The other night my 13 year-old son told me I wasn’t cool. He didn’t say it in a mean way, it was more like he was just stating the obvious. You are not a platypus. You are not the Queen of England. You are not cool. I was wounded. Here is the conversation that followed:
Me: What are you talking about? I’m pretty cool! (I gesture to my gray Chuck Taylor’s as evidence.)
Son: Well, you’re cool for a mom…
Me: Cool for a mom? What does that even mean?
Son: Like, if you went to a Mom party, all the other moms would talk to you and stuff.
Me: And if I went to a “regular” party?
Son: (pauses, then eyes fill with pity) Well…
Apparently, a pair of Chuck Taylor’s does not a Cool Mom make.
As much as my pride demanded an argument, after I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was right. First of all, anyone who thinks about whether or not they are cool, is most definitely not. Secondly, if I’m being honest, I never was all that cool to begin with- and I’m sure aging hasn’t done me any favors. Thirdly, and perhaps most telling, is that I’d rather go to a party filled with moms than almost any other sort of party in the whole world.
Embracing my epic uncoolness, however damaging to my ego, has had one unexpected fringe benefit. I think it actually makes me a better parent. I realize that don’t want to be the mom who thinks she’s just one of the gang, like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls. That is just sad. And more than sad, it is monumentally unfair. If I’m busy trying to be my children’s friend, then I’m sleeping on the job of being their mother. I know there are people out there who will disagree with me, but I think trying to be friends with your kids, at least while they’re young, does them a huge disservice.
Kids need structure and friends don’t provide structure. When is the last time you’ve made your friend go to the bathroom before she gets in the car for an hour? Or reminded her she will have to pay for her next cracked iPhone screen? Or screeched at her, “Because I said so – that’s why!” (Note: If you do this, you are mothering your friends and you should seek help immediately.) They may not know it, but our kids crave limits and boundaries; it makes them feel safe.
In addition, being overly close with your child can be confusing to them when in adolescence they begin the process of individuating from us. Children need to separate a little from their parents in order to grow and gain a sense of who they are, independent of us. Kids who aren’t able to do this, maybe because they feel guilty or simply don’t want to hurt their friend-parents’ feelings, can struggle in adulthood with decision-making and anxiety. And is there anything less cool than a 25 year-old who can’t pick out a tie without calling their mom for help?
It isn’t that I don’t want my kids to like me. Because I actually do. More than I care to admit. It’s just that that is not as important to me as churning out a person who will grow up to become a happy, healthy, productive member of society. After all, that is the job description under the heading, Parent. And the heartbreaking paradox of the job is that if you do it well, your kids won’t need you anymore. But maybe, hopefully, even though they don’t need you, they will still want to have you around. Even if you’re not cool.
I’m committing one of the cardinal sins of writing by basing this entire essay on a cliché, but here goes: Motherhood changes you. The thing is, clichés become clichés for a reason. And the truth is that the experience of becoming a mother, whether by nature or nurture, impacts a woman in fundamental and profound ways. It also affects a woman in superficial and trivial ways. It isn’t that you become an entirely different person the moment you hold your newborn baby in your arms, but I do believe the experience is a universally transformative one.
It is also a knife that cuts both ways. Because some of the changes you undergo when you become a mom are good ones; others, not so much. Never is this more apparent than when a new mother is in the company of an old more experienced mother. Us old seasoned mothers love nothing more than laughing at observing the ways our formerly childless friends transform from free and easy, up for anything, let’s-eat-at-8 women into sleep deprived, over-analytical, was-that-apple-you-gave-Billy-organic-locally-sourced-non-GMO-and-cruelty-free mothers. We love this because we’ve been there. And we too were mocked by the old bags wise women who came before us who rolled their eyes at our bath thermometers and bottle warmers. And they were mocked by their elders for using disposable diapers and seatbelts. It’s the circle of life.
Every new generation of mothers make changes that seem crazy to the ones who’ve gone before. But there are a few constant changes, if you will, in the experience of becoming Mom that persist regardless of the latest parenting trends.
Changes to Your Body
I will never forget when I went to see my OB/Gyn after the birth of my first child. I, with the wide-eyed innocence of a first-time mother, asked her when I could expect to lose that little pouch of fatty skin over my c-section scar. My doctor, herself the mother of four, looked at me with a perfect mixture of compassion and pity (and maybe a soupcon of amusement) and said, “Oh honey, that won’t ever away. That is yours to keep.” At the time, I thought she was wrong. I’d diet and exercise and eventually the only bodily evidence that I’d had another human being living inside my abdomen would be a tiny pink scar. Thirteen years later, I know she was right. That pouch ain’t ever going away, and no amount of yoga or gluten-free cake is going to change that. Be it a c-section pouch, disappearing waistline, saggy boobs, melasma, stretch marks, or all of the above, having a baby leaves an indelible impact on our bodies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good trade. But still. Still.
Changes to Your Level of Paranoia
The moment you realize that you are the first line of defense for another life form, the world becomes a much scarier place. Sharp corners, uneven pavement, hot plates, treadless socks, top-heavy children – they all become ER visits waiting to happen. You’ve heard of people who see the as glass half-empty? Well, new mothers see the glass as half-full. Of poison. And sitting too close to the edge.
Changes to Your Relationship with Control
One of my favorite examples of new motherhood is when my dear friend came to visit me from St. Louis with her newborn son for the day. In addition to the arsenal of baby supplies she brought to my house, she also packed a tiny Tupperware full of her own dishwashing liquid. You see, she felt she had to use her own soap because she feared mine might contain – well, I really don’t know what she thought it might contain – but whatever it was, it was far too dangerous to wash her son’s bottles with. This happens to you with your first child. You love them so much that you want to do everything within your control to make sure they are safe. So the scope of “everything within your control” widens to epic proportions. You over think. You obsess. You try to manipulate everything that comes in contact with your little one to make sure it will result in the optimal combination of health and happiness. You, in short, become a control freak. I’ve seen even the most laid back, hippie chicks fall victim to this mindset. And they’re the worst because they don’t think they’re controlling, “but could you just please make sure Susie doesn’t have any gluten or red dye No.4 at the party –it makes her irritable. Oh, and we use a positive reinforcement parenting model so if she accidentally bites your kid try talking her through what she’s feeling.”
Changes to Your Clock
Sleeping late now means anything past 6:30am. And if your phone rings at 10pm, you immediately ask, “Who is calling so late?”
Changes to Your Sex Drive
As a mother of a newborn you already have one needy creature who is all over you all the time. Your excitement about another such creature is, generally speaking, low.
Changes to the Way You Talk
Even though you have a master’s degree in linguistics, you refer to yourself in third person. You say the word potty. You talk for your infant daughter. You rhyme everything. The words you cannot rhyme, you add “ie” to the end of. Your voice is so high that only bats and coyotes can hear you. You give nicknames to all food including, but not limited to: nanners, noodlies, chick-chick, wawa, and num num sketti.
Changes to What You Think Constitutes Interesting Conversation
You used to talk about campaign finance reform and the mounting national debt, but these days you are more likely to be found discussing the color, size, shape, and frequency of poops. Here is a reality check, new mommies: this is not interesting conversation to anyone, with the possible exception of your child’s pediatrician. The same goes for discussions of sleep schedules, attachment parenting, feeding habits, nipple shields, episiotomies, potty training, and/or boogars.
The good news is that most of these changes settle with time. Eventually, you loosen up, regain your normal speech patterns, and stay out past 11pm. And the best part is that in the end, you’re left with the kinds of changes you actually want: A heart that is infinitely bigger than it was before. Patience that you didn’t know you were capable of. An amount of love and joy that you never knew was possible.
And stretch marks. Those are yours to keep.
When I was recently asked to write an article for a magazine about mothers in the workplace, I immediately thought: No, I’m not going to write about that. Why, you ask? Well, for starters, I don’t really work. With the exception of this column and the odd freelance article, I haven’t held a paying job in 13 years. (Yes, I know that being a mother is work. More on that later.) The second reason, and the more important one, is that I am a big fat chicken and really don’t like to write about controversial topics – and I’ve always thought of working vs. stay-at-home mothers as a controversial topic.
But the truth is that it isn’t really. Not anymore. Like coconut water and Kimye, I think the so-called “Mommy Wars” have been hyped up by the media and have little to do with real people’s lives. Maybe there was once a rift between the two factions back in the 1980s when the workplace was just opening up to professional women, but we live in a different world today. Thankfully we have options as mothers, and while we may not have shattered the glass ceiling yet, we have certainly shattered the glass umbilical cord. (Um, wait. No, that’s not a thing. That’s gross. You know what I mean though, right?) We have shattered the theory that women must stay in the home and raise the children while the father goes off to work. In today’s world, the debate of whether to work or stay home is more likely to go on inside a woman’s own mind than play out in any kind of public forum.
Most, if not all, of the women I know feel no animosity toward other mothers because they work outside the home or because they don’t. Over the past 13 years, I’ve talked to hundreds of mothers and not a single one has ever said anything disparaging about a mom on the “other side” just because she is on the “other side.” We might disagree about sleep schedules, formula vs. breast milk, and the number of acceptable days in a row one can wear yoga pants– but these issues have nothing to do with employment status. In the end, I think we all want to feel fulfilled in our daily lives, and no one much cares if you find your bliss in the boardroom or in the playroom.
The decision to work or not for moms is often a financial one, but not always. Some mothers work because they have to, some because they want to, and many because of a complex equation of the two, the product of which is then multiplied to the power of Guilt. It can feel like a lose-lose-lose situation. If you stay home, you lose the opportunity to build your career; if you go to work, you miss out on special moments with your child; and if you don’t have a choice, you feel utterly trapped.
So maybe the whole Mommy Wars discussion should be less about working vs. stay at home mothers, and more about how our culture still hasn’t adequately responded to the reality that roughly 70% of women with children are working. Instead of a hyped up decades old argument, maybe we should start a frank discussion about the dismal maternity leave policies, lack of affordable childcare options, and the paucity of support for mothers in the workplace? Maybe we should talk about introducing public policies that aid women who make the difficult choice to put their working lives on hold to raise children? Maybe we should be discussing the insanity that a working mother makes 73 cents on a similarly qualified man’s dollar?
These are subjects I think all mothers, and a good number of other people, would agree are worthy of public debate. This pre-fab construct of pitting mothers against mothers diverts attention from the real and serious issues facing so many of us as we are busy, you know, proliferating the human race. So maybe what we need instead of the Mommy Wars is a Mommy Revolution?
(Oh, look! I guess it wasn’t so hard to write about a controversial subject after all.)
As children grow and develop, so grows and develops a parents’ need to examine our use of foul language. This is a slow evolution. Babies don’t give a shit if you swear. Like puppies and houseplants, they are all about intonation.
But babies don’t stay babies forever. Soon, they become toddlers. And a toddler will repeat anything you say – no matter how softly you thought you whispered it. And the worse the thing you said was, the more times they will repeat it. In front of your husband’s parents. Or the babysitter. Or the neighbor kids who will go home and tell their parents they learned to say, “For fuck’s sake, again with the goddamn Cheerios,” at your house. It is a little-known fact that a toddler’s DNA profile is almost identical to that of an African Grey Parrot.
If you successfully make it through the mimicking phase, you are rewarded with the spelling phase. This offers you free rein to c-u-s-s like a sailor whilst preserving your child’s virgin ears. Beware however, that sometimes the spelling phase can overlap with the mimicking phase. Even if they don’t know what they’re saying, it can be disconcerting (or hilarious), to hear your child spell out, “S-H-I-T!” after she stubs her toe. Note: this phase will end without warning. And it will likely happen like this:
You to your spouse: There is so much C-R-A-P in this house, I want to scream.
Your child: Mommy, you spelled ‘crap.’
You: Oh shit.
After the spelling phase, you’re pretty much at a crossroads. You will have to decide that A.) Your kids are going to hear all the words anyway, so why shelter them – or B.) You are going to try to shelter them. If you choose A, your kids will be the ones who teach the other kids at school the A-word, the D-word, the S-word, the B-word, and even the Mac Daddy of them all, the dreaded F-word. If you choose B, your kids will learn the A-word, the D-word, the S-word, the B-word, and even the Mac Daddy word from his or her classmate whose parents chose option A. Either way, you’re fucking delusional if you think you can keep your kids completely away from swear words.
The way I see it, profanity is a part of our language. And I love language. I wouldn’t say that I am a heavy curser, but I definitely employ the occasional expletive when I think it will help make what I’m saying clearer. Or, more often, funnier. (See Above.) My father taught me from a youngish age that a well-placed curse word can really bring some oomph to your communications, provided you are smart about how you use it and don’t allow it to rob you of your creativity.
My husband, however, is of another ilk. He uses curse words like punctuation. I blame his brother for this, since his brother is the only person I know who swears more than he does. (It was no surprise to anyone when my 3yo nephew dropped his sippy cup at the church pre-school and exclaimed, “goddamnit!”) They, The Brothers Orr, feed off each other, escalating their frequency of expletives until what they’re saying becomes almost an unintelligible mashing together of the letter F and the hard-K sound over and over.
In general however, when my husband is not around his brother, he controls his profanity pretty well. There is one major exception to this rule. When confronted with a backed-up toilet (containing numerals 1 or 2) Jimmy Orr’s cursing-spigot turns on and cannot be turned off until the wealth and breadth of his considerable dirty-word arsenal has been completely exhausted, emptied into the air around him like a semi-automatic weapon at an NRA rally. And it always starts the same way. I won’t burden you with the exact phraseology, but it rhymes with, “Sock trucker, brother shucker, bun of a witch…” and so on and so on and so on. And it happens every single time there is a toilet issue. No matter who last used it (once it was our 3-year-old daughter). Or how many friends the kids have over (this weekend there were 3). Or how many times, I try to talk him down off his filthy-mouthed-ledge (that actually just acts as accelerant). When this happened over the weekend, my 10-year-old’s eyes went as wide as saucers. Then she started laughing. This provided the perfect opportunity to talk about the how and why of using profanity, without things getting too judgey.
I don’t encourage parents to use foul language around their kids in regular communications, but like everything else in this life, moderation seems to be the best course. If you try to ban this language completely, like a profanity prohibition, your kids will just run to the nearest speak-easy (read: any place you’re not) and cuss a blue streak. Not to mention, you’ll look like a hypocrite the next time you get caught mid road rage rant. Whether we like it or not, our kids don’t stay kids forever, and they are going to hear these words. It might be from you, it might be from their friends, it might be from my husband the next time someone uses too much TP. These words are a part of our language and since we all know the power that language has, its best to teach our kids how to use that power wisely. Or if not wisely, then at the very least, with style.
My parenting time these days seems to be split equally between putting out fires and quietly fading into the background. Things go from one extreme to the other around here pretty quickly. It’s fire and ice. Spicy or mild. Extra crispy or original recipe. (Author’s note: I probably shouldn’t write when I’m hungry.)
The point is, when my kids need me – they need me.
Mom, I need you to wash my uniform!
Mom, I need you to take me to the mall!
Mom, I need you to sign this form!
But when they don’t need me, I am largely overlooked. I am not reviled; I am not adored. I am simply there. A permanent fixture, like a banister on a staircase or salt on a pretzel. Necessary, functional, but not something you want to focus on.
At 10 & 12, my kids are not really old enough to be embarrassed by me yet, but I can tell they are starting to create a distance in their minds. Upon any expression of my individuality, my 12 year-old gives me the jokey eye roll; my 10 year-old calls me “weird.” (Author’s note: Boy-howdy do I wear that label like a badge of honor – if you are not weird to a 10-year-old girl, you are without a doubt the most boring person who ever lived. Believe.) And most pre-teens I know would prefer for people to think they were zapped into this world, fully formed, the spawn of nothing and nobody, a blank canvas devoid of any outside influence, parental or otherwise. But kids this age still need things – things they can’t really get on their own. Having once been a pre-teen myself, I kind of remember this stage. I wanted my parents to be like genies, an external force there in an instant when I wanted something, and then zoop! back into their bottle until the next time. I’m starting to get that vibe from my kids.
But to my children’s great dissatisfaction, I do not exist to fulfill all of their wishes at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t – but whichever way the hammer falls, I do what I do for my kids in service of their impending adulthood. It is my one job as their mother: To create responsible human beings capable of living on their own.
So I guess it isn’t a surprise, when I look at it through that lens, that my practical significance in my kids’ lives is starting to diminish as they get older. This is what happens. I recently read a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Newberry Award acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book, a book that appears to be about childhood but is really about parenthood. He said,“[it is] the most fundamental and comical tragedy of parenthood: That if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away.”
I agree with this sentiment down to my very bones. I mean, I don’t want my kids to ever “go away” permanently or anything. A phone call every now and then would be nice. (And it would it kill them to come visit once in a while?) But it is our job as parents to raise self-sufficient people. People who have lives of their own and jobs and families and friends and futures. People who hopefully like to spend time with their parents– but who don’t need us. Not really.
I know this is pretty obvious. We all head into parenting knowing what the end-game is. But when I used to think about the end-game when my kids were younger, I thought about it in 2 distinct stages: childhood and adulthood. I never really thought about what the process of getting from one to the other would look like. As I near the mid-point of this journey with my kids, I’m starting to learn what it feels like. For me, it’s a feeling of flickering importance. One minute, I am indispensable, the next I’m superfluous. I go from being the sun and the moon, to the wind in the trees, and back again, sometimes within the same hour. Sometimes within the same sentence. This schizophrenic push-pull is new, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
If I let myself think about too long, it makes me want to hold my kids tight and snuggle them into my bed and lock the doors and move to rural Alaska or 1902 or an episode of Little House on the Prairie -someplace or time when kids didn’t grow up so fast. But in other, more rational and less panicked-crazy-lady moments, I feel confident and comforted by the people I see them becoming – I know this is all as it should be, no matter how hard it is or how uncomfortable the process feels. (Author’s note: I guess they aren’t the only ones with the schizophrenic push-pull thing going on.)
I’d love to hear from others out there on how you feel about this – especially those of you with older kids. Despite the name of this blog, advice is always, always welcome here 🙂
As parents, it is our job to teach our children important life lessons. We teach them everything from how to treat others to how to tie their shoes. But in the midst of all this “being the expert,” it can be easy to forget that our kids have lessons to teach us as well. And I’m not talking about warm-fuzzy stuff like smelling roses and dancing like no one is watching. (Do not be fooled. People are always watching.) In a very practical sense, kids can teach us certain things that we tend to lose sight of as we age. Specifically, I’m talking about how to embrace creativity.
When it comes to creative pursuits, kids follow Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” They don’t try to finger-paint. They dip their chubby little fingers knuckle-deep into that paint and fling it like Jackson Pollock. They don’t try to write poetry. They just write it. They don’t let minor details like spelling, grammar, or coherency get in their way. When they tell you a knock-knock joke, they are a stand-up comedian. When they pick up a blob of clay, they become a sculptor. Have you ever seen a four-year-old transform into a mixed-media master while up to his eyeballs in construction paper and googlely-eyes? It’s a beautiful thing.
But this magical sprinkling of I’m-good-enough fairy dust usually wears off somewhere between five and eight-years-old. This is when kids start to worry that their drawing of the elephant doesn’t look like the one in the book. Or that the way they sing, “Roar,” sounds different from Katy Perry’s version. As a parent, you can see this change take place. It’s like watching a light go off. Whatever gatekeeper has kept the self-consciousness away walks off the job and doubt swoops in to take its place, all furrowed eyebrows and straight lines. Kids stop doing things and start trying to do things. And while this might be okay when it comes to sports or schoolwork (things that require mastery before advancement), when it comes to free-form creativity, it’s kind of sad.
Instinctively, we know this isn’t a good thing. We don’t want their light to go out. We don’t want them to hold their creations to someone else’s standard of perfection. We’ve been there and we know that is the surest way to run the imagination well dry. So we say to them, “Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines, honey.” But they still look at their picture like it’s a plate of boiled onions. Because even though we are saying one thing, too often we are doing another. How many times have we obsessed over wrapping a gift just-so. Or tried to make a project as perfect as it looks on Pinterest, only to ultimately fail and lament it out loud. Our kids see us try to be creative in the Right Way and they absorb it. They watch us judge ourselves, and since they view themselves as an extension of us, they apply those judgments internally. (Or completely rebel against them… but that’s a subject for another day.)
I think the best way to protect our kids innate creativity, is to do as they do. Turn our own lights back on and just do, without worrying so much about the outcome. Children know that creativity has nothing to do with being good at something. It has nothing to do with skill or talent or ability. And it certainly has nothing to do with Perfect. Creativity made up of 100% confidence. The confidence to do instead of try. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a painter, paint. If you want to be a dancer, dance. Even if someone is watching. Because they are – and chances are it’s your kids.
Back in college, I had a friend who went on a blind date with a guy I’ll call Billy Bob. That was not his name, but could have been for reasons that will become clear in a moment. On the date, Billy Bob took my friend to the McDonald’s drive-thru for dinner and while ordering, he yelled into the speaker, “I’ll have a number 2… and while you’re at it why don’t you go ahead and super-size that son-of-a-bitch.”
The moral of this story is two-fold. First, things could always be worse. You could be on a date with someone who:
- A.) Takes you to McDonald’s for dinner.
- B.) Orders a “Number 2.”
- C.) Calls his Number 2 a son-of-a-bitch.
- D.) And wants that son-of-a-bitch super-sized.
The second moral of the story is that people love to upgrade. It’s true. Entire companies – hell, entire countries – have been built on this practice.
- “Would you like a mid-size instead of a compact?”
- “Would you like to add the protection plan?”
- “Would you like me to change the election laws to allow me a third term as President?”
Once a person has agreed to something, getting them to agree to a small percentage more is a piece of cake that’s just been upgraded to a la mode.
I’ve decided I’d like to incorporate this highly effective strategy into my parenting regimen. I think it’s a natural fit as I often have to sell the idea of certain household responsibilities to my kids. Loading the dishwasher is fun! Raking leaves is great exercise! If you help me wash the windows, you can spray the Windex!
The problem is that at 9 & 12, my kids aren’t buying it anymore. They are no longer taken in by my enticements, and household gadgets have lost their appeal. I remember the days when my daughter begged me to use the Swiffer. Now she runs away when I get it out. They have discovered that the scrubbing bubbles don’t really talk or have mustaches, the fabric softener teddy bear won’t hop off the label and give them a big hug, and that no matter how clearly they yell, “Accio!” that broom ain’t gonna fly ‘em to the Quidditch pitch.
The problem with trying to up-sell my kids into doing their chores, is that chores don’t really have much of an upside. Sure, there is comfort that comes from a clean house, but that doesn’t mean much to your average preteen. Their comfort comes in different packaging. For them comfort is knowing their mother won’t rap along to that new Eminem song when their friends are in the car, or take them with her go bra shopping. Rather than the satisfaction of a job well done, their comfort mostly lies in being left alone. Except when they need money or food or help with homework.
So it makes finding the added-value in household responsibilities a bit of challenge for this age group. I’ve taken a stab at it and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- If you clean your bathroom you can avoid getting dysentery!
- If you clear the table, you will be offered food again at the next meal time!
- If you pick up your dirty clothes, you will get to keep them and thus avoid having to go to school naked!
- If you throw away your trash instead of stuffing it under the couch, you won’t have to share the sofa with rodents!
- If you check your attitude even when you’re grumpy in the morning, I won’t yell, “Mommy loves you!” at the top of my lungs when I drop you off at middle school!
Ok. So some of these are more like blackmail. But still. I think they might just work.
I like the concept of teaching my children that there are added, perhaps under-appreciated, benefits to even the simplest of tasks. Even if those under-appreciated benefits are really just me making up ways to torture them should they decide to be non-compliant. Now that I think of it, maybe this isn’t so much me up-selling them on chores, as me super-sizing my threats. Either way, if it gets them to take out the trash, I’m good with it.