Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Good Enough Mother

When people talk about young, single mothers, I think something along the lines of ' I do not think that word means what you think it means '; the hot button words attached to young single motherhood are adjectives like stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed and immature. I had my son Dakota at 20 years old- unmarried, unattached, and completely unplanned- but my experience ( outside of the first, colicky months ) was one of complete and total rightness. A depth of competence, creativity, patience, love and selflessness that I never knew I possessed was born in me, and I saw our journey together as almost romantic: the two of us began Friday Family Night ( which carries over to this very day with our much expanded family ) took long walks together, had private, inside jokes, visited Borders no less than four times a week for hours at a time, worked through his fits, temper, fears, and talked endlessly about Pokemon, ninjas, night creatures, magnets and skateboarding. I delved into his interests with him, exposed him to film, music and culture that coincided with his interests, bought and read endless books, came up with fun projects for us to do. I made sure that every day held time- at least a half hour of 'floor time' as my mom suggested- that I focused on just him: no chores, no phone, just child led play. And he thrived. He was one of the best behaved, most interesting, thoughtful, charming and wonderful little person any mother could ever hope to love. 

Three children and a husband later, I look back on those years with great joy and pride, and some consternation. I am not the mother to these children that I was to that one little boy.  As a single mother, I devoted myself to two things: Dakota and my writing. I worked part-time, went to school at night, and kept Dakota with me at work until Kindergarten. As a mother of four, I am a wife in a marriage that at times has been very hard work, but even when our marriage is wonderful and easy for long stretches of time, it is still something that requires- of course- my attention, my devotions, my energy. I am a writer, a serious and life long goal I am also devoted to. I am a full time employee, and take Ever to work with me every day. I also have a larger home to attend to than the days of a one bedroom apartment, and two dogs, and four different children with different interests, personalities, needs and desires. And of course, the largest, most significant change as far as my energies- both spiritual and physical- go, is the addition of Ever. A baby- especially perhaps a baby who is nursing and co-sleeping- is a never ending well of need. I don't sleep through the night- ever. When Ever is teething or sick, I get woken up as many as five or six times a night. I'm exhausted. That's one thing.

I thought I understood when mothers said ' by the time you have your second child, you don't change the baby every hour ' or ' you let them eat off the floor if they're quiet '... but I didn't understand the deeper implications behind these jokes- the trade offs that you make in your ability to mother in order to have a bigger family. Or I need to say: the trade offs that I make. Another person- one who doesn't struggle with anxiety, like I do, or one with a marriage that hasn't had real rough patches, or one who doesn't struggle with endometriosis and hypothyroidism and their related issues like fatigue and migrane- perhaps that person could continue being constantly calm and thoughtful in the face of the most irritating stages of childhood, or coming up with creative solutions to problems like whining, or spending 'special time' ( as we call it ) with each child individually, daily, or continually ensuring their cultural enrichment- but I can't. I work as hard as I possibly can- I really, really do- to be the best me that I can be for my children, but really... she's still not as great as the old me. 

I believe that to this day- Dakota is seventeen now- he holds a small, hurt spot in his heart because I married Mr. Curry and had more babies. He's told me You weren't the same after that, Mom, and the tone of his voice and look on his face is what made me pause to think about all this at all.  Then I wonder if perhaps, that kind of devotion and focus has it's price, as well. Anne of Green Gables didn't suffer for it- but she was pretend. A made up idea of an only child. I suppose it's pointless speculation, but I'm constantly wondering now how being just good enough is affecting my children.
Our society doesn't allow for good enough, not really- with all the studies and articles and discussions constantly bombarding us with how what we were doing last night at dinnertime is going to put our kids on the therapist couch ten years from now, how we are helicoptor moms or neglectful, how we overstimulate or under challenge- it never ends.

The trade offs of a larger family unit are clear- the expanded ability to foster intimate relationships with various personalities, the shared secrets, joys, failures, the 'always have your back' of siblings, the packness that children enjoy together, the mentoring of the older ones to the littles, more love! Still, the other mother I used to be would be horrified to know though that last weekend Lola stayed up to 2am watching T.V. because I fell asleep with Ever and didn't put her to bed, or that she eats a school lunch every Friday instead of home made, or that I can't remember the last time we had a huge creative mess in the house because it's just so hard with the baby around, or that I snap at the kids sometimes for things I should be calm about, or that sometimes when I'm having alone time with one of them I can't stop fantasizing about a stiff drink, a good book and silence. 

I'm always working to improve, but I think this is- for now- as good as it gets. As my Grandmother used to say, That'll have to do.

Unknown said...

It's more than good enough. Seriously. Don't do guilt.
Love. Just love and be humble and fierce and yourself. I wasted so much time wishing for a do over .

Bethany said...

It is good enough and you are probably too close to it all. It is hard to be objective and we always expect ourselves to be better or somehow... more. You are enough and this too shall pass.

Elisabeth said...

You know Maggie, I once fell in love with the Milly Molly Mandy stories about a little girl, an only child who lived in a nice white thatched cottage, with her mother, her father, her uncle, her auntie and her grandmother and grandfather. She seemed to have it all, the life of the only adored child.

Of course, my adult mind knows that's just a fantasy and as much as there are advantages to being the only one there are also advantages to being part of the group.

We are a different mother to every single one of our children, even as we try to spread ourselves out fairly and evenly.

The mother you are now is the mother who exists for the baby Ever and for your other children as they need you. The rest is memory. You might even tend to idealise the mother-you of the past. I'm sure your son would, because you can never repeat the way it was when he was the only one. But of course that could not last. Now he too has to share.

The rest of your children have been born into a world where they've had to share you from the word go.

It's the lottery of life, your chronological position in a family and it influences how you see the world to some extent, but there's so much more to it than that.

All this is to say, Maggie, you do a fine job, you do your best. You can't do more. You can't be the you of now and the you of then. It's impossible.

I bet Dakota is different too, no longer that adoring little boy. He's changed as well. We all do.

Julia said...

I've been thinking about this, too. My youngest doesn't know what life is like with an energetic Mom, one who reaches out to engage him in his own interests. I support his interests, I facilitate them, but I don't have the time or energy to be 100% there as much as I wish I could. There's no guilt in it -- I give 100% of what I have available to give. I just don't have as much available as I used to. If I had it, I'd give it.

SJ said...

You are the best mother. I want to be just like you...I mean that.

Listen. I may be naive and not know what the hell I'm talking about, but maybe it's time to stop breastfeeding Ever? It sounds like she is a thriving little girl, and healthy in all the ways that breast milk matters most, and you desperately need a break, MM.

Allison the Meep said...

It's so much work. So, so much. You give what you can, and usually that means giving ALL of you until there's not much left of you. The juggling is so hard.

You are so great, and I wish your kind of awesome could be bottled and sold.

Petit fleur said...

If I had a stiff drink a good book and silence, I would definitely pass out.

In fact any one of those three things separately is enough to induce drowsing. The three together would put me under! But it is a dreamy fantasy.

Good job Maggie.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how true this is! I remember the days of homemade baby food, and no processed sugar allowed, and playing with educational toys together, and stack after stack of books read . . .and now four and five are really good at amusing themselves, and I feed them whatever they will eat--you know what I mean. But good enough HAS to be good enough, because we change and we have more to give at different times. And I definitely think that giving the kids a big family of siblings is worth the tradeoffs. My husband is an only child and I know he thinks so.

Lone Star Ma said...

I only have two and that's me all over. I actually think I even remain a better mother to the older one than to the younger one, even, because the older one retains the high expectations she got from her eight-year span as an only. So unfair to my younger daughter.

Catherine said...

I don't know anyone who is the same mother to subsequent children as with the first child. Being able to give all of that focus to one little child is a whole other experience than having to squeeze a new baby's needs, never mind wants and ideal mothering, into an already stressed and busy household.

I was not a single mother with my first one. He did get attention, beyond anything that the others got as not only my DH's and my first child and fixation, but was the first baby in both sides of the family for a long, long time. My niece and nephew are now enjoying that role, as my brother started his family late, and there are no other small children in the family. They get ALL of the attention, toys, everything. My subsequent boys, after the first came with a flurry of births from cousins and friends, and everyone seemed to have babies, toddlers and children, and they did not get the limelight of my oldest. There really isn't anything one can do about those situations.

In our case, I think the attention, adoration, expectation were not all that good for my oldest. He definitely has some traits that could have been caused by being the "annointed one" for so long by so many in the family, because even after all of the babies and other children came, he was the path maker in all of the areas of childhood firsts. People could not write the check fast enough to support the causes he supported. I could not bear to hit up anyone for my 4th child's missions where there is a fund raising request. All such letters go straight into the trash, and the only check such organizations get is a token one from me. His school concerts, athletic events, all such things were attended with 3 rows packed with adoring fans. My youngest is lucky if DH or I even attend his track meets or performing things. No time. Absolutely none, and all the friends and relatives have their own children's things to attend and support.

But such attention can lead to expectations that do not come to fruition. I think that we were unfair to the oldest in making him so front and center. My youngest ones are more self reliant, down to earth and without the resentments and issues the oldest has. I think a good part of that is just personality, but surely the repeated intense attention that the oldest got created certain mindsets as well. So you win some and lose some in every situation.

The youngest is also getting the type of support and love from his siblings that the older ones could not get, and I am sure your Ever will get this. It's the due and privilege of the old age baby, and though unfair the others did not get this, he is also the one that spent too many hours in a care seat, was not toilet trained because I didn't want to deal with that transitional period, got virtually nothing new (4 big brothers--we had it all) and we all suppress yawns at certain important things in his life. So like your Ever, he loses some, a lot, but he is getting the magic vibes from his brothers, that we could not give them. He also has more experienced, more mellow parents.

You seem to me to be a wonderful mother, Maggie. I love reading about your very different children, and one does need to be a very different mother to each child because they are so different.

Hugs from a older mom who gives you a big thumbs up. And that's even with all the troubles that I know you cannot always share in a blog.

Ms. Moon said...

I had my first baby at twenty-one and although I was married, it wasn't much of a marriage and I think I was as good a mother to that baby as I could have been at any age.
I completely get what you're saying here, Maggie. As mothers we are never sure we're doing it right. We're so afraid that we're missing the big picture somehow that we miss out on how right we ARE doing it.
My father-in-law used to say, "I've done all I'm big enough to do."
Now you remember that when you go to bed at night. You remember it. Because honey, you're a fabulous mother and you're giving your children what they need.
I promise you.

I'm Katie. said...

I like what deb said- don't do guilt. It sounds so simple, but I suspect it may be one of those vital keys to successful parenting. Now only to master it...


Rebecca said...

It's so sad that as mothers we not only judge one another but we often times judge ourselves and when we do judge ourselves, we are much more harsh and cruel to our own choices and decisions than we even come close to when we judge others. Take it easy on yourself.

Anonymous said...

From a mother of five and now seeing the fruits picked on various trees. Our children seen our intentions, our hearts and their reality is very different than ours. Five kids and lots of memories of my mothering exposed. My 22 year daughter does not remember me lying in bed all day, feeling terrible that it was a TV day. She remembers those snuggling days when mom was within reach all day and she learned how to serve others by serving her mamma up, a cup of water, a warm cloth.
My oldest son openly shares how great a mom I am and have been He laughs out loud of time, when he was 16 mouthing off at me in a car, and I made him walk SIX miles home. He said it was the best six miles of his life. It changed him.
Our best is not what others best it, it is your intentions to raise up loving, respectful and caring children.

jb said...

I also love what Deb said. Maggie love that is all you can do love them love yourself and be true to you. Do not do guilt and never back down really be fierce. I so missed reading this beautiful amazing blog.

Huggss alot

Living on Love said...

Love this. A great read as I am soon expecting the arrival of my second. Thanks!

Lacy - a blogstar friend :)

Elena Sonnino said...

I only have one, but I often wonder if--despite not being able to have another- how I would have been the second time around. For you, for this--same or different, it is enough. The love for your children and family oozes out of your words.

Unknown said...

I just found your blog and this post made me tear up. I, too, have four children. they came in two sets. The first set is 12 and 9 yrs old - the second set is 3 and 1yrs old. All the same dad and family; we jsut decided we weren't really done when push came to shove.
ANYWAY, just today - JUST TODAY! - I was looking through pictures and I thought, "wow, I was a good mom when I had only two kids" I lamented over the fact that my two older boys were wearing designer clothes and pressed slacks and they owned CHURCH SHOES!
Nowdays, no one owns a nice pair of shoes and only a few of them have a nice designer outfit. Not because I don't care, because I do, but because I know that we don't really need them at this point. And for some reason, that made me feel really bad.

Anyway, thank you for this post, it validated that indeed I do parent a lot differently than before but maybe I'm still just good enough for them all :)

Mo said...

I don't know any of those other people-the ones without anxiety or other relationships, duties, or pressures outside of their children. I'm pretty sure they don't exist.

I am constantly trying to find some sweet spot where I can give enough to both of my kids, and to their dad, plus bring in a little income, plus find time to make our house habitable, AND still recognize myself in the mirror at the end of the day.

Sometimes it is not perfect. Okay, usually it is not perfect. That is the horrific moment of realization for me; it will never be perfect. I can never cover all bases all the time. Some days, the only thing that I can accomplish is toI make damned sure that they know that I am here, loving them. And that IS enough.

Anonymous said...

I'm the oldest. I tell Mom she should have stopped with me. She says she kept having babies til she got it right.
Screw guilt. make em laugh.

Kate Moore said...

It all just is. It's not "good enough", it's "did my best".

Evangeline said...

Does this post ever speak to me. I don't have 4 children, or a new baby (oh boy just thinking about that makes me tired to the bone!), but I had infant high needs twins who have grown into pre pubescent "special" needs twins. From the moment they were born I was striving for my mothering ideals and arriving at good enough instead. At times it has broken my heart. And I often wonder exactly which shortcoming or combination thereof is going to be the one that bites me (them) most ferociously in the ass later on. So many things I could/should/ought to be doing finite my energy and patience levels.
Still I am a pretty damn great mom, at least in the top 20%, and from everything I have ever read here -you are too. We just have the bar set so very high, which is both good and bad.
Hope you get some sleep! xo

NLS 1993 said...

Thank you. I now have 3 and my mothering is topsy turvy upside down and I guess it isn't the first time. It's just that this time, it seems that it's going to stay this way. all kiddie wompus, my mothering.

and maybe I'm feeling guilt in that but I'm really not. I'm just talking about a longing. A longing to reach my potential and not being able to ever have time or energy for that.

one of the trickiest parts is the oldest, methinks. They do feel something akin to loss with each new child because they are the only one that experienced being an only child. Which does have its downfalls of course, but it is also quite beautiful.

I keep telling myself that my oldest is best this way, just as I am best this way, constantly whirling in imperfection because that's life and loss and how we learn about grace and unconditional love. We can't really see it otherwise.

Thank you for this post. I just totally get it.

Chrissy Johnson said...

I've had to step away from the internet, to be honest with you. Otherwise we as mothers get barraged with pointed, choreographed images of perfection that are really hard to live up to. We're pitted against one another. There are some beautiful things about the internet, but as much of a community it can be, it can be cold, too. Of course you're good enough.

Just love your children fiercely. Continue to trust your instincts. There's so much noise all around us. If your kids eat Pop Tarts for breakfast and play Playstation on the weekend until two you will have not failed as a mother. Your kids will remember that you loved them.

Maggie May said...

My friend Stacey wrote a post that is almost like a reply to my own- as a mother of four very young ones, she's in the thick of it and a voice and mother I respect.

Lauren Knight said...

I was just thinking about this the other day. I have 3 boys under the age of 5, and I feel the most guilt about my first-born, my 4-year-old, Milo. I STILL feel guilty about not being the mom I was when it was just us two. But what is immensely interesting is that his siblings seem to get so much out of each other. They teach each other what I taught Milo. It all works out in the end. Maybe even for the better!

Maggie May said...

Heather EO:

"I'm just talking about a longing. A longing to reach my potential and not being able to ever have time or energy for that.

one of the trickiest parts is the oldest, methinks. They do feel something akin to loss with each new child because they are the only one that experienced being an only child"

YES. That's it, exactly.

Caroline said...

Oh Maggie, I can relate with all of's been so hard since Oliver was born--I nurse and co-sleep too. He puts everything in his mouth, loves to unplug things and requires so much of my attention. I am not the mother to them all now that I was when I just had Lizzie (my oldest). The house is gross most of the time and Lizzie buys her lunch in kindergarden almost EVERY day.

...Just today I thought--and felt guilty for it--about how much I do look forward to bedtime and the quiet after they are asleep. It's a normal thing to want time alone--without it we wither.

Good enough has to be good enough. And a frozen pizza never killed anyone. Sometimes just being present is good enough even if the food sucks and the house is dirty and the laundry is overflowing, etc. I have to remind myself of this daily....

Unknown said...

I feel the same way as you do about young, single mother. I was single and young when I had my first and I remember those years fondly. Sure there was stress, but I still have stress now as a married mother of three.

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