Yesterday afternoon I came home from the grocery store and picking Zoe and Parker up from school to find Sydney watching an episode of “Trading Spouses.” “Trading Spouses” is the knock-off version of “Wife Swap.” I’m pretty sure this episode was from several years ago, as I think the show got cancelled and is now only in reruns.
I was supposed to be getting dinner going in the crock pot, but I got drawn in to the story. I missed most of the episode, but what struck me straight through the gut was the reaction of one of the families as they prepared to say goodbye to the “mom” who had swapped with their real mom. The husband kept repeating how nice she was and what a good woman she was. The kids looked on the verge of tears. The little boy said, “I don’t want you to leave.” The teenage daughter said that she wished this woman was her mother, and that she hoped her real mom had changed while she was gone- but she was doubtful.
By this point in the show, I was starting to tear up. I was feeling overwhelmed with grief that this family had a taste of a mom who was kind, and loving and were dreading the return of their own. I hadn’t watched the show until the end, so I hadn’t seen what kind of woman she was.
As she rolled her suitcase up to her own house, they showed a flashback clip of her prior to leaving in which she said, “I can’t wait to go. I won’t miss my family AT ALL.”
Maybe she said that because she was feeling unappreciated. Maybe she said that because her family treated her poorly. I didn’t know. But it broke my heart.
When she walked into the house, there was no joyful welcome as at the other house. It was quiet, hesitant. The children gave her flowers but they looked like they were being forced to do so against their will. She asked, “Did you miss me?” The response was a moment of silence. Her husband jumped in with “Of course we did!” and patted their son on the arm, as if prompting him to concur.
The boy said, “Yes, we missed you.” But he sounded sad, and it didn’t ring true.
She looked at him and said, “You don’t sound like you did. I missed you.” But her words didn’t sound any more believable.
I watched the kids on the screen and thought about my own kids. I wondered if I swapped with another mom, would my kids be sad that I was coming home or be happy? Am I a good mom?
I thought about a conversation I had with my husband the night before.
We were watching the new season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and they were interviewing a young Brazilian man who was talking about how his mother had raised him on her own. He said that she struggled, she worked two jobs, and now it was his turn to take care of her. She was his primary motivation for winning the fight.
I turned to Jeff and said, “I don’t think our kids would ever talk about me like that.”
He said, “Of course not. You don’t work two jobs as a single mom. You don’t have to struggle.”
I know he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but he did.
What it sounded like he was saying to me was that I hadn’t earned the right to have my kid speak adoringly of me because I’m a married middle class housewife, not a struggling single mom.
I know that in a lot of ways, I have it easier than a lot of other moms. I have a husband, one who provides for me and our children, and has afforded me the option to stay home with our kids for the past 19 years. My kids are healthy. I don’t have the additional challenges of a child with special needs, or one with a severe illness such as leukemia.
What that means is, I don’t have any excuses for not being an amazing mom. And truthfully, I know I’m missing the mark.
So yesterday, with all of these thoughts swirling in my head, I got brave. I asked a question to which I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
I asked Sydney, “As a parent, when you have kids of your own, what would you say is one major thing you would do differently than I have done?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well like, when you’re a mom. If you said, ‘I’ll never do _____like my mom did.’ or ‘My mom never did ____ but I will with my kids.’ What would that be?”
She sat for a minute and said, “I think I will use more discipline. I’d be more consistent. You ask us to do stuff, but there are never any consequences if we don’t. I think that’s one of the reasons getting a job was intimidating to me, because you never gave me responsibilities.”
Is anyone else completely astounded by this answer in the way that I was? First, that instead of her saying I was too hard on her (which is one of my fears) she said I wasn’t strict enough. As a nearly 19 year old, she’s seeing that the MORE structure and discipline a child has, the more confidence they have going out into the world. I’m just starting to grasp this concept. I tried to make life easier for my kids, but that seems to actually make it more difficult for them.
In my own analysis of my parenting of Sydney, I would say that I was too critical of her. I was a control freak who never let her go outside and get dirty. I didn’t give her effusive praise because I KNEW she was beautiful, smart and talented, and I wanted to make sure she was humble and kind as well. When she would talk about a conflict with one of her friends, I played Devil’s advocate because I wanted her to be empathetic to others, to see things from their perspective. What she needed was an ally, an advocate. She needed to know I was in her corner. I grieve every missed opportunity to tell her she is beautiful, and that I’m on her side. I’m her biggest fan.
My next question was, “What have I done as a mom that you want to replicate with your kids?”
She said, “I like that you make quality time. I like that you have made our house feel like a home, all my friends say that. I like that they feel welcome here, and like to be here.”
I liked that answer.
I told her about my conversation the night before with her dad, and she gave a very careful, crafted answer.
She said that sometimes the things that I say, the things I write on Facebook or in my blog, indicate that I don’t take parenting very seriously. That I’m sarcastic, and Jeff is sarcastic, and we parent sarcastically. She said that we haven’t cultivated an environment in our home where I am revered and respected. No one around here is attempting to nominate me for sainthood, and I certainly don’t deserve it. Jeff doesn’t walk around extolling me to our children, he slaps me on the ass and makes me the butt of his very clever jokes. The sarcasm in our home is never intended to be hurtful, but she’s right- No one is putting me on a pedestal around here because that’s just not how we operate.
One reason is that I am just not a very touchy-feely person. I’m not comfortable with a lot of physical affection, and I like my personal space. Sometimes, as I have kids hanging all over me like a jungle gym, I think God must have a big sense of humor to give 4 kids to a woman with personal space issues.
Another reason is that I have a discomfort with emotional intimacy, but am incapable of faking emotion for another person’s benefit. The good news is you always know where you stand with me. The bad news is even when I wish I could plaster a smile on my face and flatter the hell out of someone, I can’t. I can’t do it. And even on the few occasions I have tried, my kids have seen right through it. (“When you say, oooooohhhh, I know you’re just saying that.” ) I have zero poker face. Zero. Combine a discomfort with intimacy and zero poker face and you get a mom who uses sarcasm to show affection. It’s not something I’m proud of.
I decided to poll the other kids to see what they would answer to those same questions. I tried to pose it , as I did with Sydney, as less of a “What am I doing wrong” sort of question, more of a “How do you plan to parent your own kids based on what you’ve observed here” sort of thing.
Driving Parker home from soccer practice, I asked him.
Parker’s answer was in direct conflict with Sydney’s answer. Parker said, “I would let my kids do more of the stuff they want to do, like play dates. And I would take them on vacation.”
“What do you like that I do?”
“Sometimes you make my favorite dinner, but not all the time. And sometimes you get me stuff I want.”
It was funny, though, because he then started ruminating on his future.
“Who do you think I will marry?”
“I don’t know. That will be up to you.”
“Where do you think I will live?”
“Anywhere you want to. You can live close by, or far away.”
“Are there houses in snowy towns by the Himalayas?”
“Yes, there are houses in the villages there. I’m not sure you’d want to live there, though. I don’t think there are neighborhoods like we live in.”
“Can I take some of the stuff at our house to my new house for my children?”
This evolved into a conversation of gender roles.
“Moms take care of the children more than dads because they go to work.”
“Some moms go to work.”
“”Yeah, but they work in their house!”
“Actually some moms go to work at offices and other places outside the house.”
“Then who takes care of the children?!?”
“Well, they usually go to day care.”
“What’s day care?”
“A place where people take care of kids while their parents are at work.”
He processed that thought for the rest of the drive home. He has no clue what it’s like to have a working mom. I think I actually blew his mind.
As we were dishing up dinner (Not Parker’s favorite- again!) I asked Nathan the same question. He responded, “I’m not answering any questions you might not like the answer to.”
He’s going to make a very good husband some day.
Zoe overheard and yelled out, “Nothing! There’s NOTHING you could do better! You’re the best mom ever!”
Zoe’s my number one fan in the house.
“I’m sure there’s something I could do better. Everyone can do their job better. If you don’t tell me, I can’t get better.”
I gave Jeff a warning look as he began to open his mouth to say something snarky.
“Well, I’d like to spend more time with you.” She spends more time with me than any of the kids.
“Oh, and I wish you weren’t on your phone so much.”
“Ok, So what will you do with your kids that I do?”
“Snuggle time. I will definitely have snuggle time with my kids.”
In all honesty, I think my kids were easier on me than I deserve. I’ve struggled over the years with losing my temper and yelling. I spend too much time on Facebook. I don’t keep an immaculate house and I’m always behind on laundry. I could be better at giving compliments and praise. I should be reading to them at bedtime instead of watching TV with them. I should be feeding them organic. I should never allow them to feel like a burden to me instead of a blessing. I should be fully invested in my time with them, not distracted, not half-assing it. These are moments I will never get back.
My saving grace in all of this is knowing that being aware of my faults as a mom is half the battle; That every day I can improve, and yesterday’s failures can be today’s triumphs. I am grateful that in spite of my short-comings, my kids still love me.
It’s scary to ask tough questions, especially when you know the answers won’t necessarily be pretty. But I believe we have to recognize our weaknesses to strengthen them.
Am I a good mom? Not always. Some days I’m a better mom than other days. Some days I screw up. I do love my kids, though, fiercely. And that’s motivation enough to do better every day.