As we celebrated moms yesterday, and anticipate celebrating dads next month, I reflected on my own journey of parenting and how my expectations and anticipations have been thrown off course. There is a lot to love about being a parent, and a lot of awesomeness that comes from kids. However, there are sides to parenting that completely caught me off guard, aspects that cause deep frustration, extreme exhaustion, and paralyzing self-doubt. These complicated, nuanced, and messy parts of parenting don’t fit neatly into a social media update or even in a casual conversation. But, I’ve realized that part of the journey of parenting is accepting that it encompasses many sides, the good and not-so-good.
Before I became a parent, I would sometimes daydream about what it would be like to have a child: soft snuggles, heart-melting giggles, sweet smiles, adorably tiny fingers and toes. To be sure, kids absolutely provide pure joy. But, that’s just part of the story. There is another side (or maybe a thousand other sides) which include less-than-glamorous aspects of parenting. For example, extreme fatigue (the kind that makes you fear you will fall asleep sitting upright at the supper table and yet sleep oddly eludes you once you have an opportunity to lie down), unbelievably greasy hair from lack of a proper shower, and paralyzing anxiety over being responsible for a tiny, completely reliant human being. Then as the child grows there are all sorts of new frustrations from negotiating with a mentally independent and yet physically dependent individual and the heartache that comes from teaching, disciplining, and protecting.
Parenting, I’ve discovered, is learning how to clean a poop stain from a onesie after a blowout that practically reached the shoulders. It’s about planning to take a half hour to yourself only to be interrupted thirty seconds later by a preschooler who just wants to be next to you. Of course, he promises he’ll do quiet time and not say anything, and that works for about ten seconds before he starts asking countless questions for the remainder of the half hour that was supposed to be for your mental rejuvenation.
I love to research, plan, and overthink everything in my life, so, naturally, before my first child arrived, I had all the ideas of how our lives would proceed as a new family and what type of mom I would be. To illustrate just how naive I was, I firmly believed my delivery would go pretty close to my birth plan (despite coming across numerous warnings that the delivery never goes according to plan). I reasoned that the naysayers had nothing on my sheer determination! Then my son decided to call my bluff and arrive four weeks early. My husband and I ordered the crib and car seat from the labor room and paid for rush shipping.
Looking back, I could have taken this as the ultimate sign that parenting was going to challenge everything I thought I knew. But, that would have been too easy. Instead, I spent much of the first years as a new parent struggling with the fact that I did not have all the answers, and even worse, the answers I thought I did have often didn’t work the way they were supposed to. I discovered, on a deep level, that “mom guilt” is a very real thing. I allowed my new role to subsume me to the point that I practically drained myself of any personal identity outside of being a mom. But one of the most difficult realizations was that I wasn’t always the mom I wanted to be (or thought I should be.) I am four years in and still learning to find my rhythm.
I recently read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea,” which was first published in 1955. Taking into account the obvious cultural and societal expectations for women at the time, her emotional struggles, particularly about achieving a sense of balance, rediscovering herself, and creating space to simply be, felt surprisingly familiar. She described mothers as being central figures around which everyone revolves, “like spokes from the hub of a wheel. The pattern of our lives is essentially circular. We must be open to all points of the compass; husband, children, friends, home, community.” She continued later, “The problem is…basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.” I loved this sentiment and her descriptions of being pulled in a million different directions, fulfilling a dozen roles and expectations, and feeling lost and off-track amidst all of it. Me too.
Although the focus of her book was on adapting to different life stages, the author (who parented prior to social media) shared something that really surprised me. In reflecting on her perception of other’s lives, she wrote, “They manage amazingly well, far better than I, it seemed to me, looking at their lives from the outside. With envy and admiration, I observed the porcelain perfection of their smoothly ticking days. Perhaps they had no problems, or had found the answers long ago.” I was struck that her experience from over seventy years ago was so relevant to my own struggles of comparison today. This perception that others have it all together while I flounder is apparently nothing new. Maybe social media hasn’t actually created a new problem of comparison, maybe it has just simply exacerbated an existing problem. I found her reflections comforting, acknowledging that we all, parents across generations, struggle to not compare while we simultaneously work hard to do our best. I’m hopeful that, especially during this season of social distancing, we can work to be vulnerable and authentic as we share in life and feel a little less isolated in our experiences as we work to do our best.
I believe that is what we are all trying to do, our best. Sometimes that best looks awesome and sometimes it doesn’t come close. Sometimes what we share on social media or in conversations is the most optimistic version of what might not have been such a cheery situation, and sometimes we learn to grow in our authenticity and vulnerability. For me, my kids have taught me to be humble, to expect the unexpected, and to develop a sense of humor and flexibility. I have had to forget everything previously understood about the concept and pursuit of achieving balance in life, to shift my expectations, and accept that parenting includes all the joy and beauty as well as the heartbreaking and hard. There’s at least two sides to everything and I’m learning to hold seemingly contradicting “both.”
So, cheers to all the sides of parenting, the beautiful, tender, frustrating, adorable, anxiety-ridden, greasy-haired, joy-filled, completely unexpected moments, and all the energy, time, patience, and hard work that goes into being a parent.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*