I shriek, “you are not a woman and you don’t know how long it takes a woman to put on a bathing suit!  We have straps!  We have straaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaps.”)

So I know to put the phone down in front of them (it’s like customer service — the person in front of you is always more important than the person on the phone) and give them undivided attention when they are sharing part of their life with me.  But, as I said, that’s a small thing.  Even putting my phone down indefinitely by chucking it out the window won’t guarantee that they’ll feel I did a good enough job parenting them.

They — not the general public — are really the only review board I worry about.  So you can call me a crap parent or a good parent, and it really makes no difference (well, I mean, yes, it does make a difference in the sense that when you say cruel or kind words to someone, it affects their mood.  But you know what I mean).  What matters is how they process it since they will be the ones issuing that important future decision: am I in their life in a big way or am I shunted to the outskirts.

So it’s not Mommy Guilt because I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong as a parent.  By which I mean that I don’t think any of us are doing anything wrong or anything right with a few exceptions for the outliers.  It’s more Parenting Groping in the Dark and Feeling a Little Scared About the Lack of Control.  That the reality is that there isn’t a secret, single recipe to raising a child well and turning them into a functional adult that people want to be around and who still want to be around us.  When people write pieces like that writer’s guilt piece, they’re not really talking about guilt but more fear over how little we can know about how our actions are affecting another person.  That we have this chance to build a relationship, and once it goes off-the-rails, it’s very difficult to get it back on.  And frankly, life has a way of pushing relationships off the rails whether it’s through hormonal changes that turn us into rage machines to busyness that makes us overlook each other.

Sometimes it’s tiring thinking about how hard it is to keep two people (or more) on track.

I love the kids.  I love spending time with them.  I love having a front row seat to their lives.  I see what my parents have — their kids and grandkids still heavily involved in their lives — and I want that too.  I have no idea how my parents did it.  I think some of it was choice; choosing to volunteer in our school or be at our dance recital instead of somewhere else.  And some of it was just the luck of the draw; that our personalities were such that we stayed close and meshed well.  That if we had different personalities, it wouldn’t have mattered what they said or did.  I could have pushed away through no fault of their own but because it was what I needed to do, and we can’t live our lives for other people.

I worry that I smother too much.  I know I smother, so it’s a matter of degree.  I accept that is part of who I am, and I don’t really want to change it (so no guilt there).  I’m a work-at-home mother with my office in the living room, so there is always a balancing act where things have to give in order for something to take immediacy over the others.  I accept that part of who I am too (so no guilt there either).  I know that adolescence will happen, and we’ll be told that we’re the worst parents in the world.  And I know that adolescence is a single moment in time and not the final verdict.

I know all of those things with my brain.  It’s just sort of hard to remember them in my heart when I pull back from a moment and wonder how things will turn out in the future.

And then I do something silly like rent This is 40 (oh my G-d, I’m turning 40 this year) which is one of the most depressing comedies out there.  It really brought us down.  Like massively brought us down.  And you read something like the comment section on a New York Times piece about how parents have messed up the commenter’s life.  And you make yourself a cup of ice cream and eat it with one of their baby spoons because you miss their babyhood so much.  And you find yourself curled up in a little ball, sobbing, while you contemplate your life down the road.

I want to control it so badly.

It really sucks that I can’t.


1 Tiara { 07.15.13 at 8:22 am }

“I know all of those things with my brain. It’s just sort of hard to remember them in my heart when I pull back from a moment and wonder how things will turn out in the future.” Yes, Yes, yes!! This runs thru my head all the time!! I am so desperately afraid that my daughter won’t want to have a realtionship with me when we’re older, or that we won’t “survive” the teenage years & that thought breaks my heart. Great post!

2 Delenn { 07.15.13 at 9:00 am }

I hear you…I sometimes try to imagine my relationship with my grown children–I feel like I have given them a good childhood, but yet…well, I don’t know what THEY really think of it.

Right now I am dealing with my son at 14 years. He has issues already and being a teen is even more so. My relationship with him is a bit more strained right now–I know he thinks I smother him…and I try very hard not to (cuz while I can be controlling, most of the time I am of the “let them go and learn” mind set anyway).

Parenting is a lot of common sense mixed with experimentation. [Sigh]

3 Catwoman73 { 07.15.13 at 9:28 am }

OMG… I could have written this myself, though not quite so eloquently. I often ponder what my relationship with my daughter will look like in 10 years, in 20 years, and so on. And I’m so, SO afraid that something I’m doing today may jeopardize the closeness that every parent craves. I’ve had more than my share of issues with my own parents, and I don’t want to make the same mistakes that they did, but in my efforts to avoid making those mistakes, I’m terrified that I’m making a whole series of different- and perhaps worse- mistakes. This parenting stuff is HARD. So much harder than I ever dreamed it would be.

That being said, I don’t think I’m a bad parent- even though I am typing this message with my daughter under my arm, telling her that we can play in just a couple of minutes. 😉 We all do the very best we can with the circumstances that we are living with at any given time. Balance is tough. All we can hope it that our best is good enough.

4 Peach { 07.15.13 at 9:54 am }

I think it’s about teaching them the right way to look at things, so you get the benefit of the doubt later on. I had a rough upbringing and a bad relationship with my parents later as an adult. society was telling me their ways of raising me were wrong and I was very angry. It wasn’t until I realized that they did the best they could with what they had, that I was able to move on with my life and have a good relationship with them. So when I have children, I want to make sure they know the value of forgiveness and always doing your best, so that some day if they feel they weren’t raised right, they will remember those lessons and know what I did was out of love, and the best I could.

5 Cristy { 07.15.13 at 11:32 am }

Coming from someone who has had zero contact with her parents for the past two years, I think you’re doing a great job raising your children Mel.

What led to me cutting off contact with my family was that it became very apparent that I didn’t matter to them. I know they both have the fear of growing old and dying alone, but my needs as their daughter were always put second to that of someone else, be it their siblings or other train-wreaks who were more than happen to suck up all their time. Voicing all of this was always met with anger and accusations that I was simply depressed and needed to be put on medication.

What I wished for (and still wish for) was to actually be heard and acknowledged. For all of them to stop with the excuses and actually see that I was hurting because of their actions. Instead what I got was to be told to shut up and fall in line. Instead of celebrating anything good in my life I listened to how I was showing off and making the train-wreaks feel bad about their lack of accomplishments.

Hence the reason I left. And why I’m convinced my mother (my father will probably die first) will be one of those sad old ladies abandoned in a nursing home.

You’re absolutely right: you can’t predict the future. But the fact that you try with your children and actually listen to them puts you worlds ahead of most parents. So keep doing what you’re doing.

6 It Is What It Is { 07.15.13 at 11:46 am }

As someone who is estranged from her parents, I can tell you that THE way to avoid that is through unconditional love. Conditional love is the death knell to healthy relationships.

Don’t borrow trouble, Mel. Free your heart to know that doing the best job you know how is the greatest gift you can give them. Let them be who they are, support them in their endeavors and love them through their failures.

7 Amy Elaine { 07.15.13 at 12:02 pm }

“you are not a woman and you don’t know how long it takes a woman to put on a bathing suit” – priceless.

And yay for turning 40! I turned 40 last October and it has been the best year thus far. 🙂

8 Alicia { 07.15.13 at 12:47 pm }

Great post Mel. This is something I thought long and hard about even before I became a mom… We have this limited amount of time to guide and shape our children. 18 years where they have to live by our rules. And then, at the end of those 18 years, we turn it over to them – hanging out with us, their parents, becomes completely optional.

I hope that at the end of those 18 years my daughter will choose to spend time with me.

I also spend a ton of time agonizing over how my current actions will impact my daughter’s future and our future relationship. I try to be fully present but worry gets the better of me.

I think this care and concern for our children’s future and our relationship with them will bode well. It means we understand that our actions do have an impact.

9 Dora { 07.15.13 at 2:01 pm }

“Don’t borrow trouble, Mel. Free your heart to know that doing the best job you know how is the greatest gift you can give them. Let them be who they are, support them in their endeavors and love them through their failures.”

THIS! Yes! I also say this as someone not estranged, but without a good relationship with my mom. It’s there in the back of my head as a parent. Always. But I just keep doing my best, and find such joy in learning about Sunshine’s uniqueness. (Although, sometimes her particular uniqueness makes me want to tear my hair out!) My mom didn’t (doesn’t) do that. She’s always too busy being bothered by the ways we’re different. Thereby also missing the ways in which we’re alike. Oy, writing my own post here.

Anyway, all this to say, I really don’t think we’ll be all alone at the nursing home.

10 Dora { 07.15.13 at 2:03 pm }

Oh, and I’m NOT going to click on that article. Thanks for the heads up, Mel!

11 a { 07.15.13 at 7:15 pm }

I check out of the present but that’s just because I can’t follow the intricate details of whatever it is my daughter is talking about non-stop. Fortunately, I can catch the highpoints – such as the spring that would allow our car to leap over the other traffic – but the endless details overwhelm me.

I can’t project what my daughter will be like in the future. I know there will be times when she finds me tiresome. I know there will be times when she finds me annoying. I know there will be times when she finds me embarrassing. I only hope that she never finds me superfluous.

12 Justine { 07.15.13 at 11:27 pm }

Like a., I will confess to checking out. But I also know that when I’m there, I’m *really* there. I will sometimes pick up the computer when the kids are doing something else, but I don’t obsessively check email. I do feel guilty when my daughter says “PLAY with me, Mommy,” and I need to finish the sweeping/dishes/laundry/whatever, but I also know that she is going to need to balance her own needs some day, and it’s a tricky negotiation to be present for her but also model adult life. Part of me wishes I could be the awesome parent you are. Because you are also the awesome parent I never had. But part of me also knows that we have to figure this thing out for ourselves, aware, too, that what is right for us may not, unfortunately, be what our kids need. We can do our best, we can listen hard, but we can’t foretell the future. And our kids are more than what we give them … and as you point out, even their relationship with us is affected by more than what we do to cultivate it (or not).

I have a pretty good feeling, though, that you will never be lonely in your old age.

I am also turning 40, in December. We need a party. 😉

13 jjiraffe { 07.16.13 at 1:02 am }

Oh, Lord. “This is 40” was so depressing. Weirdly, it didn’t make me sad the first time I watched it, but the second? Oy. It’s too on the nose about, well, everything from parenting to marriage to money. There was some scene or line in that movie that hit everyone I know in the gut. I don’t know anyone who was like, “What a fun romp!”

On mothering: such a cliche but we can only do our best. Great triumphs for our kids like riding a bike for the first time or being proclaimed a genius about something are quickly followed by some huge low, like being bullied or freaking out that shoes don’t feel good. I don’t have any answers other than to say trying to get away from the status anxiety and judgement from others is probably impossible but perhaps a mindful (to quote the wise Lori) task to continue to work on as diligently as we can.

I think you’re an amazing mom. From what I’ve read here, you think deeply and critically about how best to teach your kids to reach for their dreams but you also are very nurturing and encourage them to have a lot of fun.

14 St. Elsewhere { 07.17.13 at 5:36 am }

You are doing good. You are a good mother.

And I am amazed at not just the post, but the comments you received – such a pleasure to read them all.

15 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.18.13 at 11:35 pm }

You’ve got me wanting to eat ice cream from the carton with a tiny spoon.

XOXO as you remember their baby days and envision their adult days. Time travel stirs up all sort of emotions.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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