When my kids were very young, I was anxious to do everything perfectly. I felt the responsibility of raising other humans keenly, and I wanted to do a good job. So, I approached parenting the same way I approached any other new challenge in my life – I prepared. I read all the parenting books, and I picked the brains of all the older more experienced moms, and I used my learned knowledge to plan my every step.
My kids responded well to my loving care and the structure I had created for our daily lives. They had a regular bed time routine, they were read to multiple times a day, they went to play groups, and music groups, and story times at the library. We had fun all together, and they were widely known as happy, good kids. When my kids were small, that was all the affirmation I needed to assure myself that I was doing a good job as their mother.
As they grew older and started going to school, the simple assurances of good mothering that I needed expanded. Now the proof of good mothering wasn’t simply that they were “happy, good kids” - now the proof began to include things like they were early readers or they knew their multiplication tables before the end of second grade. As their fun play groups morphed into organized sports, the proof of good mothering began to include how fast they could run or how well they could hit a ball.
Being a good mother began to feel very stressful because on the surface any one of these skills seems like they can be easily taught. If one of my kids was struggling with reading, then I just had to read with him more; if one of my kids wasn’t aggressive enough to kick the soccer ball, he just needed some extra time in the back yard practicing; if he didn’t know his math facts, I just had to buy flash cards and review with him more.
Our cozy family evenings of dinner, bath, story, bed time evolved into homework checking, homework teaching, flashcard doing, backyard extra practice time. My happy kids started becoming anxious, and I was becoming less like a mom and more like a task master. I would become irritated at my kids’ shortcomings, or when they didn’t follow my directions, or if they started losing the desire to excel at something. When they did experience a success, I would be happy. In fact, the more I helped my kids to succeed, the more their successes began to feel like my accomplishments.
My epiphany came one day when I was tutoring a student. He was in the same grade as one of my sons and his struggles were very similar to my son’s struggles. When I was with my son, I would often be impatient, but with another mother’s son, I was patient, I was wise, I was wonderful.
I felt the difference and finally, couldn’t avoid asking myself the question any longer - how come I was treating other people’s kids better than I was treating my own? I had to admit to myself that it was because I had allowed my self-worth to become too enmeshed with my kids’ successes and failures.
After admitting this truth to myself, I also forgave myself for it. Being a mom has become a blood sport, and it’s hard to not get sucked into the battles. Simple daily decisions about raising kids can leave us moms wide open to hurtful criticism. Where we choose to send our kids to school, or feed them, or even name them, can all become fodder for criticism and leave a mom feeling vulnerable and under attack.
In that kind of environment, it’s easy to fall prey to needing proof of being a good mom – to prove that the choices we made, that we were sometimes criticized for, were actually okay. I didn’t send my kids to preschool – well, they actually did have good brain development - look at their report card. I didn’t feed them all organic foods – well, they actually did grow to be strong kids - look at them out on that field. The examples could go on and on.
While I understood how I had gotten there, I knew that I had to make a change. I had only a few short years left before my kids started leaving for college, and I didn’t want to waste those years. I wanted my family life to be as happy in the teen years as it was in the preschool years. I knew the key to happiness for me was to quit relying on my kids’ accomplishments as proof that I was a good mother. By making that one change, I made the atmosphere in our home happier and more relaxed.
Now, I am able to enjoy my kids for who they are, celebrate their successes, and encourage them through their failures. Most important, they are now happy, good young adults. As a mom, I couldn’t hope for more.
Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, a teacher-librarian, and a mom of four almost grown kids. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student where her goal is helping parents to keep family life a priority and school success in perspective. Her work has been featured in On Parenting from the Washington Post, Grown and Flown, Perfection Pending, and Today Parents.
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