Don't Cry Over Spilt Guilt
On the Oughta-Woulda-Shouldas
Oughta be playing Candyland instead of sitting here logged on to eBay with a glass of merlot. Woulda signed up to chaperone the class party--if only I'd remembered to check the backpack and find the call for help in the first place. Coulda avoided that cavity, if only I'd started rubbing my baby's gums spotless with sterile gauze back when he was toothless. Shoulda--really shoulda--deleted that expletive before it came out in the car on the way to Brownies.
There go the Good Mommy points I racked up making Rice Krispies treats from scratch. Scout troop leader, 10 points. PTA dodger, -10. Snuggling, 5 points. Itching to flip through fat new catalog that slid out of lap while snuggling, -5. All-nighter of projectile vomiting and fever, 25 points. Failure to schedule haircut or even brush child's hair before school picture day, -100.
On the mother of all scoreboards--the one in my head--I'm forever behind. Working. Not working. Forgetting snack day. Pretending not to notice that we've entered the fifth straight hour of Cartoon Network. Nuking Chef Boyardee for dinner. (Again.) Losing my cool. Losing my daughter at Disney World. (Hey, it was only for ten minutes. Each time.)
Not that anybody's keeping score but me.
Still! This is no game! I'm supposed to be molding their hearts and minds! Keeping them free from all germs and toxins! Launching well-adjusted, productive members of society who will look after me when I'm a dotty old dame, not sit around in therapy blaming me!
Oughta, woulda, coulda, shoulda, expletive deleted.
All mothers hear voices. Actually just one voice, as insistent as it is irksome. That would be your momologue, your internal running commentary on how it's going as a mom.
But it's never saying, "Good job, Mom! Brilliant navigation of that sibling rivalry incident! How fine and upstanding your children are! Pats on the back for that quick save of the ice-cream cone!"
No. These momologues are not about praise and positive reinforcement. They hector and nag. They cluck at you. They fret. The voice in your head recites an endless to-do list. It whispers comparisons to everybody else's kids. It tallies up your shortcomings with the precision of the IRS. It's never satisfied.
Oughta cleverly conceal more spinach in their casseroles. Oughta scrub out the bathtub every time with Clorox before I send them into it. Shoulda signed them up for after-school Chinese lessons so they can compete in the new economy. Shoulda taken more home movies last vacation. Shoulda taken more home movies ever since the youngest was born.
Woulda helped organize the school fund-raiser, if only I had more time, inclination, and tolerance for inane meetings. Woulda slathered the kids in sunscreen, if I'd remembered to buy any. Coulda found a more respectful way to nip today's bickering than "Keep that up and I might tell Santa to cancel Christmas!"
Never mind that my kids still kiss me voluntarily and make me funny hats for Mother's Day. Or that they're happy, healthy, and reasonably responsive to the word no. No matter what I do, or don't do, this annoying sense that it's never enough follows me like a phantom limb waggling an accusing finger. A perfect score on the mom-o-meter remains forever out of reach. "Oughta, woulda, coulda, shoulda" is the sound track of my life, more annoying and repetitive than a Raffi refrain.
Oughta buy elbow pads and knee pads for the skateboarders. Oughta make sure they actually use them. Shoulda counted to ten before going ballistic when the girls used the commode as a Barbie whirlpool. Woulda pulled the plug on that noisy, addictive video game system--if it didn't seem to make the house so quiet and happy.
Coulda stayed home cherishing their presence and running them through vocabulary flash cards instead of hiring that babysitter in order to enjoy a meal during which I had to cut up no one's meat but my own. Shoulda, oh lordy shoulda, showed that sitter where we keep the first-aid kit before we left the house.
Like I say fifty times a day around here to everybody else, "Enough already!"
There's no stopping the pesky momologues looping through your brain. They're as much a part of the condition of motherhood as sleep deprivation and uterine muscle flop. You can, however, quit paying attention to them.
How? By instead tuning in to the louder real-life noises right under your feet.
Both kinds of voices are constant. Both are insistent. But only one--"Mo-om!" "MOM!" "Moooooom!" "Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"--is real and worth living by.
No Experience Necessary!
On Blind Optimism
Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.
--first lines of Baby and Child Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock
Zinc stearate powder, warning against.
--last entry in index of Baby and Child Care, 647 pages later
Sometimes--while standing naked in the nursery at 3 a.m. with a crying baby who has just gotten sick all over my nightgown, or while interviewing some bigwig pediatrician and frantically motioning for a barking toddler in a dog costume to quit eating Goldfish crackers off the floor as her three older siblings use them to cajole her into fetching, begging, and rolling over--a question pops into my head. How did I get here?
How does a woman once afraid of babies become "expert" enough at motherhood to write about it for a living? More to the point, proficient enough to keep her own four children alive and swell?
It's easier than you'd think.
Reassuring Tale 1: My Maternal Instincts Backfire
I am eight months pregnant, taking my evening stroll, when I spy the tiny, squirming ball of fur, so fresh from the womb that his eyes are still fused shut. It looks like a squirrel without a tail, or a puppy with paddles for paws. I think of Mole, the main rodent from The Wind in the Willows, only smaller and cuter, as if drawn by Beatrix Potter. A baby mole!
How a baby mole wound up in the middle of my suburban street, I'll never know. I pick him up, wrap him in a Kleenex fished out of my pocket, and carry him home.
Deep inside, I begin to sense a strange, reassuring glow. I feel . . . nurturing! Maybe this means I'll wind up being a good mother after all.
Growing up, see, I'd seldom played house. Never babysat. Held a baby only once, for twenty polite and panicky seconds, before returning it to its rightful owner, my boss's wife. I called kids "rugrats," and not in the cute Nickelodeon sense of the word. I was a workaholic with a dry-clean-only wardrobe, the sort of person friends might vote Least Likely to Wear a Snugli. My only pets were a pair of newts and an albino African water frog named Hugo, the product of a Grow-a-Frog kit bought as a joke, who all lived in a glass aquarium and did not require much in the way of maternal attention.
Then I turned thirty. Walking down my driveway after retrieving birthday cards from the mailbox, I heard someone say, "I want to have a baby." I looked around. Nobody there but me. And since it couldn't have been me saying those words, I am pretty sure it was my hormones talking. Thanks to my husband, a man of action and enthusiasm, I was pregnant within a month.
Naturally, I was thrilled. When I wasn't petrified. Mothers, after all, are mysterious creatures with supernatural powers, from the wisdom of Solomon to eyes in the back of their heads. How this transformation was going to happen to me, of all people, mystified me even more than where my waistline had gone overnight. Solomon? I was the girl who couldn't even decide between two different sweater colors. (I'd end up buying both.) And as for paranormal vision, I often have trouble seeing the truth when it's staring me right in the face. What kind of mother would I make?
The Mother of My Dreams played catch and handcrafted prize-winning Halloween costumes. She served hot, balanced meals three times a day. She always knew the right answer. Her clean, obedient children slept through the night and never talked back. She had the carefree glow, European superstroller, and instant washboard abs as seen on the latest celebramom. My idyllic vision was a selfless souffle whipped up from equal parts InStyle, June Cleaver, Betty Crocker, Mary Poppins, highly selective memories of my own mom, and thin air.
The Mother of My Fears, on the other hand, was the one who achieved none of these descriptions.
How could I know that she'd be the one closer to my eventual reality? And that she would be a-okay?
If an unpromising specimen like me can cheerfully navigate motherhood, anybody can. This is how it went.
"Hey, little baby," I begin to croon to the baby mole in the same primordial singsong I sometimes use on the creature growing within me. "It's okay, little baby."
A few minutes earlier, I'd been lumbering along preoccupied by an overdue work project and the embarrassing problem of which of my maternity shirts still stretched across my midsection so I could wear it tomorrow. Then in an instant, everything changes. All my focus lasers onto the helpless bitty thing in my hands. Forget blazers that wouldn't button. Deadlines, who cares? All that matters now is that I help and protect this tiny fellow. I haven't held a tissue so tenderly since I was eight years old and using one to tuck in my Liddle Kiddle dolls at night.
Crossing my front lawn back to my house, I try to figure out what to do with Baby M. That's when I see all the holes in the grass. Mole holes!
"Welcome home, little guy," I whisper as I unwrap the critter and kneel down (the hardest part, since my center of gravity has relocated several inches out from the rest of my body). Even if this particular mole hole doesn't lead to his nest, I figure some tunneling distant relative might take him in. Or send a message to his mother. I vaguely remember hearing that moles cover a lot of territory in a day. I try to calculate how many houses I've passed since I picked him up. Then I lurch upright and go inside happy. Not only have I done a good deed, but I am a natural at nurturing! Whew!
"Hey! Guess what happened?" I call to my husband, Daddyo-to-be, who is preparing for parenthood in his own way, by sorting through many long pieces of white wood and short silver screws that don't look anything like the picture of the gleaming Bellini baby crib on the box they'd come in.
"I found a baby mole!"
"A baby mole, with his eyes still shut, and he was so cute and helpless, and I think it was like a sign or something!"
"A sign of wha--Ah dang!" A silver screw skitters across the wood floor and two crib slats clatter after it. He sets down the screwdriver and repeats, "You found a baby mole. And it was a sign." Only he makes both sentences sound like questions. "Where is it?"
"I put it in a mole hole so its mother, or somebody's mother, could find it."
Daddyo doesn't say anything. But his telltale right dimple deepens. It always does that when he's telling a joke--or finds something hilarious but is trying to keep a straight face.
"What?" I demand.
"Um, snakes use those old tunnels to look for food."
My first maternal stirrings led me to deliver my innocent young charge to a copperhead for breakfast.
Reassuring Tale 2:
I Have No Apparent Child-Care Skill
Next thing I know, I am dropping babies on their heads. Not real babies, let me hasten to add. Plastic practice ones. Even so, another unpromising omen.
My own mom didn't know Lamaze from La Bamba. I'd been born while she was under "twilight sleep," the prettiest euphemism for heavy drugs I've ever heard, with my dad down the hall in the waiting room, missing his General Motors League bowling night. But I am determined to be prepared. I'd learned photography, step aerobics, yoga, and algebra by taking classes, hadn't I? So why not childbearing? For good measure I sign up for courses on breast-feeding and parenting preparation, too.
I mean, I sign up both of us.
"Why do I have to go?" Daddyo wants to know.
"As my backup," I say. "In case I forget anything."
What I don't admit is that I don't want to go either. I simply feel propelled along. My belly grows bigger, I go to the doctor every two weeks, my friends make noises about showers, I begin turning my old home office (and spare bedroom) into a nursery, I take Lamaze. It all unfolds matter-of-factly and practically without me, the great conveyor belt of expectant motherhood. At the same time, I am at that point in my pregnancy where the baby is no longer an abstraction. It is big, and active, and like the title of a seriously bad 1950s movie, It Had to Come Out. I figure I may as well face up to learning how.
During the first few Lamaze sessions I discover that I am best at the academics of the whole business. When we learn about the signs of labor and the stages of labor, I take copious notes. I memorize assorted breathing patterns as earnestly as if I were a third-grader learning times tables before a big test. Just as I begin to think I might "pass" after all, we get to the relaxation exercises. I am pretty much hopeless.
"Relax," my husband croons in his best labor supporter tone as I am supposed to be letting the tension float away from my legs, my calves, my ankles, my toes. But the more I concentrate on letting go, the more self-conscious I become.
"Relax!" (More urgently now.)
"Stop tensing up!"
"Stop saying that--it's making me more tense!"
"I wish I was the one who got to lay there," he complains, stifling a yawn.
I wish you were, too, I think grimly.
Then comes newborn-care night.
"Tonight," the instructor, Sharon, smiles warmly, "we'll move from the abstract to the hands-on." We gather around a big table piled with newborn baby dolls. "I want each couple to take a baby," she instructs. Eager hands dart out. The dolls come in slightly different models and colors, so people begin reaching over one another to make a selection. You'd think we were prospective adoptive parents in an orphanage rather than clueless students in a church basement awaiting a short lesson in Pampers application. Some of the women begin to coo and talk to their "newborns" as if they were real.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Momfidence! by Paula Spencer. Copyright © 2006 by Paula Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.