what are you doing

The thing that hurts the most when I hear people criticize my parenting is that those criticisms aren't news to me.

Other people's criticisms are not plot twists - I have never heard a criticism of myself or my child, and responded by gasping so hard that popcorn falls out of my mouth, like it did when it turned out Bruce Willis was a ghost, when I found out who Tyler Durden was, or, dude, at the end of Julie and Julia - who saw that coming?? I was like "HOLY SHIT she gets that cookbook published???"

Parenting criticisms aren't shockers so much as they're motifs: Newman in Seinfeld, the blue French horn in How I Met Your Mother. The motif of "what I'm doing wrong" is not an "oh shit!" reveal - it's a significant part of the narrative, the thread that ties events together. It recurs. It becomes part of the atmosphere, the way you know that you're still living in the same world, except when I hear a knock on the metaphorical door, it's not a sociopathic postal carrier throwing shade - it's "here's what I'm doing wrong." Again.

in this example
"what i'm doing wrong"
is
"trying to have a nice fucking day
at the ball park"

look at my face

that is the face
of a person
who is confident
that she made good choices


In short, the criticism isn't a surprise - it's a confirmation that the outside world has joined the chorus of mean voices in your head that tells you every day that everything you're doing is, at best, just good enough for survival, and most often far, far worse.

Someone told me that I shouldn't wear a 6-month-old Chicken in the Ergo because facing him inward would stunt his confidence.

On the outside, I smiled and said, "Okay, well, have a good day." On the outside, Ryan and I laughed at her. On the inside, I thought, I know. He IS fearful. What am I doing?

Someone told me that I shouldn't be tired at the end of my day, that it meant my kids didn't have enough boundaries. On the outside, I said, "Do you know any parent of young children who isn't tired at the end of the day? Seriously, I'm asking." On the inside, I thought, I know. We give everything to them. What am I doing?

I have good reasons for all the choices I make as a parent, and at the same time inside my head, I have a thousand back-talking ankle-nipping assholes who tear me to pieces. I know I don't have to tell you what that's like - if you read this blog you're likely a parent, too.

For example, today:

Chicken's gymnastics coach tries to get him to participate in every single activity - she offers her hand to him repeatedly, and when he ignores her she shakes her head and walks away casually (but not casually, like a batter who steps out of the box to fuck with the pitcher's rhythm).

Sometimes Chicken doesn't feel like doing gymnastics. Sometimes he feels like sitting on the floor and watching the rest of the class do pikes and bends and straddles and wow, that sounds like really sexual, right? Woah. I swear, he's just an introvert.

So I told the coach after class, "Listen, he isn't a joiner. I appreciate that you invite him to join, and please keep doing that, but often he just likes to watch (seriously, that sounds sexual right?), and that's okay with me if it's okay with you. I don't care if he does a straddle on the horse (I mean) or a back-in full-out (ahem) or if he lays out in arch position (yikes). Truth is, if you push him he'll dig in his heels and disengage even harder. I don't care what he does, as long as he's with the class. So don't feel like you have to push him to participate for my benefit. He'll warm up, or he won't, but I don't want you to get into a power struggle with him."

That sounds totally good right?
Like I'm a parent who knows and accepts her son, right?
Like I'm one of those chill moms, right?

Please allow me to pull back the curtain.

But what if I'm wrong?
What if he never learns how to socialize and follow instructions and be with a group? Is that what I want? I love independence but I hate the loneliness that haunts it like Bruce Willis. All the other kids are doing the fucking pike position. What's wrong with our family? What's wrong with me? What's wrong with him, that he won't just do the damn thing that the teacher has asked him to do? He's obviously not school-ready. 

But if he does another year of Pre-K what will that mean for him academically? Won't he be bored? But if we push him to start school before he's ready, will he decide that he's simply not good at making friends? Will he have to survive elementary school, rather than come to it with the confidence of an adventurer whose mother understood his need for time and space? 

But what if he never learns flexibility? Not like the splits, I mean like compromising and learning how to survive discomfort? What if he never takes a risk in his whole life? What if I think I'm nurturing his sense of safety in the world and his right to take his time in a new situation, but what I'm really doing is making his world smaller? 

What am I doing?????

So when someone says something along the lines of, "You're coddling him, he'll be fine for God's sake, you need to push him more," and every ounce of confidence and composure leaks out of me like I'm one of those inflated car wash noodle-guys whose air just got turned off, someone needs to understand that it's not that they struck a killing blow - someone simply found the wound where it already bled, under a tissue of a smile. All someone had to do was touch it.

You know, the way I feel when I watch Inside Out.

Like, "All her joy turned to sadness and that feels so familiar... oh shit, I'm really hurt here... who drank all my bourbon and why can't I stop eating this loaf of bread?"

___


It hurts to be criticized as a parent because we all know grown-up man-children and lady-toddlers who were once preschool-aged kids who were spoiled, or pushed around, or told to suck it up, or told that they deserved the best, and we know we don't want to do the thing that was done to that kid to clip their wings so early, but for fuck's sake, how do we know what the thing is that was done???

If I chastise Buster for spilling his milk, am I breaking his confidence?
If I fail to chastise Buster for spilling his milk, am I breaking his character?

Am I pushing too hard?
Am I permitting too much?
Am I too soft?
Am I too cold?
WHY AM I TALKING TO MYSELF LIKE THIS?
WHAT AM I DOING?!?

___


It hurts to be criticized as a parent because this work is important and fucking impossible, and time is merciless and by the time you realize you've fucked something up, you've fucked it up for a significant percentage of your child's life, and your kid looks at you differently, and that matters.

It hurts to be criticized as a parent because we learned how to be parents from our parents at a time when they had no idea what they were doing either - all they had to go on was the sense that they wanted to be like their parents, or not like their parents, and that sense is often more of a windsock than a compass.

That's what we have, too: our flighty allegiance to what our own parents did or didn't do, and our fear of failure, and our own memories of times we wished someone had been kinder or demanded more of us, and certainty that our judgment is impaired, and the sense that if we fail, we will profoundly hurt someone we love so stunningly that it's terrifying.

___




I have had the sense, as I watch my sons sleep at night, that inside their warm bodies exists the entire universe. I imagine opening their bodies and falling inside, tumbling past galaxies and exploding stars and vast quantities of waiting space that I know they will fill.

Outer space used to scare me. Now I know it's there, unfolding in the body of my sleeping child. I can pull the forces that keep me on this Earth into my arms and close my eyes and imagine, in this narrow chest, in this little mind, in this pounding heart, everything that has been and will ever be.

I have a role to play in that vast imagined landscape, and it feels like a person holding the entire sleeping universe in her arms should know what the hell she's doing before that universe wakes up tomorrow with a leaky diaper and his mind fixed on mac and cheese for breakfast.

Why not? How is it nutritionally different from a bagel and cream cheese?
You shouldn't just let him pick his breakfast all the time, he'll be spoiled.
You can't arbitrarily say no to things just to prove you can, he'll learn that power matters more than respect.
You should make him a green smoothie at least.
But then he'll want to help.
And then Buster will want to help.
And I don't know if I'm strong enough to mediate that this morning.
But you can't avoid conflict in the hopes that they'll grow out of it. That's cowardly.
But you can't invite conflict because you feel like you should. That's just sick. Nobody is watching you.
Except us.
Which is to say, you.
And of course them,
the entire universe.

___


It hurts my feelings to be criticized, to turn inward, and to find that I am not really on my team, either.

Honestly, people don't even have to tell me that I'm terrible. I know that I have never dyed Easter eggs with my children and they are missing a core piece of their childhood, because I am terrible and also everyone hates the sound of my voice.

Jesus, Katie, you're going into an operatic poor-you about how you don't dye Easter eggs?

Please know that I know that dyeing Easter eggs matters precisely as much as Carson Daly's stance on gerrymandering. Please know that I'm not a flake.

It's so easy to dye Easter eggs though. Honestly, it's kinda shitty that you don't do that.

Please know that I know that celebrating holidays is an important and treasured part of growing up in a family, and I honor the importance of those traditions. Please know that I'm not a flake.

Listen, I know this doesn't make sense.

Parenting lives in your head and heart, alongside addiction and insanity.

It will never make any fucking sense.

___


It hurts to be called to account for all of your choices when no parent in the history of the eternal goddamned universe has made a choice based on certainty. It hurts to know you have no defense but a shrug and a prayer.

I mean come on, if you're navigating mapless, by the stars and wind, that doesn't make you an asshole. It just makes you a parent. A parent's currency is hope, grim determination, and celestial navigation. We don't get maps - we just steer toward a spot of light on the horizon and pray for no lice, and sunshine over Spring Break. And we make so many mistakes.

I'm asking you to be compassionate, and to know that no matter what you're thinking about me, my children, my parenting, or my family, I promise you, I have held seventeen rounds of that debate in the last week, while I packed lunches and wiped asses and tried to figure out if Buster needs to drop his nap because he's been staying up so late at night, but he gets sleepy at 12:30 every day and he's a wreck by 3:30 if I keep him up...

The answer is, I don't know.

I don't know.

I don't know what I'm doing.






___


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