But What Happens When We Speak Our Dark Parenting Truths Out Loud?

So apparently I have a post over at mom.me that’s going “viral.” Or at least that’s what my editor called it.

My husband asked me last night if this means that my piece is getting millions of pageviews. I said, probably not. Probably more like, I don’t know, dozens of thousands. Or something.

Whatever the case, the piece is getting many of the reader-reactions that I had been expecting from the moment I finished writing it. A mix of “Oh yes, this speaks such a bold and brave truth!” to “This woman is terrible and she needs a therapist and her kids would probably do better with a different mother.”

All I did was give voice to ten of my deep, dark parenting truths.

I write about regret. Liking children less after having children of my own. Feeling unfulfilled by parenting. Experiencing blinding rage toward my children. Having my heart broken each and every day by my love for them.

Even in some of the less hand-wringy comments on my piece–and yes, I do try to avoid the comments on anything I write, but no, I don’t always succeed–people have wondered what might happen if our children were to stumble upon any our darker truths. What would happen if they discovered that we don’t always like being their parent? That we had to give up pieces of ourselves in order to raise them? That having an inconsolable baby can make us understand, for the briefest of moments, how some people shake babies? Wouldn’t our children become wracked with guilt or disappointment in us?

I don’t know what would happen if your children discovered your own dark parenting truths. But I do know how I reacted when my mother revealed her dark truths to me.

I remember, back when I was a teenager, the first time she told me the story about how, in the throes of my infant colic, she took a neighbor’s advice and set me down in my crib, walked away, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat on the porch for ten minutes while I screamed alone in my room.

“Why?” I’d asked her.

“So I wouldn’t shake you,” she’d told me.

There were future conversations where my mother discussed her flaws, the mistakes she thought she’d made as a parent. She told me that she often had no idea what she was doing as a parent–that many times, she was just winging it. She told me that she didn’t always love being a parent. She told me that, especially when my siblings and I were little, there were times that she locked herself in our bathroom to cry.

She had her own dark truths.

Instead of frightening me, these revelations often made my mother more three-dimensional and real to me. It was as if, each time she opened up, she blossomed from a two-dimensional paper doll of a mother who constrained me with her rules and annoyed me with her platitudes, into a fully-realized, flawed and wonderful human being of a mother.

She always delivered these messages with kindness and not resentment. This is crucial, I think. But she also never glossed over her real, gritty, and dark feelings.

Some day, when my kids are ready, when I’m in a moment where I’m feeling more kindness than resentment, I’ll reveal my own dark truths to them, too. In some ways, I’ve already begun these dark and honest revelations.

And I’m pretty sure that, when the time comes, the kids will be fine.

With a some luck, they’ll even find me to be a little more real, and a little more human.

dark parenting truths

 

 

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Things I’ve Said Today

“Why are you ruining our lives?”

I said this to my 3-year-old son today. It spilled out of my mouth just as quickly as my million-and-one regrets spilled inside of me. I said it in a moment of exasperation. I said it when we were rushing out the door to swim lessons, the three boys and I. I said it without thinking, in a dark moment, from a mind warped by days’ worth of parenting chaos.

I said it, and I immediately followed it with a deep breath and a retraction.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. You are a wonderful boy. I was wrong to say what I said. Mommy was wrong I just get so frustrated when you don’t listen. I love you. I always love you.”

But I still said what I said. And I can’t take it back.

Looking back now, I can barely make sense of the accumulated frustrations the led me to say this one terrible thing. He hit his brothers over the back with a giant squirt gun. He tried to pour dish soap all over the basement floor. He learned how to unlock the front door, and he nearly escaped down the block at 7:15 this morning. He screamed when his father wouldn’t give him Cheetos for breakfast. He dumped his stuffed animals all over his bedroom floor.

Once, long ago, he slept in one to two hour-stretches for a year-and-a-half, and though he sleeps through the night in his own bed now, sometimes I worry that I still resent him for our shared months of sleeplessness.

Yet none of these grievances add up to an excuse, a justification for what I said. Stated together here, it seems silly that I would even cull up that particular question–why was he ruining my life–when his behavior was age-appropriate at best, extremely ornery at worst.

Why indeed did I consider that my life was something ruined by spills and screams and preschooler violence?

parenting regrets

Parenting is hard, and sometimes the hardness hardens me. Sometimes it turns me into a monster who says horrible things to her children. I asked my son why he was ruining our lives, and nothing my son has done or said has ruined my life. His presence is not ruining my life. He complicates and twists it, but he does not ruin it. In fact, he enriches it. Weaves a deep an irreplaceable joy and love into it.

Nonetheless, there are times when it feels as if I’m surrounded by a life in shambles. Ten minutes of toddler-screaming can inspire a churning and volcanic rage. An entire day’s worth of back-talk from my older children can leave me feeling desperate and hollow. The leaden weight of parental responsibility can pin me to my immediate surroundings, make me feel as if I will forever be treading in a sea of dependency.

Sometimes these feelings conspire to turn me into a shitty person who says shitty things.

Or maybe I simply am a shitty person who says shitty things.

I believe that’s true for many of us, parents and non-parents alike. We say terrible things. We hurt. We burst forth in anger. We spew. We condemn. We shudder with the force of our own yelling.

And then sometimes we respond with seas of “I love you’s” and “I’m sorry’s.” Sometimes we ache and obsess over the things we’ve said. Sometimes the worry and agony consume us.

Sometimes we wish, hope, pray, plead with the universe that the shitty things we say won’t ruin our children’s lives.

And sometimes we spend the evening rocking our babies, the big ones and the small ones, whispering to them the deep, imperfect well of our love.

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On Parents and Phones at the Playground

For years now, there have been cutesy little memes floating around the Internet imploring mothers–and let’s be honest, they’re nearly always directed at mothers–to stop messing around with their phones at the playground because THE KIDS! and the FLEETING MOMENTS! and the DANGEROUS DANGLING AT THE PRECIPICE OF BAD MOTHERHOOD!

Sentimental sap that I sometimes am, I guess I kind of get the intention behind these statements.  Because if you’re engrossed in something on your phone at the playground, then you might miss your kid taking that one extra step to conquer their fear of heights on the climber.  And if you spend some of that playground time looking more at your phone than at your kids as they slide down the slide, then you might miss out on some of these beautiful, ephemeral moments of their childhood.

But you know what else?  If you go around insinuating that women are somehow “bad mothers” for devoting some of their precious attention to their phones instead of their precious children, then frankly, I don’t have time for your big bag o’ guilt candy.

Because even though there are always going to be some parents who are so self-centered that they really couldn’t care less about what their children are doing on the playground–and to be clear, these parents were probably turdburglars before they became parents–you never know if that mom with her eyes or ears glued to her smartphone is:

…so ridiculously tired after being up all night with her newborn baby that the only thing standing between her and a ill-timed nap right on top of the recycled rubber is this game of Words with Friends with her cousin.

…using this time while her kids are occupied with the great outdoors to finally talk to or text her best friend, who just found a lump in her breast and is scared shitless.

…trying to balance parenting and working from home by sending emails to clients while her children happily play on the swingset.

…sending a picture of her toddler taking his first ride down the slide to her mother-in-law, who lives hundreds of miles away and doesn’t get to see the grandkids as often as she’d like.

…allowing her preschool-aged child the chance to run and move her body without feeling as if her mom is hovering over her every single second.

…gifting herself a little “me-time” after a morning of pouring herself wholeheartedly into finger-painting and puddle-jumping and making homemade, wholesome, organic, Pinterest-worthy snacks for her children.

…scheduling doctors and dentist appointments over the phone, and being grateful that the playground gives her the opportunity to make these calls without having someone shout “Mommy!  Mommy!  MOM!  MOM!  MOM?  Moommmmmm?” every ten seconds in the background.

…just messing around on Facebook, because she just wants to, and because parenting kids who are of the age where the playground is a fun and exciting place to be doesn’t often give anyone many chances to “just mess around” in any scenario.

To be clear, I know just as much as anyone that some day when my kids are grown, I’ll yearn just for a few more moments with them as little ones.  And I’ll miss those days where they wanted nothing more than to see me beam at them as they crossed the balance beam all by themselves. But I also hope I remember how exceedingly and mind-blowingly exhausting it was to be a parent of young children.  I hope I remember that I savored all of the moments I could, and that in those instances when I wasn’t paying all of my attention to my children, I wasn’t squandering my times with them either.

I hope I remember that sometimes, Mama just needed a three-minute smartphone vacation.

And for all of us who need these little vacations?  For those of us who are able to make sure that our children are safe on the slide and then devote a tiny bit of our attention to something other than spills and diapers and squeals and building blocks?

We’re not bad moms.  We’re just human ones.

phone at the playground

This piece originally appeared on my former blog, Birthing Beautiful Ideas.

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What I Miss About Being a Doula

I’m not a doula anymore.

I was, once, for five years. I helped families welcome 33 babies into the world. Twins. Singletons. VBACs. Cesarean sections. Home births. Hospital births. Births with midwives. Births with doctors. Even a birth in a car.

For the most part, I loved the work. I loved it until the passion was gone. I loved it until it made me sick–literally sick from sleeplessness and stress. And thus when the time came, I was happy to bid farewell to the profession. There was plenty about it that I knew I wouldn’t miss.

And indeed, I don’t miss being on call. I don’t miss the perpetual divesting of my self, the way I’d scoop out so much of my own emotional energy that I’d have barely any left for myself or my family. I don’t miss feeling as if I did too little, or not the right thing, or the absolute wrong thing during a birth. I don’t miss the politics. I don’t miss the exhaustion.

And yet, there is so much that sustained my love of doula work. There is so much that I do indeed miss. There is so much that I will never get to see or do if I never step foot into birth work again.

I’d be dishonest to say that I’m happy to be rid of all of it.

I miss getting “the call.” For every birth, I’d be so stressed out about when the call would arrive and how I’d arrange childcare and if I’d make it to the birth on time. But when the call came, all that stress melted away into the most dazzling adrenaline rush.

I miss the drive on the way to a birth. Especially the late night births. It was always just me, the radio, the darkness outside, and the quiet knowledge that I was about to see a baby be born. Even now, whenever I hear the BBC World News on NPR, my body surges with the same hormones and feelings I’d experience en route to a birth. I’m like Pavlov’s dog, salivating at the sound of British newscasters’ voices.

I miss watching families come together during a birth. Couples. Sisters. Mothers and daughters. Mothers and sons. Fathers and daughters. Fathers and sons. When birth brings a family closer, it’s a wonder to observe.

I miss holding women’s hands as they worked hard to bring their babies into the world.

I miss knowing when to get cool cloths, when to suggest a position change, when to encourage a parent to ask questions about their care provider’s recommendations.

I miss the wrathful look some moms gave me when they wanted me to take my cool cloths, position changes, and suggestions and shove them straight up my ass.

I miss bearing witness to birthing people’s agency, power, and vulnerability.

I miss the near-magic of watching a woman begin to turn inward during her labor.

I miss the take-no-prisoners, got-no-time-for-bullshit look that some laboring women would give their spouses, caregivers, and support people.

I miss watching care providers grow and change. Last year, I saw a doctor teach a resident how to use a vacuum extractor–a moment in which that vacuum made the difference between a vaginal birth and a cesarean section. Later on in the year, I saw a midwife teach a resident how to catch a baby born in the water. I felt privileged to witness these two points on the grand continuum of birth knowledge.

I miss hearing women exclaim, “I did it!” after a VBAC. It never got old. I always cried.

I miss holding the hands of women who’d had cesareans and telling them that they were amazing and beautiful and strong.

I miss saying, “You are so strong.” I said it to every birthing client. I meant it with every one of them.

I miss seeing births from almost-beginning to end. I got to see the whole story. The big picture.

I miss the secret look I’d often exchange with midwives, doctors, and nurses: the one we’d share, knowing that the baby would be born soon, even if the mother didn’t quite yet believe it.

I miss the privilege of “holding space.” Some of my clients were scared. Disappointed. Confused. Uncertain. Sometimes their hearts were breaking, and sometimes mine was too. I don’t miss their pain. I wish that I could take it away still, and that I could take it away for any mother. But I miss the sacred experience of holding space for that pain. I can miss it without ever wanting to do it, or having the need to do it, again.

I miss intending to catch the exact moment when the baby was born. I always meant to, but I never did, even when I tried. It’s almost as if birth itself happens in a blur and not in one precise moment. You think you’ve caught it, but it’s already too late. Once there wasn’t a person. Now there is one.

I miss this look. Yes, it’s my own look. But that expression on my face sums up everything that I loved about being a doula. The awe. The wonder. The bearing witness to power and love and strength.

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That look sums up everything I now miss about being a doula.

 

image credit: Erika Ray Photography

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Ghost Ships and Stepping Stones

Before I dated my husband, Tim, I dated a few other men, some of them quite seriously. I hesitate to call these people “men” because really, we were kids, and they were almost-men in the same way that I was an almost-woman with almost-wisdom. But no matter what we were, we were in love. Or at least we described ourselves as being “in love,” even if deep down we were only almost-in-love.

During those years, I often asked my mother what she thought of these relationships. I value her opinion on matters that are important to me, even if I don’t always agree with those opinions.

To each of my inquiries, my mom always gave the same response: “I think it’s a good stepping stone.” And that’s all she would say.

Each time, she uttered this statement with hushed hesitation. No one enmeshed in the strange and wonderful morass that is “being in love” ever wants to hear that their relationship is merely a pit stop on the road to some greater, better, or deeper love. And yet, somewhere in the oozy pre-knowledge of my intuition, I always knew what my mother meant. I knew that she was right.

Some of these relationships were good, but not right for me. At least one of them was absolutely wrong. And their not-quite-rightness always left a kind of sick feeling in my stomach. Some part of me could physically sense the incompatibility underneath the thrill and excitement of our almost-loves.

These relationships were indeed stepping stones.

 

Years after I married Tim–the man whom my mother never called a “stepping stone,” the man who’s always felt like home to me–I turned my questions toward my career choices instead of my relationships.

“What do you think about this job?” I’d ask my mom. “Rock star? Professor? Teacher? Lawyer? Writer?” And on and on, all the things that I could be, all the dreams that I could dream. I wanted and at times even expected to find a career that fit me the way that Tim fit me. Greedy, entitled, narcissistic human being that I am, I yearned for a job that was a deep and abiding love. A calling. Not a pit stop on the way to something bigger and better, but the stop. The right fit. The sense of arrival that I imagined all grown-ups felt when they found a job that made them happy.

My mother never answered these inquiries the same way she did my relationship questions. Jobs are different from relationships, and they fulfill us in important though different ways. She knew this truth better than I did. But then one day, I told my mother that I thought I’d found my calling as a doula.

“I’m so happy for you,” my mother said, “and I think this will be a great stepping stone on the road to whatever you do next.”

In the thrill and excitement I felt as a new doula, I couldn’t help but resent my mom for bringing up her stepping stone analogy. My entry into birth work had served as a bridge between the abstract and practical components of my academic interests: autonomy, feminism, embodiment, moral psychology. Working as a doula was messy and emotionally draining, but it didn’t leave me feeling crushed and worthless the way that academic philosophy sometimes had. Many times, doula work left me feeling confident and empowered. It also introduced me to a community of like-minded people, a wealth of smart and savvy birthworkers who collaborated on projects and papers and presentations that, I still think, contributed a net good to the world.

I was happy. Most of the time, I was quite good at my work. I was “in love” with the profession.

At least until I wasn’t anymore.

Doula work is, by its nature, a calling. In many ways, it was exactly the sort of calling I was seeing when I left academic philosophy. But burn out happens fast, and when the love of doula work is gone, there can be little left to sustain one’s will to keep working.

After five years as a doula, I hit that burn-out point. It was a wall that I could no longer scale. Not physically, not emotionally. And so I stopped. I quit without having any other real job prospects, even after months of applying and submitting and interviewing and enduring the sting of rejection over and over again.

I jumped without any net. And for a few months, I simply free-fell in the pitch black darkness.

 

Near the end of this past December, I received a call from the local community college. I had applied to teach as an adjunct instructor there months before, but I’d given up hope of ever teaching again when I hadn’t heard from them for so long.

During this call, the Humanities department chair asked if I would be interested in teaching a few philosophy courses. The pay was meager and the class times were inconvenient, but he told me he could promise at least three courses and some autonomy over what and how I taught them.

I said yes. I leaped. Hopped. Fell. Swooped. I didn’t care how or why, I just planted my feet and said “yes.”

 

In one of her “Dear Sugar” columns, the incomparable Cheryl Strayed once wrote that we all have “sister lives,” millions of parallel universes in which our parallel selves live the lives we did not choose. Though Strayed wrote this particular piece in response to someone asking her advice on whether or not to have children, one could apply her wisdom to any number of life choices. For she says:

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.

I have a sister life in which I didn’t choose Tim. One in which I chose a different major, a different university altogether. One in which I chose not to keep the baby whose  pregnancy occurred unexpectedly and somewhat inopportunely. One in which there wasn’t a second or third child, or not that second child and that third child. One in which I am a philosophy professor, perhaps at a prestigious university. One in which I never let the ugliness of academia tear me to shreds. One in which I’m still a doula. One in which I chose the bad boyfriends. One in which I chose adventure over stability, the wild over the mundane.

One in which I am writing this piece in delicious quiet and solitude and not with the cacophony of cartoons and clanking Legos carrying on in the background.

I salute all those ghost ships and sisters lives. But whether I’m saluting from the solid ground of the shore or from one of a series of further stepping stones, I do not know.

I do, however, know that when Tim asked me how I felt being up in front of a classroom, I said this:

“It feels like home.”

 

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