Last week, on one of the daytime talk shows, four mothers of those toddlers in tiaras were talking about all the valuable skills their tiny, bedazzled daughters were acquiring by competing in “glitz” beauty pageants. They explained how “go-go juice” (a concoction of Mountain Dew plus sugar?) kept their daughters from falling asleep while they were having their fake eyelashes glued on and how Pixie Stix were used as bribery. They espoused the virtues of a product called “Butt Paste” to keep bikini bottoms from riding up on their toddlers’ small butt cheeks during swimwear competitions. One mom defended her daughter’s participation in pageants by comparing it to ballet. Um…really? Not so much.
I’m not judging. Okay, maybe I am. It’s kind of hard not to when the words “toddler” and “swimwear competition” are uttered in the same sentence.
Ever since the first Cave Woman cleaned up her Cave Kitchen, waddled out behind a boulder, gave a hearty yell and pushed the very first Cave Baby out, women have tried to do all the right things where their kids are concerned. And every mother who has ever raised a child to adulthood is left with the same nagging question once her children are grown and gone:
Was I a good enough mother?
Only our kids can answer that question. And often, even they don’t know the answer until they are parents themselves because childhood is a fun house mirror that distorts the memories we have of the woman who knew us first and loved us best.
I talked to a young, first time mom last week. She is bright and capable and when I asked if she had any pictures of her seven month old (dumb question, right?) she whipped out her cell phone with lightening speed and scrolled through about twenty pictures of him. I did the whole “oohh….ah….GREAT BABY!!” thing as she beamed with pride. We talked about her having recently returned to work full-time. She was ambivalent about this decision even though she likes her job, has good child care, and a partner who has the flexibility in his own career to be home part-time with their precious boy. As we visited, I was reminded of my own guilt years ago for wanting, no…needing, a chunk of life separate from my babies. I left our encounter feeling sad that she felt the need to defend her choice to another mother.
And now I am also wishing I’d told her this. It really doesn’t matter.
Really. It doesn’t. Her child will make it, and so will she. I wish I’d told her that it was going to be hard work either way.
I wish I’d told her this…
Work to teach him that the world was not created to meet every one of his needs, wants, or desires and neither were you. Make him wait. Let him get frustrated occasionally. This is good practice for life. Teach him to be independent. Work not to fixate on every sniffle and sneeze or bowel movement or whether or not he’s getting enough breast milk or broccoli. Don’t write his term papers or do his science projects and don’t lie for him if his homework isn’t done on time. Let him get dirty but make him clean the bathroom he messed up. It will be a lot of work, and you won’t get a paycheck or a pat on the back. But trust me… these things matter.
Teach him. Touch him. Talk to him. Tell him you love him. Tell him when you’ve screwed up. Laugh with him. Be silly. Lighten up. These things matter more than whether or not you work outside the home. It’s okay not to be there every second of his life. Just make sure that you are truly present when you’re present. Not so much for him as for you. My grandmother always said, “the first one lives through anything” whenever someone had their first child. I wish I’d told my young friend that, too. Ask for help when you think you can’t do the job for one more second. Build a community of women who are doing what you’re doing and share the joys and the burdens that come along with young children.
The older I get, the less I know for sure. But I know this. I worked outside the home and I loved my kids fiercely. Achingly. With abandon. Even when I didn’t particularly like them on a given day or when they didn’t like me or my rules or the evening meal I’d cooked. And I think they knew this then and that they still trust that it’s true. At least I hope so.
I also hope that I’m never invited to be a guest on a day time talk show for telling my kids to go to the bathroom when they told me they had a stomach ache or because I made them go outside once a day for some fresh air when it was 20 below zero or for using the bar of Ivory soap when one of them called me a “big bag of poop” that one time. I think the statute of limitations for less than stellar early mothering practices starts when they leave for college. But you never know. One of them is still pretty mad about the soap. I could still get that call.
And if it does happen, I will be really glad that the only butt paste I can be accused of using on them was diaper rash ointment.