A GOOD MOM
“You’re a good mom,” Michael said to me with such a voice of sincerity a few weeks back. Hearing the words from my life partner, my paramour, my best bud, is one thing, but knowing he also is a family therapist and deals with moms (and lets not forget dads in this labeling mix) of all sorts as his profession is another. The glory of hearing the three words that make a woman’s heart sing is that I know I am a “good mom.” As nice as it is to hear the compliment, it is equally as nice to know that I don’t need it to validate my worth as a mom.
What constitutes the good mom label anyway? Being labeled as a ‘good mom’ is different than the label of being a ‘good dad.’ When I reflect back to my early mom days, when paternity leave wasn’t even on the changing table and even if it had been, my union husband wouldn’t have even considered it. Frankly I think he would have felt it embarrassing to ask for it. I roll my eyes even saying that, but it was true, probably still is for him and lots of dads out there still even in 2018.
I delivered Michael on a Saturday morning, timed perfectly for a new father who never took vacation time. We came home as a family on the following Monday afternoon. Let’s not forget that the Patriots were in a playoff game on Sunday, December 28th, the father son dream timing as I am pretty sure we had some Patriots paraphanelia along with the game on in the hospital. This was well before the Patriots Dynasty, back well before Perfect Tom. As Dave sat there with his new and highly impressionable day old son in his arms watching with great promise, the notion of perfect parenting started to make its entrance. Dave only missed part of a workday that Monday. I think he went in on the morning of my checkout actually and picked us up. The next day, he lit a fire for me in our new fireplace, got me settled in on the couch and off he went to work. I remember thinking holy shit, how did this happen? When did the memo arrive that said I knew what I was doing simply because I was born with a vagina and by proxy was the one who gave this little dreamboat I now called my son life and birth and a safe delivery?
As we both settled into our new roles, Dave getting to leave for work every day and me having a complete life change as I tried to wrap my ahead around how I was ever going to be able to leave the house again, I did find my way eventually. So did Dave and so did we both as a couple, kind of.
I quickly realized that Dave was a superior diaper changer so I unknowingly, but as it turns out cleverly, anointed him the title. This first lesson in parenting was a golden nugget. Compliment the dad in what the mom is expected to know intuitively and Dad becomes the proud father of the year with the added bonus of easily getting him to change a diaper. The constant reminders from my mother and my grandmothers about how lucky I was to have a husband who changed diapers did not go unnoticed in the world of parental equality. “You are so fortunate,” my grandmother would coo as she used my motherhood to reflect back on her own as we women do so often (usually reminding us of how happy we are that though this part is missed, it has permanently set sail into the horizon). “Your grandfather would never change a diaper,” she would say with such an envious glee in her eyes, allowing my former husband to puff his chest out ever so slightly. These comments continued as my mother and grandparents would comment on all of the things Dave did so well, cooking, cleaning up the kitchen, laundry (as I write this, I am almost forgetting why we split up, ahh the glory of sensationalizing the past in reflection.)
For me and my role, these things were expected. Mothers don’t usually receive any additional accolades for their performance around the washing machine, the sink, the changing station. Never mind that so many of us go back to work after twelve weeks and still have to address the child care issues of pick up and delivery, of doctors appointments and calling out sick when your baby gets the sniffles for the first time. No these are mama expectations 101. I am sure there are many men who are part of the party these days, but when we were new parents, this was not something that was part of our network; in fact it wasn’t even consideration, but automatic assumption of roles. I can see in the wisdom of retrospect how easy it was to build a wall of resentment surely not helpful to a marriage of only seven years. We figured it out though and for the most part enjoyed the experience as we navigated these roles.
I have a clear memory of our first home purchase together. The realtor, who my husband had known from high school, was doing a walk through in the house to show us where things were. He decided that I needed to be the one to be shown the laundry area and Dave would be shown the furnace and all things basement. As we stood in front of the washing machine and dryer area, I said, “Paul, why are you assuming that I am the one who does the laundry?” I really meant this. He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I mean he didn’t ever conceive that this scenario would be anything other. This was 1997. I wish I could at least blame it on 1950.
I was out to dinner at Los Andes in Providence for my son’s birthday a few weeks ago and there was a large family having dinner like we were. Parents, children, grandparents, it seemed and a little one, like maybe seven or eight months. Dad was holding her for most of the dinner, walking around with her, rocking her, enjoying her energy in his arms with so much love and joy. I recognized the feeling he was having as many of us parents can identify with. The wife was sitting and eating her meal and looking like she was enjoying some baby free time. Dad held the baby the hold time we were there. Mom didn’t get up once. I didn’t notice any of this until my dear friend who also happens to be a social worker in the NICU at Women and Infants and also my go to Mom mentor for most of my mom life said, “Mom hasn’t moved an inch. Dad has had that baby the whole time.” I felt a little defensive of mom actually and said back to her, “Would you have said that if it was Mom holding the baby and Dad never moving an inch?” She paused and replied, “Probably not.”
Isn’t this interesting, our assumptions about parental roles and what constitutes heroic mommyness versus stellar daddyness? Kind of like our assumptions about gender, but that topic deserves its own separate writing.
Being “A GOOD MOM” is such a loaded topic. I for one never set out to be a “GOOD MOM” but a better one. My mom and I really never jived. From the get go, I think there was this weird competition between us for whatever reason. Her relationship with her mother was not a good one and there was resentment until the day my grandmother died. Ann, my mother, was only twenty when I was born as she and my father haphazardly eloped at nineteen and sent a telegram to let their surprised parents know. I am guessing that me coming along eleven months later gave them no time to catch their breaths from a hasty decision. Keep in mind that birth control only became legal for married couples in 1965 and even then twenty six states did not allow its use. There wasn’t the luxury of planned pregnancies so when you had sex, you probably got pregnant whether you wanted to or not.
I grew up with a mom who tried at the external, the nice dinners, the pretty home, the nice clothing and shopping at Sacks, but lacked the intuitive for the role. There wasn’t a lot of warmth and fuzziness. She didn’t have that from her mom whose own mother died when my grandmother was only 11. My grandmother was sent to a boarding school in Duluth Minnesota, Villa Scholastica to be raised by a group of Benedictine nuns, hardly a mush fest. With barely an example, it is no wonder. Then I think of my mother in law who was raised by a woman who perhaps would have been referred to as ‘loose’ back in those days and she ended up being the quintessential mom at least from the outside. You know, the rice krispy treats and fridge filled with food and kids always at the house at the built in swimming pool and so on. I think this is one of the characteristics that drew me to my former husband, her nurturing momness and his respect and love for her.
I did my best. I showed up, I was room mom, and volunteer mom. I was one of the four or five moms who had the massive sleepovers and birthday parties and end of the school year parties. I tried not to yell, though coming from a yeller, this was not as easy as sometimes Satan would rush up unannounced as I found it hard to control the gut reaction I had been used to on the receiving end when I was little. My son would say, “Mom, chill out, you don’t have to yell,” with a voice of reason I could not understand where it came from.
What constitutes a good mom is such an intricate and detailed weave of discussion. I’d imagine it is different for every person as they start this role and in hindsight reflect back on it. A good mom is a loaded three words, but I think if I were asked to define what makes me think I am one it would be this.
-Being open to what you can learn from your child as much as you think you can teach them back is numero uno on my lesson ladder.
-Look up. Technology is in our literal hands as I watch like an old lady the new moms walking their babies in their $1200 strollers trying not to judge as they stroll with a Latte in the cup holders, the leash of their Labradoodle in one hand and their Iphone in the other, texting, talking browsing missing this scenery of life. We didn’t have texting and phone emails that could so easily distract in 1997. I am sure in my perpetual world of multi tasking, I would fall into this trap. I am glad I didn’t have to make that choice.
-Learn from other moms you admire. I would say that this helped define how to be a better mom more often as I didn’t always have the knowledge to bank on. Some of the best parenting I did was because I learned it from other moms watching their example.
-Let dad be a father. I worked every Saturday and he didn’t so he was the on duty parent those Saturdays. I cherished the Saturday I got to go to work because I didn’t have to do any prep child care, I could just wake up, get ready and go to work like he did the other five days. Unbeknownst to both of us, it was one of the greatest lessons in parenting because he learned how to parent in his way and I learned how to let him. I have had many new mom employees who can’t fathom the release of control this takes. I encourage them to try it, usually with only a small amount of success. This built so much confidence in my husband as a parent and as a Dad and taught me that most of the things we moms obsess over are nonsense. The dishes get done, the laundry gets folded and life goes on. Watching my husband grow as a father was one of the best life lessons I had the privilege of enjoying. I actually think this was one of the threads that kept us married for as long as it did, I just didn’t want to give up watching him be a dad to our son. It was really a special time in our lives and I have only the best memories of it.
-Listen. My son has taught me as much if not more about being a good parent than I have likely taught him. As frustrated and impatient as I have found parenting to be at times, his accurate responses to that frustration, like when I have not been present to his never ending stream of questions, he knowingly and calmly has volleyed back to command my attention. “Mom, didn’t you always teach me to ask questions?” Touché.
All the chocolate chip cookies, volunteering in the classroom, and trips to different countries do not make up for these delicious mom moments. As much as my morning daily baking this past week for his return from school has likely assured my place in the ‘good mom’ record books in his eyes, it is often my own eyes that define it for me. As I have learned about myself and continued my own self inquisition, I have become a better mother proving it is never too late. This is gratifying in itself.