We’re painting nails today, my little girl and I. She’s chosen a different color for every nail, a hot pink for all of mine. I carefully paint each tiny nail, then hand over the brush. She immediately makes a mess, puts too much polish on at once. She runs the brush in the wrong direction, colors my whole fingertip hot pink. She misses spots, she bumps the bottle, she almost gets polish in her hair. I cringe, I flinch… I hope she doesn’t see me.
Today we’re making muffins, my little girl and I. She wants to be a chef someday, cook for more than just a few. We mash up the bananas, she leaves too many lumps. We measure out the sugar, she spills at least a cup. It’s time to crack the eggs, now shells and slime are everywhere. She mixes messily, smiles contently, jabbers away without realizing I can barely breathe from watching. I catch my breath, I look upward in frustration… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re working on a school project, my little girl and I. She chose the subject and did the research, delighted to learn more. We’re painting, cutting, writing, oh my, she knows to try her best. Her lines aren’t straight and her glue’s a mess, her spelling needs some work. She’s proud as punch of her painted tree, with white spots showing through. I purse my lips, I tilt my head… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We decorate our Christmas tree, my little girl and I. Each year we’re so excited, there’s magic in the air. She gasps as she unwraps each trinket, each ornament like gold. She handles them too roughly, these orbs I packed with care. She hangs them in the corner, all concentrated in one spot. She doesn’t fluff the branches, doesn’t stand back to check proportion. She wipes glitter all over, drops too much, and I have to leave the room. My eyes are squeezed shut, my hands are fists… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re getting ready to go out, my little girl and I. I’m putting on my makeup, she’s watching in pure awe. My concealer won’t conceal enough, my eyeliner isn’t even. My eyelashes aren’t as long as I’d like, I contour to look younger. I paint and blend and draw and mask, trying to look different. I grow frustrated with the process, grow sad at my appearance. I’m not happy with the way I look, not happy after application, either. I scrutinize, I criticize… I hope she doesn’t see me.
We’re growing up together, my little girl and I. We’re both new at all we do, she’s my only girl. We live together, play together, she’s my mini me. I struggle with anxiety, excellence my constant quest. Perfection is my prison, I want control of everything. I miss a lot of moments because I mentally amend them, focus on the chaos and the mess. I gasp instead of smile, criticize instead of praise. I’m insecure, impatient, in charge of raising her. I hope she’s strong, I hope she’s calm… and I hope she doesn’t see me.
I write to you from the heart of all that is horrific and bad, where there is much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I find myself deep in the bowels of enemy territory, a no-mom’s-land where loyalty lines mean naught and every soldier battles only for themselves. Yes, my dear, I find myself stuck in the after school pick up line.
Weep not for me, as I do not relish in your grief. I am fueled not by the tears of my loved ones but by the rage that burns within me.
Karens to the left of me! Karens to the front! Still I trudge, half a car, half a car, half a car onward.
Onward my noble steed inches, slowly growing closer to freedom. My minivan idles – our progress halted!
A mother who has apparently been parted from her dearest child for more than the standard 7 hours has suspended all pick up operations so that she may exit her Land Rover and embrace this long-lost offspring. It seems they have not only been parted by great time and distance, but have also forgotten the increasingly agitated throngs behind them, as they begin to discuss their days. Right here. In the pick up line.
The cavalry sounds the alarm by way of a coach’s whistle, and the Land Rover is hurried away. We breathe relief and inch hopefully forward to the muffled battle cadences of Biggie and Tupac from various vans surrounding us.
Alas, my love, our procession is interrupted yet again! I fear this time may be worse, as it appears a rogue grandparent has been dispatched to fetch the children and not been instructed on the treaties of the pick up line. They park. They exit the vehicle. In horror we watch as they walk towards the office. How long we shall be furloughed here, we do not know. I fear we have not the supplies necessary to last through a grandparent pick up until I discover half a package of Skittles I promised our dear heirs I would “save for later”. This occurred about 8 months ago, but in battle we are all brave. I am nourished. I move onward.
What’s this? A Tahoe sounds a battle cry in a steady stream of honks! Chaos abounds – it is every mom for herself!
Karens to the left of me! Karens to the right of me! Karens to the front!
The lines are dissolved, we are no longer a regiment but a hive. Swerving, swarming, buzzing, beeping. We are all here in the same desperate attempt to retrieve our children, all attend this event with the same desired outcome, yet none respect the other, all battle for the exit. Rage, rage against the last spot in the line! Rage, rage against the one who cuts you off!
Onto the battlefield limps a child, heavily burdened with a graded project they have been tasked with returning home. I squint – ’tis our burdened child! She moves slowly, slower than the pick up line. Her feet shuffle nervously, her arms bear the weight of the diorama unsteadily. I panic. Shall I rescue her? Shall I leave safety of this Caravan and toss all agreed-upon rules and standards to the wind in order to come to the aide of our child? Do I dare park this steed and brave the outside, assist the weaker ones in their journey?
No, because this is the freaking pick up line and you don’t get out of the car.
My gaze turns steely as my resolve hardens. Silently I will strength towards her, wordlessly I encourage her with my stare. She will make it. We all must make the journey, we all must allow ourselves to be hardened by the pick up line. I cannot grow soft now, not in the heat of battle. I cannot betray all I have stood for in order to open a door. She will make it, and we will all be stronger for it.
My beloved, as our offspring approaches I must take my leave of this correspondence. I pray all is resolved soon and we may be reunited once again. Until then, remember me. Remember us all who find ourselves thick in the strife and struggle of the pick up line. Remember our campaign to fetch our children and wish us swift victory. But do not weep for us, dear one, no. Instead join us in our rage, encourage us in this noble combat we endure, not hand-to-hand but bumper-to-bumper. Do not weep for us, my beloved. Instead, order us pizza for dinner tonight, because the pick up line is the worst.
I started warning you about middle school a long time ago. Heights are awkward, bodies are changing, skin is uncooperative, voices are unpredictable, and fashion… well… fashion is pretty much nonexistent. I showed you pictures of my own middle school years, and OH the laughs we shared. We laughed as I tried to prepare you for flirting, gossip, deodorant, and body hair. The time when you’d finally get to join band or athletics, switch classes, maybe even get a cell phone. We talked about the temptations, the changes, the dynamics. We talked a lot about what awaited you from the outside, we talked a lot about the changes you’d experience on the outside, but I didn’t prepare you for what would happen on the inside.
I wasn’t prepared for what happens on the inside.
Middle school is the time when childhood bleeds into manhood, when you’re just enough and not enough of both to know just where you stand.
I’ve watched you grow taller, marveling and bragging at how big and handsome you are, yet I’m at a loss as to how to help you pilot this new body, how to make sense of the man inside you trying to push through the boy who remains.
I’ve rolled my eyes and raised my voice. I’ve punished and debated. We’ve snuggled and we’ve argued. I’ve pushed and I’ve stood back. I’ve allowed myself to take this storm of hormones personally, viewed this journey you’re on as a deliberate one. I’ve been so lost in this sea of changing tides and moods that I’ve forgotten you’re in it with me, that you’re in as much control of it as I am.
I’ve sat dumbfounded, offended, hurt, angry. I’ve sat proud, tired, accomplished, content. In it all, no matter which mood your body has decided to put you in, whether I was angered by your attitude or astonished at your absurdity, the one consistent thing I have felt has been that of helplessness.
I don’t know how to help you curb these hormones.
I don’t know how to make your changing body cooperate.
I don’t know why what worked yesterday won’t work today.
I have prepared you with the science of what is happening, can explain what is going on. We share the common understanding of what is changing, but between us also lies the hurt and confusion of two people who are fighting with futility to stay the same.
I’m not ready for you to be a man.
You’re not ready for you to be a man.
Your body whispers that you are a man, but your heart cries out that you’re still a boy.
The deodorant on the counter is for a man, but the toys on the table are for a boy.
The independence that bubbles up inside of you is that of a man, but the way you rest your head on my shoulder is with the innocence of a boy.
You’re a sapling, growing, hinting at what you will be, but not quite steady enough to cast a shade.
I don’t always know when to hold on and when to hold back. You don’t always know when to speak up and when to quiet down. We’re both in new roles, you and I, neither of us always certain of what those roles are.
It’s tough. I feel as though I’m being replaced, resented. You feel as though you’re being stifled, stunted. Together we both want what’s best for you, both know you’ll reach that point someday. It’s your job to get there, and part of mine is repeatedly telling you “not yet!”. We have battling roles with a common outcome – to see you reach manhood. They are seemingly incompatible yet also highly dependent upon one another.
So in this time of tumult, during this disorienting dance between man and boy, when I don’t know what to expect or how to always handle it all, I can only make you this promise: I will still love you on the other side.
I love you now, in the middle, don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved you through cries and colic, through potty training and Minecraft obsessions. I loved you when your little feet were still chubby on top and I’ll love you when your little mouth gets fuzzy on top.
I’ve loved you through every time you took your diaper off during a nap and I’ll love you through every time your mouth shoots off during an argument.
I’ll love you through this change, this time, this journey, this discovery. I’ll love you through the mood swings and the voice cracks, the wrestling for independence and the very real need for support. I’ll love you through this hard time, this weird time, this getting-to-know-you-again time, and I will love you on the other side.
I’ll love you through your embarrassment of me, your ridicule of me, your annoyance at me, and the inevitable running back to me. I’ll love you through your wee voice, your changing voice, and someday soon, your deep voice. I’ll say goodbye to the voice that called me “Mama” and get to know the one that will call me “Mom”. I’ll someday put my head on your chest when we hug and smell your cologne, not your shampoo.
I’ll mourn the future as though it changes our past, then I’ll remember our past and look forward to your future.
I’ve seen glimpses of who you’ll be, of the man peeking out. I’m getting to know his humor, his passions, his compass. He’s not quite steady, but he doesn’t have to be. Not yet. He’ll make it out, eventually, and I already know I’ll love him. Because he’s you, you’re him, and I know I’ll love you on the other side.
My kids were hard today. All three of them. Their different personalities and senses of humor and ways of communicating mean every day is different, but today everyone was hard. And so I blamed myself.
They yelled a lot at each other, and since everyone is always sharing articles about how damaging and unnatural yelling is, they must have learned it from me.
The tween got pretty disrespectful and mouthy, and since people love to say that kids are a reflection of their parents, it must have been something bad that I modeled.
Their patience was short, their words were harsh, their tempers were fiery, and their obedience was lacking, and since I’ve devoted almost every waking moment of the last 13 years to raising and caring for my kids, today I blamed myself.
We live in a time unlike any before it, when parents can share articles and philosophies and studies in less time than it takes to change a diaper. Back when we were being raised, our parents chose between Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock and had the occasional interjection from Dear Abby. Parenting experts were few and far between and the methods one could choose to employ in childrearing could be counted on one hand.
At some point between us growing up and us growing our families, parenting research took a turn. Forget NASA, experts threw themselves into the field of parenting and began churning out research and articles faster than people could even procreate. Now we have more opinions than children, and a mom can’t scroll through social media or a home page without seeing the latest in childrearing opinion and research… without being told that everything she’s doing is wrong… without being told that everything she’s struggling with is her fault.
My youngest child has a very long list of very severe allergies. Some are weird, like breaking out into hives when she’s cold, some are life-threatening, like losing the ability to breathe if she gets too close to peanuts. No one else in our entire family has so many allergies, let alone life-threatening ones. Our entire lifestyle was changed and I live in a state of constant hypervigilance now, constantly scanning the crowd for peanuts, tuna, cinnamon, anything that will cause a reaction in her. So much about our lives is different now and requires so much more work and research, just with something as simple as going grocery shopping. Yet when I’m explaining her allergies to someone new, 9 times out of 10 do you know what the first thing they say is? “Was it something you did when you were pregnant with her?” They blame me.
Allergies are largely a fluke. There are some genetic links, but many of the allergies she deals with are genetic anomalies, random cases of autoimmune responses gone awry. She was nursed for two years, never had a drop of formula or a flake of rice cereal. She was cloth diapered, swaddled, seen regularly by a pediatrician, and had a stay-at-home mom with her at all times. I can’t imagine any area where an anaphylactic food allergy could have snuck into her genetics, yet people almost always assume that I’ve done something to cause this life for her. Either I ate something I shouldn’t have or I didn’t eat something I was supposed to. Maybe it was because she was delivered via C-section (which, let’s face it, is something else to blame me for) or the fact that she lost a twin early on? Surely, there has to be some reason that she has these struggles, and surely, the only possible finger we can point must be at me. My daughter will die if she eats peanut butter, and society blames me.
I have a child with some special needs, a very difficult child. He is who he is, he is what he is, because that’s just how he was made. When his high IQ comes up people question my ability to keep up with him, never assume that was my fault, but when the tough stuff gets really tough, society blames me. Heck, I blame me. No matter how much I tell myself I’m a good mom, no matter how much I know that his wiring is a result of nature, not nurture, when he has a bad day I cry in the dark and I blame myself.
People talk about losing the baby weight after a child is born, but no one mentions the weight of motherhood that we put on every day after. No one applauds the celebrity for their public debut carrying the crushing self-doubt and responsibility of raising a person. There aren’t a lot of articles being shared that remind you that kids sometimes just act like jerks. That they yell without being yelled at, that they mouth off without being taught disrespect. We are constantly fed the sobering responsibility of motherhood without once giving thought to the reality of childhood – and that reality is that kids, sometimes, just have bad days, and it’s not always mom’s fault.
My kids also painted today, a lot. They gave makeovers to toys they weren’t playing with and created something new. They used their imaginations and their creativity, and I’d like to blame myself for that.
My oldest is learning to play multiple instruments, and as a band nerd myself I’m totally going to blame myself.
My youngest recently performed in her first musical and had the time of her life. She’s very dramatic, energetic, and outgoing, and I absolutely blame myself.
My middle one loves fiercely. He faces a lot of struggles, but he lives in a home where his parents love each other and love him deeply. He is modeled grace and sacrifice on a daily basis, and for that I will blame myself.
Our kids get so much more from us than just what we’re determined to feel guilty about. Our kids just do things that we have no right to feel guilty about. We mom shame the woman in the mirror and convince ourselves that their flaws, their struggles, their bad days are all something for which we are to blame. We have set such a standard of perfection for ourselves that we’ve begun to take it personally when our kids aren’t perfect, either.
My kids had a bad day today. They were rough, rude, loud, mean. They fought with their siblings, didn’t work through conflicts like pros. My kids whined, yelled, tattled and teased. My kids acted like kids today. And I had the audacity to blame myself.
I’ve watched a few medical dramas in my time. Okay, a lot. Without fail there is always a scene where a patient who was previously thought to be healthy and fine suddenly crashes. The room fills with medical staff, nurses are flinging IVs and needles and someone is sweating through chest compressions. The patient gasps, eyes wide, and everyone is relieved – he made it. Roll credits, time to go home, happy ending for all. Unless you watch Grey’s Anatomy, then your favorite character is probably going to be carried away by a protected bird of prey or die in some other incomprehensible way while in the parking lot.
The problem with these scenes of survival is that the story ends there. We see the patient pull through, grateful, strong. We see everyone relax and sigh that the crisis is over. We see loved ones laughing in the corner, basking in the glow of recovery as the camera pans past the room.
We don’t see the bruises.
We don’t see the broken ribs.
We don’t see the side effects of pushing a lot of powerful medications in a small amount of time.
Survival, sometimes, requires brokenness. CPR and other life-saving measures can be violent, painful. They may save you, but they will hurt you. Re-starting someone’s heart, electrocuting them ever so slightly, guiding a tube or a sharp instrument into someone’s body – those are invasive, painful moves, means justified by the end, but traumatic either way.
Survival can hurt you. Survival will hurt you. Having scars or aches or some broken pieces doesn’t mean you lost, it means you survived. You just have to know that survival is worth the brokenness.
Sometimes there are toxic relationships that require you to break, to tear away part of your heart by ending the relationship or cutting off contact. When it hurts to love someone, when someone you love hurts you, survival is worth the brokenness.
Sometimes there are crises we face. Medical emergencies, job losses, financial disasters, car wrecks. Survival takes pain. You scramble, you hustle, you pray, you beg, you do whatever you have to do to make it through, and you survive. Your pride may crumble, you probably won’t smile much. Actual survival doesn’t look much like the determined heroine in the movies with ferocity in her eyes and gloss on her lips – more often it looks like the woman with her head down, crushed and tear-stained, desperate, depressed, and barely hanging on. She may not look like much, but she is surviving.
Having a child with special needs, that’s a lot of survival. Painful survival. Sometimes the moment of gasping after being resuscitated doesn’t come for 18 years. Sometimes there’s no known end and you just survive for a really, really long time. You try this therapy and that therapy, you gain hope from understanding and get crushed by the setbacks.
Living with depression is nothing but survival. You ache from the pain, both physical and emotional. Sometimes your body is a road map of what has worked and what hasn’t. Sometimes your night stand is littered with bottles of what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you feel the broken bones and the bruised tissues of trying so hard for so long to just keep living, and you wonder if it’s worth this pain, if the life-saving measures are worth it.
Survival, friend, is worth the brokenness. You aren’t hurting because you’re losing, you’re hurting because you’re surviving. You are aching, stinging, maybe even immobile. But you are surviving.
If you need to isolate yourself for a little while in order to focus on your mental health or just to rest, do it. If you need to end a relationship in order to live your life, do it. If you need to take medication or attend daily therapy or do something really, really hard that will not be convenient in any way and will likely hurt, do it to survive. Take the broken bones that come from chest compressions to keep your heart beating. Take the scars that come from surgical procedures and keep yourself functioning. Take the pain from what you’re going through and know that it doesn’t mean it’s beating you.This pain doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it means you made it. This pain isn’t a defeat, it isn’t a sign you shouldn’t keep going, and it isn’t the only thing you’ll ever feel again. Survival requires brokenness, but brokenness, like you, will eventually heal.
You will make it. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. It’s going to break you. But you will survive. And survival is always worth the brokenness.
When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.
It was already a rough evening, not unlike most evenings. The tween was upset that I was – gasp! – making him do his school work. The 6-year-old was mad that I was busy with dinner and homework patrol and work and had my attention anywhere but solely on her. The middle kiddo was just mad at everything. And my husband was frustrated at my frustration. Again, nothing unique in this evening. No full moons, no impending holidays, no one had a sore throat.
I broke away for a second to sit in silence use the restroom, and of course my youngest wasn’t far behind. I sat there, shoulders slumped, head down, just really feeling defeated.
“Mommy?” she said with a shaky voice, “I just feel like everyone is always mad at you.”
That’s when I broke.
I’d been holding it in for hours, days, YEARS if we’re being honest. I started the ugly, shaking, snotty cry that doesn’t stop just because you will it to. My daughter started to cry, so I hugged her to comfort her. Note that she was standing close enough for me to hug while I was on the toilet.
“I feel the same way, baby girl. I’m trying really hard, but it sure seems like everyone is mad at me anyway.”
And that is the true weight of motherhood. Not sagging skin, not extra pounds around the middle, not the bags under the eyes or the mounds of laundry or the piles of papers schools keep sending home – it’s the weight of everyone else’s expectations.
We moms have a bad habit of comparing ourselves to others, to our own idealized selves. We hold ourselves to impossible standards and punish ourselves for not being perfect at all the things. We encourage each other to give ourselves some grace, we share pictures of messy houses to keep it real, we bare our flaws to remain authentic.
But those acts of self-acceptance don’t touch on the expectations of others.
When you’re hosting a holiday and are expected to make every food exactly how it’s made at someone else’s house, keep up with everyone’s specific diet and what they can or can’t eat this week. When you have to plan it all to come out at a specific time so it fits everyone else’s schedule. When it’s all on you to plan, shop, prep, cook, time, and serve the meals exactly as everyone else insists they need it… and they’re annoyed because you need an extra 10 minutes after they get here to finish baking a side.
When you’re the one coordinating everyone to begin with – texting, calling, emailing, begging, praying, hoping it will all work out and everyone can come. Running the calendar to find a day and time that will work for 5 different schedules, and they get annoyed when you keep asking them to respond so you’ll have a better idea of just when this circus can even go down.
When a kid forgets a lunchbox, a change of clothes for PE, a water bottle, an assignment – they get annoyed at mom. Either mom didn’t remind them to take it that morning or mom didn’t bring it fast enough or – dare say – mom was too busy doing something else to rush it up there at all.
When a kid falls behind on an assignment, the mom is the bad guy who either let him fail or who nags him to catch back up.
When dinner isn’t planned, mom is the flake who dropped the ball.
When your family arrives late to a function, it’s mom who gets blamed, it’s mom who they’re mad at (even though it was THEM who wouldn’t wake up when MOM gently started rubbing their back that morning, telling them it was time to get up).
When there are practices, therapies, appointments, lessons, classes, dates, parties, games, recitals, due dates, lunch dates, release dates, deadlines, budgets, emails, meetings, IEPs, 504s, evaluations, explanations, park days, snow days, half days, bad days… we’re the ones who are supposed to have it all under control, running smoothly, always on time with nary a forgotten sheet of paper.
Our families – they’re really freaking hard on us. Really hard.
Sure, we’re the glue that holds it all together, but then who gets the blame when something falls off? Us. Mom. The glue. The lady who has spent the day feeling like she’s falling behind. The lady who stayed up late and woke up early to make sure nothing was missed. The lady who told herself it was okay when something was missed. The lady who hears all the other moms saying it’s okay to be imperfect, then comes home to a house full, an office full, or a whole network full of people who demand otherwise.
When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.
When I serve a favorite meal for dinner it’s not half as passionately received as when I serve a meal with tomatoes.
When there are clean clothes hanging it’s eerily silent, especially compared to when there are no jeans to be found anywhere (spoiler: they’re shoved in a corner under the bed). Don’t even get me started on when I try to pick an outfit out beforehand to streamline the process – no one EVER wants to wear what I select, yet they all strangely need my help when I tell them to do it on their own.
“Everyone is always mad at you.” And they are.
We work on gratitude and manners here, it’s not like my kids are barking hellions who sit on thrones and demand compliance from me. Their grades are their grades and their responsibilities are their responsibilities and this is not a restaurant so they’ll eat what’s placed in front of them. But my consistency and firmness and expectation that I be treated with respect doesn’t stop them from somehow expecting more. Much more. Too much more.
It doesn’t stop strangers from judging the mother whose child is experiencing a meltdown.
It doesn’t stop teachers from rolling their eyes at the mother who is trying to advocate for her child.
It doesn’t stop everyone, everywhere, from demanding and expecting just too dang much from us.
I’ve seen a quote floating around a lot lately and cannot shake the truth to it: “We expect women to work as if they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” It’s so true, but it’s also just the surface of the very deeply-rooted problem.
As we get older, as we become mothers, the baton begins to come our way and we start taking over the responsibilities of traditions, holidays, gifts, reunions. We’re supposed to keep everyone in touch – even though no one wants to stay in touch. We’re supposed to plan it all, remember it all, execute it all. Birthdays and anniversaries and cards and parties and laundry and allergies and dinner and lunch-packing and field trips and doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping and friends who really want to hang out and phone calls at the most inconvenient times. Note that I still haven’t even factored in mom’s possible work or any thought of hobbies. The weight of a family falls upon the matriarch, and little thought or appreciation is extended towards her as she sweats to hold it all up. Attention is paid to what is dropped, not what is maintained.
This is motherhood.
Everyone is mad at you.
And you are just really trying your freaking best.
Everyone expects a lot, and honestly, you do a lot.
Like the episode of Friends when Monica didn’t even want to host Thanksgiving but was guilted into it, then guilted into making multiple different kinds of potatoes because everyone wanted theirs to be the way they liked… that’s motherhood.
Their expectations will always be greater than our efforts… and we put a LOT of effort in.
So what do we do? Will we never please them? Are we doomed to live in a constant state of disappointing those around us? Is everyone always going to be mad at us?
I don’t really know for sure.
But I do know that I can say “NO”, and I need to start practicing. I can advocate for myself while everyone else petitions. They can demand, but I can deny. We can take stock of what we really have to do and what they can just buck up and do themselves.
Or we can go on strike and they can just fail their classes and make their own mashed potatoes.
Either way, I’m tired of everyone being mad at me. I’m tired of carrying this weight, these expectations. I’m tired of feeling like I’m dropping all the balls. Because honey, if it weren’t for what we moms do, they’d be drowning in a flippin’ ball pit.
We are rock stars. We keep this ship afloat. We run the world and pack its lunch. We are the glue, and we’re doing a really, really great job of keeping it all together.
Ah, mom clothes. They’re comfy, machine-washable, nondescript, and reminiscent of Mervyn’s department stores. Any Swiffer commercial is a good example of mom clothes. Not yoga pants and LuLaRoe tunics, but Amy-from-Everybody-Loves-Raymond clothes. 42-inch zippers. Sweater sets. The kind of stuff that looks on the hanger like it makes a mean casserole and doesn’t mind your friends coming over after school, as long as you get your homework done. Mass-produced, asexual, most likely embroidered, and worn exclusively by moms and middle school English teachers.
I became a mom at the tender age of 21. I honestly hadn’t thought much about what kind of mom I’d be before I became one. Partly because I’d been told most of my life that I most likely wouldn’t be able to have kids, partly because I was just so young when we were surprised by our first, partly because “mom” is used to describe some seriously uncool things (mom jeans, mom-mobiles…), and I am the cat’s pajamas. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and started binging on A Baby Story episodes that I began to fantasize about motherhood. As I tore through every pregnancy book I could find I was making mental notes and verbal declarations about what I would never do and what I would be a rock star at. When we finally brought our bitty baby boy home I practically devoured the baby development books and lost actual sleep over whether or not it was time to introduce colors or to keep stimulating his brain with black and white patterned images. I didn’t remember being a baby, myself, so not knowing what I’d preferred in a mother as an infant I took my cues from TV, full of baby wash and diaper commercials with moms who were fully dressed at home all day, moms who calmly rubbed lotion on their babies as they sang and cooed, who Swiffered in shoes and had tons of natural light pouring in as they enjoyed smiles in slow motion. These were what moms were supposed to look like, apparently.
I lost myself in these images. I was 21, had never been fully dressed at home unless company was coming over, barely remembered to wear shoes when I left the house, and my baby didn’t let me do ANYTHING slowly. I was already failing, according to what I was seeing.
I went to Sears – you can laugh – at only twenty-one years of age, just over a score. I couldn’t even rent a car, but I could find the mom clothes. I bought pull-on, elastic-waist khaki capris. Embroidered t-shirts with flowers and butterflies on them. Polo shirts, and not the kind with a little horse on them. SWEATER SETS. I, in all my glorious youth, emerged from Sears wearing something with a “one size fits most” tag.
I cut my hair. My long, thick, always-got-me-compliments hair. What’s more, I dyed it dark. I went from the picture of youth – long, flowing blonde hair and a smile – to a caricature, a stereotype, an imposter in polyester.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing old or wrong about haircuts, dark hair, or whatever style of clothes you like (except Crocs – those will always be wrong). There’s not anything wrong with growing older, looking older, or dressing for comfort. Where I went wrong was losing my identity in my new label as Mom. I allowed motherhood to overtake and overwhelm me, to tell me who I was rather than allowing who I was to dictate what type of mom I’d be. I didn’t consult myself in this makeover, only those dang Swiffer ads.
I was miserable.
I had a miserable, colicky, premature baby who screamed every moment that he was awake. I was so tired that I kept the curtains closed and lived without that beautiful natural sunlight pouring in. I hated my new clothes and they fit me awkwardly. I missed my long hair, the color made me look pale, and I was absolutely lost. My friends my age were still in college and the moms with kids the same age as mine seemed too together for my lack of self confidence. I isolated myself, in a dark room with dark hair, and being stuck with yourself when you no longer know who you are is rather disconcerting. I didn’t like me. I didn’t feel like me. I wasn’t me.
About a year later my mom took me shopping, probably for my birthday. Since I was a stay-at-home mom I didn’t have a lot of use for clothes that I wasn’t going to wear to church. I never wore those pull-on khakis, my curves made the embroidered shirts fit poorly, and I felt frumpy. We picked out an outfit or two, a new pair of khaki capris (I still hadn’t learned), and headed over to the shoe department. You can sense the excitement building, can’t you?
I’ve always been tall so I’ve always avoided heels. I stand at just under 6 feet and have always had weird feelings about being even taller (especially taller than guys when I was in middle and high school, amiright ladies?). I owned one single, solitary pair of heels, sensible black ones, that made me feel like the fiercest of female spies but also made me feel like the sorest of thumbs, standing out above the crowd. Those beloved heels had worn down so we grabbed a pair to replace them – pointed toe, low heel, matte black heels. Just for variety’s sake, we also grabbed a pair of brown dress shoes.
Then it happened.
To this day I don’t know why I reached for them. I’d never before considered something like them, never lusted after anything similar in any fashion magazine. I couldn’t imagine what outfit I’d wear them with, and probably secretly felt like I’d never actually wear them, at least not without being embarrassed at how outlandish they were. Red heels. Red, patent, shiny, 4-inch heels. HIGH heels. They were not demure. They were not sensible. They pushed me well over into the 6-foot territory and didn’t go with anything. But I loved them. Oh, how I loved them. I wanted to wear them out of the store. I wanted to wear them while doing dishes. I wanted these red heels that screamed anything but “Mom!” And I got them. Bless my mother, she didn’t know what she was starting that day, but she got them for me and began my long-standing love affair with heels. High heels. Spikey heels. Outlandish heels. Heels with chains. Heels with animal print. Heels with ribbons, feathers, and crystals. Heels that are me. Heels that are fun.
I changed with those red heels.
My mom uniform sank to the back of the closet, then eventually to the garage sale pile. My hair grew back out. I was walking taller, in every sense of the word, in those red heels. Sometimes people noticed them, sometimes they were so at home on my proud feet that they didn’t even stand out. Sometimes I got compliments, sometimes I tripped and got laughs. But I felt great in my red heels… and I was still a mom. In fact, I was a better mom. I began to present myself for who I was, not who I thought I was expected to be. I didn’t Swiffer in shoes, but I laughed with my kids. I spent a lot of time at home and not at mommy-and-me classes , but I opened the curtains, let in the light. I went days in my pajamas at home, but I looked forward to getting dressed when I did go somewhere. I wasn’t a perfect mom, but I was me. I was having fun again.
I see a lot of mom-shaming these days. Celebrities pose in outlandish outfits, moms dye their hair pink, blue, green. They get tattoos, piercings, shave their heads and wear band t-shirts. “You’re somebody’s mother!” the comments exclaim, reinforcing the idea that moms have to wear khaki capris and keep their pantries stocked with Special K bars.
But they don’t.
Unless you want to, but you don’t have to.
You can dye your hair. You can cut it as short as you want or grow it out so long that you sit on it, and you’ll still be a mom. You can wear flats or stilettos – or both in the same day – and still be a mom. You can wear jeans, leggings, dresses, jumpers, skirts, suits, ties, pants, sweats, or khaki capris, and none of those will change the fact that you are a mom. The only affect your clothing will have on you as a parent – as a person – is whether or not it makes you happy. Kim Kardashian and Michelle Duggar are both mothers, momming exactly how they want to in exactly the shoes they want to, and no matter what anyone thinks of their outfits the fact remains that they are moms, they are women, they are people. You are not what you wear, so wear what you want to be who you are.
I get some flak still for my clothing choices. My love for heels has expanded into a love for accessories, and the bigger, flashier, and bolder, the better. My clothing choices are not practical. I own a necklace that could impale someone if they hugged me too quickly and more than a few heels that could be used as weapons. I don’t look like the other moms when I go on field trips, and often find myself swooning over a piece of clothing online only to discover that it’s meant to be a costume. I stand out, whether I want to or not. But I feel better. My red heels elevate me above the lowly image I have of myself, remind me that I am still feminine (when I want to be), still fabulous, still full of sass and life and C-section scars don’t get to take that from me. I’m a mom, but before that I’m a woman, I’m a person, I’m me, and adding a job description didn’t rob me of my personhood.
Last week my son and I were reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine, a seriously kick-butt lady. She was a queen, a duchess, a business woman, a political leader, a strategist, a woman who refused to behave in ways that were expected of her, and a mom. We learned of her marriages, of her intelligence, of her ten children, and then – wait for it – of how she wore cherry red boots into battle.
Eleanor got it.
The Wicked Witch of the West got it.
Red heels are powerful, symbolic, and just so freaking fabulous.
We moms do it all, carry it all, and bear enough guilt and expectation when we’re barefoot… So why not do it wearing some really amazing shoes? Go be you, moms, Swiffer commercials be darned.
My dear, sweet, child, the fruit of my womb, the tapestry of my husband and I woven together with unique purpose, my mini-me, my legacy, my charge, my heart, my pride – sometimes it really freakin’ hurts to listen to you.
It’s not your voice – you sound like a heavenly harp (albeit sometimes a harp plugged into an amp turned up to 11). It’s not the adorable way you still mispronounce a few words (it’s one of my “fravorite” things about your stories). It’s not even that sometimes you want to talk 4 hours after you were supposed to be asleep and I’m still only 12 minutes into my 50-minute Netflix show (okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that). It’s that sometimes, as much as I truly, madly, deeply love you, I just really don’t care about Minecraft. Or cars. Or that YouTube vlogger. Or the nuanced differences between Shopkins. Or the Rubik’s cube algorithm you came up with that is just ever so slightly different from the one you used before. Or the combination of buttons and triggers that help you land an Ollie on that skateboarding game. I love you, dear child, but it hurts to listen to sometimes.
I spend all day listening. I listen to you. I listen to podcasts. I listen to the tv, the radio, the honking horns and squealing children in the pick up line. I listen to how your day was. I listen to how your dad’s day was. I listen to my family, my surroundings, my kitchen timer, and my gut. I am constantly listening. Spending so much time in the state of receiving audio input means that by a certain point in my day, I’ve reached my quota . I’m full. I’d like to talk. I’d like to sit. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to listen to something of my choosing rather than remain in the state of vigilance that parental listening requires.
“Uh huh” won’t work. “Neat” doesn’t cut it. You are so deeply passionate about what you’re saying, child, that I can’t offer up half-interested automated responses when you pause to study my reaction. Your eyes are wide with excitement and your body is coiled with anticipation. You are so exhilarated by whatever paragraph you just monologued that an offering of “wow, that’s cool” may as well be a slap in your eager little face. No, your speeches require listening. Lots of listening. More listening than I want to offer, and seemingly more listening than I feel I can give.
Yet I listen.
There will be those who remark that the years are short, that someday you won’t want to talk so much, that I should treasure the Lego talk because too soon I’ll have closed doors instead of open mouths. I’ll be chided by mothers who would give anything to hear their child’s voice again and waiting mothers who would give anything to have a child at all. I’ll be met with criticism and judgement and disbelief, but no matter anyone’s feelings about me, it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to you describe – in detail – every single Hot Wheel you have that I can plainly see right before me with my own eyes.
Take note, child and naysayers, I did not say that I don’t listen. I said it hurt. I don’t ignore. I don’t dismiss. But I do give deeply of myself when the day should already be over and still I am asked to listen. It is a sacrifice to listen, yes. Whatever anyone thinks a mother’s ears should be for, they have a limit, and mine meet it every day. I can only feign so much interest in rubber band bracelets, and once I’ve given you all I have, you ask for more. It hurts.
I do not listen because I should. I don’t listen because I have to. I don’t listen because I’m your mom, I don’t listen because I have nothing else to do, and I definitely don’t listen because I care that much about different breeds of turtles. I listen because I love you. I listen, though it hurts, because you are special to me, though your chosen topic may not be. I listen because someday there will be topics you won’t want to talk about and I need you to know you can say anything. I listen because someday, as cliché as it is, you won’t tell me much. I listen because it helps me know you, because you are your own person and I want to encourage you to like what you like without any outside input telling you that you shouldn’t. I listen because I want to model for you, want you to see that caring about someone doesn’t mean being selective in your interest level. I listen because you have to know that we don’t have to agree to be kind, that you can sometimes learn things you never knew you never knew, just by staying quiet. I listen because it’s important to you, and because I remember the disappointment in your voice when you could tell I didn’t want to. I listen because children are not meant to only be seen and not heard, because you have unique things to say in the most magical ways sometimes. I listen, my dear, even though I don’t want to, because I know you want me to.
That last paragraph sounds a little more noble than it feels when I’m thick in the quicksand that is one of your stories. It amazes me how only 26 letters can combine to create so very many different words, how you can weave together a seemingly infinite explanation or take 5 1/2 minutes to answer a yes or no question. You have so many words, so very many words, and you’ve gone from the cooing little infant to the child who wants to make sure I hear all of your words. I cannot imagine being interested in some of the things you are and I definitely don’t think Pokémon card trades are nearly as consequential as you do. It hurts to listen sometimes, baby, because sometimes your stories bore me. Sometimes they interrupt me. Sometimes they come at the end of the day when I have so far exceeded my listening limit that the line is a dot to me. Sometimes I feel my chest tighten in panic as I realize that your story truly does have no end. Sometimes I feel irritation flare up in my gut when you begin yet another discourse over American versus Italian sports cars. Sometimes I just want to sit in a comfy spot with a cup of caffeine and scroll mindlessly through Pinterest. Sometimes all 3 of you, dear darling children, want me to listen at once. And by sometimes, I mean every dad gummed day.
It hurts to listen sometimes. Pregnancy hurt. Delivering you hurt. Breastfeeding and first days of school and burning myself while cooking bacon this morning hurt, but these things were all worth it, and all were acts of service I took on as a way to express my love for you. I humble myself, don’t tell myself that everything I hear in a day is meant for my enjoyment, I suck it up and listen. I usually end up hiding in the closet for a while afterwards, but I listened, made sure you were heard.
So please, dear child, don’t take it personally when my eyes glaze over, when my breathing turns into sighs, when my face turns heavenward in a desperate plea to your Maker to distract you with something else long enough to silence your oration. I love you more than words can say – though I’m sure someday soon you’ll find enough words to get close – it just hurts, actually hurts to listen right now. Instead, appreciate that I’m trying, recognize the sacrifice that my love is offering you in the form of attempted interest. I love you, sweet one, and you often tell me the silliest, most interesting things. I love hearing about your day, love knowing what makes you laugh. I love your nerdy interests and creative ideas. I can only know you by listening to you, and I want to know you as deeply as I can, my child. It’s just that if it’s after around 10PM, I’m gonna need you to shut your pie hole because mama’s done for the day. Now go ask your brother about black hole theories.
You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.
… or do we?
Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.
They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.
So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?
Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.
Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.
Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.
Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about. Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.
Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know.
Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.
If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.
Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child isA gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.
Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.
Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.
Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.
While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.
I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.