Last month I was visiting my mom’s house with my then-18-month-old (isn’t it weird how we categorize them by months, which go by so fast?). As my mother and I chatted in the kitchen, my daughter played quietly by herself, in plain sight of us in the room next door (it’s an open floor plan — chill). She was so content — sorting her little toys from one bin into another, toting them across the floor. Removing and resorting. So interested in the set of tasks she’d created for herself, so proud when she completed each one. Literally clapping at herself. And I was panicked.
“Should I be playing with her?” I asked my mom, who has three kids of her own and was super hands-on when we were little. Her deadpan look of “WTF” required no words but I expanded on my guilty thinking aloud. “I mean, isn’t that sad? She’s playing by herself. I feel like I’m free right now, I should be on the floor making it a learning opportunity for her.”
It was right around this time when my mom, a psychotherapist who specializes in children, gave me the verbal ass-kicking I so sincerely have needed for months. In not so many words, she told me to chill the eff out and let my daughter learn a little bit on her own. I’m a working stay-at-home mom, and my little girl is with me all day, most days. When she naps, I hustle like there’s no tomorrow and when she’s awake, I bust my butt to make her world perfect. The organic snacks, the DIY toys and activities. The mom-and-me Pilates in the living room and the long walks around the neighborhood. From outside, it probably looks like I have my stuff together, but if we’re being honest, I am a mess, on the inside, about 89% of the time.
Here’s the thing: it really doesn’t matter how many educational, action-oriented, or otherwise beneficial moments I pack into our days. No matter what, I feel guilty at least five times a day for the moments that I am not “on.” For the half-hour stretches that I bow out and let an episode of Elmo’s World be her babysitter while Mommy catches up on some emails or (gasp!) texts a friend. That day at Target when she was screaming in the checkout aisle and I ripped open a pack of (ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED) fruit snacks to get her to STFU, yeah, I spent a good two hours ruminating on all those chemicals she’d ingested long after my little one was far away in Dreamland.
What the hell, moms? What the hell are we doing to ourselves, really? It’s scary that in this age of the oft-mocked “Perfect Parent,” when so many of us gripe and cry over the rudeness and judgment of fellow moms, that we are doing just that to ourselves, day in and day out. I don’t care if you’re working outside the home or if you are doing the full-time mom thing. I know you’re beating yourself up about something, and seriously, take it from me: you need to chill.
Alone time is good for toddlers, educational television is a perfectly reasonable way to pass a half an hour (or more, when you need to!) to get some stuff done or give yourself a much-needed time-out. And you know what? The fruit snacks? They’re not going to determine what college the kid gets into. I, for one, am so bloody sick of what society’s Perfect Parent model has done to all of us, and in return, what we are doing to ourselves as a result. My mom was literally flabbergasted at my concern over my sweet, smart little daughter making up a game for herself and enjoying 20 minutes of quiet time while I lovingly looked on from ten feet away. And you know what? She’s right. EVERYTHING IS FINE.
Being a mom might be the most beautiful, enriching, exciting adventure of your life, or it might not. It’s not really up to me to assume. For me, it happens to be that. I breathe her in, I breathe her out. And you know what? I burn the f*ck out, just like any other human being could or would in these conditions. The play dates, the workouts, the blogs, the information, it’s all zooming at my head all the time. Even the people who say they are your friends are tsk-tsking under their breath over salt content in the kid’s food or how many times per month it’s normal to go on a date with your husband and pay a teenager to serve her mac n cheese on the couch while watching MORE THAN HALF AN HOUR of Sesame Street.
And I don’t know about you but I’m just done. I’m done being so critical of myself that I am afraid to leave the house at the witching hour because if the child cries in public, I’ll be chased away with sticks. I’m done lying in bed at midnight thinking over all the vegetables I managed to get her to swallow this week and worrying that the list is too short. Or WORSE, not doing these things and then feeling guilty about that. Done, done, done. I’m just seriously ready to chill.
I think there is a reason that so many of us are pumped to see the new movie Bad Moms, why we love reading articles about the imperfect parent whenever they come up in our Facebook feeds. Because the truth is, we really want to be done with the mom-shaming and we want to stop doing it to ourselves, but we don’t really know how. Now I am not telling you to set the kid up on the couch with a box of Cheetos and disappear for nine hours. But come on, Mama. Give yourself a damn break. You do not have to be “on” all the time. You are not a perfect person. If you mess up at work and vent to colleague, they’re bound to tell you that everyone messes up sometimes. If you mess up at home, you’re afraid to vent to a friend, because maybe they haven’t messed up quite that same way. And really, we all just need to chill.
So, today I let her eat the ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED fruit snacks at Target yet again and you know what? I don’t care. She eats such a healthy, balanced diet, I know that we are going to get through this pack of candy-colored mistakes and see another day. And I caught up on work email for an entire 45 minutes this morning while she happened to have found a made-up game that thrilled her. So that the three hours we spent together walking around our town and playing at the park would be more fun, more meaningful, and I would be more present.
Why are we not enjoying our children? Why are we dramatizing our “mistakes” and dragging ourselves out back for a beating every time we do something that some random blog said was the “wrong” choice? We are expecting ourselves to be perfect and in that false perfection, I am starting to believe, we are driving our children crazy. Personally, I’ve always loved my alone-time and now I know that I owe that freedom and space with my thoughts, in large part, to my mom for letting me play on my own a little while each day.
I’m officially on strike from the Perfect Parent Brigade and invite y’all to join me. I’m done whispering or worrying or not saying what I think because some better-read mommy is going to plow over my words and tell me everything I’m doing “wrong.” Yes, I want to be and give and do and create everything possible for my little girl, but the realm of possible is made much smaller when you’re so close to burnout that you find yourself crying on a hardwood floor on a Friday afternoon when you’ve finally put them down for a nap. (That was last Friday, by the way, and thank you Courtney, amazing friend, for telling me to chill).
All of the pressure and stress was building up so much last week that I honestly wondered if I was even cut out for this to begin with. And you know what? None of us is cut out for this Model Mommy thing. It just doesn’t exist. You can own all the Lululemon pants in the world and post all the (caffeine-free!) Starbucks selfies with your kiddos. You can prepare all the organic meals and abide by every single ever-shifting rule in the damn book. But at the end of the day if you’re not happy, your kids will feel it. So ease up a bit, Mama. Just, you know, chill. Give yourself and your kid 20 minutes off from this perfect little life you’re creating and just be. I promise, it feels really good, for everyone. Pretty damn near perfect, actually.