am i fucking this up?

I think the hardest part of parenting is the self-doubt. Not my toddler's. Mine.

He lives in this world of 100% certainty. Even when I have given him his favorite peanut butter crackers, and he's eating them while simultaneously screaming "NO!" at the top of his lungs, turning purple with refusal, his open mouth crammed with white cracker mush while he's telling me that these crackers simply won't do... he never wavers.

I, sadly, am the person Peter Pan was afraid of becoming... I've grown up. And while that means I get to enjoy things that people call acquired tastes - mushrooms and stinky cheese and hoppy beers and Wes Anderson movies - it also means I am mired in a bog of self-doubt.

It wasn't so bad before I was a parent. Indecision is a luxury when you're a young married lady fretting over which champagne cocktail to order at happy hour. Indecision is a luxury when you're wondering which ankle bootie will go on sale first, or whether you should take the red-eye or the butt-crack of dawn flight to Puerto Vallarta for spring break. (I'm speaking purely for myself right now. These are actual decisions that I agonized over pre-baby.)

The thing about indecision for that simple girl is that the stakes are just about as low as they can get, and there is no unacceptable choice, no deeply feared consequence, no sharpened guillotine waiting at the end of the tarmac (should have taken the red eye, kids.)

But once you pop out that squalling purple slime ball, shit changes. The stakes? They're raised.

The Book says I should spend breastfeeding time bonding with him but I really want to watch the next episode of Scandal... oh my god, I'm such a shitty parent. I care more about Olivia Pope's sex life than my emotional bond with my child. But my mom told me that I have to take care of myself and that if I need to take an hour to unwind and watch a TV show I shouldn't feel guilty about it. But The Book says that if parents don't spend enough time bonding with their children then the children are more likely to be diagnosed with autism, attachment disorder, and sociopathy. My mom says that mothers who don't take enough time for themselves are more likely to freak out, lash out, and burn out. 

So what was once a simple choice - Scandal or No Scandal? - has become a choice between Scandal + raising an emotionally damaged sociopath... or No Scandal + a lifetime of resentment and anxiety. Every choice feels like a lose-lose.

First food... rice cereal has arsenic in it and conditions him to be a carbaholic. But avocados and sweet potatoes are sprayed with insecticide, and yogurt could trigger a severe reaction if he has a dairy allergy.

Cloth diapering or disposable... cloth diapering is environmentally responsible and encourages early potty training, but forces me to handle a diverse assortment of poops, and increases the number of diaper changes I have to do in a day because they're less absorbent, and requires that I carry his shitty diapers around with me all day until I get home to the hamper. Disposables are killing Mother Earth, and he'll potty train later because disposables are so absorbent that kids don't understand how uncomfortable it truly is to sit in their own excrement, but oh... the convenience...

Nurse on demand or have a schedule... If I nurse on demand I'll know for sure that he's getting enough to eat. But I'll also be teaching him that I'm at his beck and call, and I will have a harder time making appointments and play dates because I'll never know when it's meal time. If we have a schedule my life can be more balanced and I'll maintain control, but then I won't know if I'm starving my child.

And these are just a tiny fraction of the choices we have to make from the babe's first days.

Of course, in hindsight I understand that I weighed these dilemmas perhaps too mightily. My son isn't going to turn into a sociopath because I watched Scandal one time (okay, it was every time for like a week from the time I watched the pilot until I was caught up.) Whatever the first food is, it'll be fine. No matter the makeup of the diapers he wears, he'll potty train eventually.

I wish I could go back to newborn-mommy Katie and tell her to chill the fuck out. I wish I could go back, sit her down, and say "the only thing that matters is that you're giving a shit, and you are, so you're doing great." I suppose I could give some version of that pep talk to today's toddler-mommy Katie. Only I don't yet have the hindsight. All I can think right now is that I am completely fucking up this parenting thing.

Chicken's going to turn 2 in a few months and is staging a long-term Method dress rehearsal of the terrible twos leading up to opening night.

He's insane. He's manic, erratic, impulsive, heartbroken, ecstatic, sweet and vicious.

FOR EXAMPLE.

House rule: No throwing food. If he throws food, we take the plate away and the meal is over.

So he can pick up a piece of banana and wring it out until it oozes through his fingers and drips onto the plate? Sure.

So he can immerse his hand in his soup, pick it up, and watch the broth drip down his arm? Sure.

But if he throws food on the floor, the meal is over. I spend meal times praying that he doesn't. Because then this conversation will happen in my head:

Did he get enough to eat? I know I said we have to end the meal immediately if he throws food but he can't just have half a grape for lunch. If I take the plate away now it's going to be a huge meltdown. But if I don't take the plate away I'm condoning a behavior that we said is unacceptable. But did he really throw it on purpose or did he just drop it accidentally? FUCK, now too much time has passed between the food-throwing and the plate being taken away. He's not going to understand that one is a consequence of the other. Is he even old enough to understand cause and effect yet? Is this all a spectacular waste of energy? STOP second-guessing yourself. You know he threw the food on purpose and you know he understands what that means. Now choose! Starve your child or encourage him to waste food. MAKE YOUR CHOICE WOMAN!

I'm not even going to get into the nightmarish hellscape that is "teaching him to share," or the bleak death march of "things we don't put in the toilet." (spoiler alert: it's everything.)

Every day I have these italicized conversations with myself.

You've already said that it's time to go four times over five minutes. He's had plenty of notice and now he needs to get his butt in gear and get okay with the fact that it is time to go. 
Aren't your expectations a little high? He's only 20 months old. 
But I feel like I have to start meaning what I say and keeping my promises NOW so he never has a doubt in his mind that my word is law. I don't want to be the Charlie Brown mom to him. 
You're overreacting, crazy. He's a baby still. Chill the fuck out. 
I don't think I am overreacting. He can tell me when he poops now. He can ask for bean soup for lunch. I think he understands "time to go." 

Snack, snack, snack, okay, he had yogurt for breakfast and a quesadilla for lunch so I can't do cheese, that's a lot of dairy. Maybe apple slices? Okay, apple slices. But what about protein? Peanut butter? Yikes, I'll be wiping peanut butter off the curtains for weeks. Okay, apple slices annnnnnnnnddddd.... beans? Garbanzo beans? Okay, that's good. Wait, no, last time garbanzo beans gave him diarrhea. Maybe he was just sick that time. Maybe it didn't have anything to do with the beans. But let's just not take the chance. Apple slices and raisins. Yes. But there's no protein there. But he had good protein with breakfast and lunch and dinner is lentil soup so he'll have more protein there, so who says he has to have protein every time he eats? I mean, am I just going to be sugaring him up? Shit, I have to schedule a dentist appointment. 

Every night I go to bed convinced I fucked up. And the more time passes, the more I feel guilty about fucking up. There are a couple of reasons for the increased guilt. First, I am like so far outside of the grace period granted to first-time parents. Once your kid is walking and talking, the assumption is that you've got this. And if you don't, well, you need to go take a class at a community college or something, because you are fucking this up. Second, the older he gets, the less I can fall back on the old, "but he's just a baby!" and "habits don't really start to form until later," and "he can't quite grasp the concept of not eye gouging" lines. The stakes just keep getting higher. Like my blood pressure.

My choices really do impact his growth and development. It's not an episode of Scandal playing 6 feet away, which is 5 and a half feet more than he can even see at 2 weeks old. It's not a phantom insecticide on a sweet potato I scrubbed, peeled, and boiled. I am responsible for teaching him the rules of the world, whether they can be bent by the sheer force of his will and pitch of his howl. How to be patient, how to be kind, how to be firm. I am responsible for giving him enough freedom that he can teach himself the gritty moist feel of sand in his pants, the best way to wring that banana into brownish ooze, how to deal with the rage and disappointment when a bigger kid takes the good truck at the sandbox.

So what have I done? I've made choices and I try to stick to them.

I don't think any of us has a perfect day. We're all fucking this up. If anything, I worry about people who are certain in their choices. People who know they're doing it the right way. How could you possibly know whether or not you're raising your kids well? You won't know until years have gone by. You won't know until she turns up pregnant, or he breaks both legs jumping off his friend's roof. Even then, you won't know. None of us will. There is no line can be drawn between toddlers at the dinner table and the twentysomething living in the basement, or the young man or woman who remembers to send a birthday card to great-grandparents.

That kind of certainty sloughed off like down when we got old enough to understand that the world is almost entirely gray but for a few good shining stars here, a few forbidden deep canyons there.

The only thing we can know for sure, the only thing we're certain of beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that we're all completely fucking up this parenting thing. But our parents did too. So at least we can throw that in their faces come Thanksgiving.

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