“One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.” —Virginia Woolf
I do not know you or your situation, so I do not mean to speak to you directly. Rather, I am speaking to myself from the place of MY knowledge, experience, history, baggage, social/economic/family position, and list of insecurities, failures, and triumphs. If anything resonates with you in a positive way, I invite you to feel connection with and validation in your own feelings and choices. If what I write here rubs you the wrong way, then I urge you to scroll on down to the next blog post that catches your eye with an interesting photo and/or inflammatory quote.
The voices in my head continue to get louder and louder. I find myself seeking their source and realize that I have been internalizing EVERYTHING I read on the Internet. Everything. But here’s the problem—well, one of them:
You know who can post something on the Internet? Anyone. Absolutely anyone.
This means that the voices, the haunting chants echoing in the darkness of my mind—yes, the words and phrases gleaned from parenting blogs—are conceivably written by people like me. And the thought is terrifying. I recently took a half-step back from the world of social media. I have not disabled my Facebook account or anything that drastic, but I have taken a break from reading just about anything having to do with parenting. It was getting hard to keep my eyes on my own paper, if you follow. I’d think I was doing fine and then look up for a moment and, without even seeking them, I’d been exposed to dozens of examples of “ideal parenting.”
Now, there has been some exploration on the effects of advertising and the overwhelming exposure to idealized body images, for men as well as women (I am not citing anything specific here, so bear with me as I make this comparison). These images of beauty can inspire us to work at making ourselves better, healthier, and stronger, but they can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, and self-loathing. These days I wonder if I am feeling a similar response to the images of parenthood that are everywhere. Some days I think it would be easier to be the woman wearing a bikini and being sprayed by a hose while suggestively eating a cheeseburger than the mom who manages to get her children to eat vegetables at every meal. But neither of those things is going to happen to me anytime soon, so here we are.
My inner critic finds strength and criticism in these Internet voices. See! it shouts out to me. You really should be limiting screen time! You actually are a bad parent for letting your kids eat cookies!
But the voices that, for example, warn against too much screen time, do not see my two daughters sitting in front of the laptop together, Big Sister teaching Little Sister how to click on the right color to earn points or Big Sister making careful observations about nature as she photographs flowers with my iPhone. Those voices don’t take into consideration the small victory of getting out of the car at school sans tears, and the deep, celebratory significance of the cookie.
Well, perhaps the writers do take these possibilities into consideration, but, unfortunately reality, and all of its variations, do not fit into a 500-word blog post, and reality almost never has a punchy, sentimental wrap-up paragraph. And, just as the models who sell us perfume and beer are, in fact, real people and are, in all likelihood, pretty hot in person, they also have lighting, make-up, wardrobe, a team of people working to create a particular message, and of course, good ol’ Photoshop. Similarly, the images of parenting and motherhood presented to us in cyberspace are not fictitious, but perhaps they do not include the whole truth. And how could they? Life is complicated. News is entertainment these days, and we are never going to know what we don’t know. Perhaps the mom with the broccoli cookie recipe (which her kids simply adore!) has a lawn that needs to be mowed or a sister who is battling mental illness. We don’t know. All we see are the cute kids eating their broccoli cookies and think, Whelp, guess that mom’s got it all figured out.
Here’s the thing that I need to remember:
No one out there knows my situation. No one. Some days, not even me. So how is it that these Internet voices can speak to me and advise me on good and bad, right and wrong? And why do I let them get to me?!
I look, because I am seeking validation for my choices, feelings, and tribulations.
I look away, because they touch upon an insecurity or underscore what I already believe to be failings in my performance as a parent.
For some reason, the negative seems to stay with me more. What my tired, anxious brain comes away with after a brief glance at other people’s parenting is an amalgamation of sentiments like these:
Just look at how easy it can be if you only would try a little harder!
Stop poisoning your children with the food you are feeding them!
If you are tired it’s your own damn fault. Try sleeping more!
All your parenting choices are wrong.
All your parenting choices are right…but you have been doing them wrong.
Other people are funnier than you.
Other people are exercising more than you.
Other people are eating healthier than you.
Make your children a top priority, especially in the first five years, but also take care of yourself and your husband and your friends and your community. And clean your house, you slacker!
And for some reason, these voices carry weight for me. They speak with authority, despite having little or none.
Don’t get me wrong—there are experts out there. I am not one of them, which should be obvious by now. To say that I am a voice of knowledge and expertise with valuable information to share with other parents simply because I am a parent, is, in my mind, like suggesting a fourth-grader is totally ready to start teaching third grade, just because he passed it last year.
What can that fourth-grader offer us? He can tell us his memories and experiences of third grade. Perhaps he can share with us which water fountain is coldest or which corner of the sand area to avoid because cats play there at night. And maybe, if we are insightful listeners, we will actually take something from his experiences that will benefit our approach to third grade. But this child is an expert of his own experiences and his alone.
These parenting voices, which offer up personal experiences and points-of-view, are not wrong or useless—they do have value. But they are not the whole picture. I certainly appreciate knowing which side of the sand area to avoid, but my third-grade experience will not be the same as yours, Internet voices. I am a different person and may have a different teacher, a different spelling book, and a different set of classmates. I need to stop feeling like my third-grade experience will be the same as yours, or should be, or even could be.
We are individuals. Our children are individuals. We have unique pasts, presents, and futures. This is a good thing. It creates a vast and wonderful myriad of people. What is best for my kids might not work for yours and vice versa. And that’s cool.
I’m going to ruin my kids one way or another. It’s inevitable. However, when they are sitting on the couch in their therapists’ office, complaining how I fed them too much gluten or how I let them watch that extra hour of Team Umizoomi and that prevented them from getting into Yale, I’d like them to know I tried. I want them to know that I cared about them and was thoughtful about my parenting choices and tried to see them as the individuals they were and are. I want them to know that when I made mistakes, I tried to own them and fix them to the best of my ability, and that even though I might have let them eat cookies in the bathtub, it was because I love them to pieces. And it kept crumbs off the couch.
Not too long ago, while I was lying in bed with my soon-to-be four-year-old, waiting for her to fall asleep, she noticed me picking at my fingernails.
“Are you nervous, Mommy?”
(We talk about feelings sometimes and try to give names to the crazy emotions she is learning. The result is that she calls us out on our own emotions regularly.)
“Um, kind of, I guess. More like anxious. I’m supposed to be writing a blog post, and I don’t know what to write about. It’s supposed to be about being a mom and stuff like that. So, tell me, what is Mommy good at?”
It was a dangerous question, one whose answer might make or break me. But, the approaching writer’s block made me risk it.
“Telling people ‘I love you.’”
So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
I don’t always do the dishes; my car smells like there’s an old milk carton hiding in there somewhere; and I am sometimes too tired to be fully present and therefore allow my kids to cover me with stickers in hopes that they feel like I’m interacting with them. But I think they know I love them. I’ll take it.
So here’s the deal, Internet voices: you keep on saying what you have to say, and I’ll listen from time to time. But I will keep in mind all the stuff you don’t know about me and my situation—and also, that there is a heap of stuff I don’t know about you. I will remember that I know myself and my children and my husband better than you do, and I will remind myself that I get to write on the Internet from time to time, too. So there.