My sister-in-law is a terrific mother.
Wait—let me back up. All three of my sisters-in-law are wonderful mothers, but I'd like to share a story with you about the one who's not named Julie and whose children are still very young. Both of my brothers married women named Julie. (So did my father, but that is a story for another day.) My sisters-in-law, the Julies, are terrific mothers. Both of them have four children and one of them is a foster mother who welcomes children into her home for days, weeks, and even months at a time. The other Julie is one of the most resilient people I know who—when faced with academic, medical, or any other challenge that presents itself to her family—grits her teeth, does her research, and labors to remove it. My brothers did very well by marrying the Julies.
But Sara, my other sister-in-law—not a Julie—is also an exceptional mother. If you knew her, you'd agree. She is married to my husband's brother and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is deliberate about the food her three young children eat. (Organic blueberries! Cage-free eggs!) She makes outdoor play such a part of her kids' lives that they consider their neighborhood park a second home. She gives her children clear boundaries, and she lavishes generous heaps of love on them every single day.
To make matters better—or worse if you are already overcome with jealousy over her mothering prowess, as I have been—she used cloth diapers exclusively for years, avoids paper towels and other single-use products (unlike her naughty sister-in-law going through the Taco Bell drive- through lane and shamelessly buying Pampers Mega Packs back in the day), teaches her children sign language when they are babies, and seems only mildly annoyed when the stacks of wooden puzzles in her house make sounds when slightly jostled or when the lights go down. (What's with that, by the way?)
Recently she sent me an e-mail in which she confessed she had failed that day as a mom. My interest was piqued—really? Failed? I will include a part of that e-mail here for one very important reason; and that is, every one of us—let me stop and be perfectly clear: each and every one of us—judges ourselves too harshly, thinks we've failed, and holds ourselves to impossible standards, ones to which we would never, ever, ever hold another person. Even someone for whom we have little respect! Seriously. (By the way, yes of course, there are moms who truly neglect and abuse their children, and such moms aren't ones whom I'd encourage to go easier on themselves as parents … but my guess is that these women aren't perusing the "Parenting and Childcare" section of the bookstore in their spare time.)
Okay, now that we've cleared all that up, here is what Sara wrote:
"Had a real freak-out this morning. Not at the kids, thank goodness, but in their presence. Nutty morning, and then nowhere to park. I ended up yelling at a traffic officer (through the glass, not like she could hear me) and I think it stressed the kids out a bit. Not pretty and not proud. Lessons learned."
Now I don't mean to belittle the stress Sara was under that morning. She has three kids, ages five and younger. She is in graduate school. Her husband works long hours. And did I mention the cloth diapers and those puzzles that honk and beep or make animal noises if you so much as tiptoe past them?
Sara and I have been sisters-in-law for 16 years. I count her as one of the people I most admire. But I wanted to say, "Shouting at a police officer through the glass? That's nothing." I don't mean that she should have jumped from the car and taken all of her frustration, exhaustion, and rage out on the poor traffic cop. I also don't mean that she wasn't, like Uma Thurman's character in Motherhood, half a sippy cup away from having an emotional meltdown of epic proportions. I remember how hard it is in the hands-on phase of parenting in which she and my brother-in-law reside.
As my friend Seth, the father of two very young kids, says, "They break terrorists with more sleep than this."
No, I just mean that every good parent I know has messed up, served as a bad example to his or her children, and then thought, I am the worst mother (or father) in the world. I know I have. I don't shrug off my own shortcomings. I hope, as much as possible, to demonstrate the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—in my parenting (Galatians 5:22, CEB). I hope to be attentive to my kids, but not to stifle them. Kind, without being saccharine-sweet. Gentle and patient, but not blasé. Devoted to my faith, but not falsely pious. You know, a healthy balance of sweet and salty, crunchy and soft. Kind of like kettle corn.
But I fail; we all do.
All of us commit misdemeanors. We lose our tempers. We look away from the baby for a moment at the precise second when he learns to roll over, and then, horrified, watch him fall from the changing table. We've all tucked a watercolor painting or crayon drawing deep underneath the newspaper in the recycling bin only later to learn it was her "best ever" and she was going to ask to have it framed. (Meanwhile we hear the recycling truck idling half a block away, the treasure crumpled and torn somewhere below its enormous jaws.) We've all done things like showing up late to a soccer game and missing his only goal of the season or misjudging a situation and punishing our child for something she didn't do.
(Or maybe that's just me.)
I solicited "Bad Mommy" stories from my friends. I won't include identifying details for most of them because I promised I wouldn't. But I hope that reading these anecdotes will ease my sister-in-law Sara's conscience next time she is having an "I'm the worst mom in the world" moment, and I hope it will ease your troubled mind too.
The Nap-and-Monitor Charade
A friend of mine lives near to her kids' elementary school. When her younger child was a baby and the elder was in afternoon kindergarten, she occasionally napped when her baby was sleeping. When she started to tell me her "bad mommy" story, she was quick to say she didn't nap often and that it was just for a short period of time, on days when she had finished the laundry or already had dinner started. All the baby books tell us to "sleep when your child sleeps," but have you noticed how guilty most of us feel when we take a nap? We say we "just needed to rest our eyes," or we "snuck a nap," when indeed we were desperate for a few moments of quiet and so tired that our eyes were closing without our being able to do anything about it.
(Nap with impunity, moms. You deserve it!)
So my friend would set the alarm on her cell phone for a half hour, fall into a deep sleep, and, once or twice, sleep right through the buzzing. It was not the alarm, but her landline ringing that eventually woke her up. (It was the school calling.) She jumped up from the sofa, grabbed the baby monitor (knowing full well that it wouldn't have reception all the way to the school), and ran down the block to pick up her son. As she jogged along, she held the monitor to her ear, play-acting that she was listening in. Now before you call the authorities, you should know her home is in plain view of the school, and she was gone fewer than five minutes as she ran and picked up her forlorn child from the school office. But she felt, in her words, like an Epic-Fail Mom.
I certainly don't think so. Rested, she was likely better able to extend patience and good humor to her kids for the remainder of the day.
Baby's Wild Ride
A friend of mine who is a single dad used to work from home. When his son was a baby, my friend's son would play at his feet. The baby wasn't yet walking but crawled around the floor and played with toys as my friend sat at his desk in his upstairs office, trying to get a full day's work done despite frequent interruptions, bottle breaks, and diaper changes. During that period, his day began earlier and ended much later than a traditional workday and my friend never quite felt caught up with his job. But it was of utmost importance to him to spend time with his son, and the cost of daycare was prohibitive.
He recalls one day being lost in his work and hearing a soft knocking sound. He ignored it, thinking it was a rattle in the heating system or some other household noise. Then, after a few minutes, he looked up and was alarmed to find that the baby was no longer playing in the room with him. He ran to the stairs—a steep set—and saw that the baby gate hadn't been latched properly. His son was at the bottom of the steps, lying on his side and playing with the laces on a pair of shoes. My friend says he never took a set of stairs in so few steps. He examined the boy, was amazed that he was unharmed, and then sat shaking for an hour as he imagined what could have happened.
The child is now 11 years old and seems to have no lasting physical or emotional impairment from his tumble down the steps. They're durable and made to last, these kids.
Breaking the Baby Doll's Neck
Another woman confessed to me that, in the throes of a Mommy Temper Tantrum, she inadvertently broke the neck of her daughter's favorite baby doll. The mom had been tidying the house and happened to be holding the doll when her little girl spoke to her in a demanding, bratty tone. In a flash of indignation, before she even realized what she was doing, the mom hurled the doll to the ground. Looking down at it, she saw that the doll's head was cocked strangely to the side; its neck was broken. She hadn't even been thinking of what she was holding, just threw it down the way a person might slam a door or stomp her feet when she's upset.
"Baby Connie?" her daughter said, her voice suddenly sounding very much like the sweet five-year-old she usually was. "Oh, she's fine, honey," the mom said, concealing her shock over what she'd done. She then created a diversion, lifted the doll carefully from the floor, and held it by the back of the head to mask its injury. She apologized to her daughter for losing her temper, reminded her to speak to others with respect, and—at her first opportunity—ran out to buy an identical doll to replace Baby Connie. She quietly disposed of the doll with the broken neck, ashamed of the homicide she had committed.
More than a decade later, she still replays that moment of rage, and she regrets it.
Additional items on my "bad mommy" rap sheet include:
• Volunteering my children to serve as acolytes or readers at church, or—worse—to play a role in the annual Christmas pageant ("I'm 14 years old and I'm … the angel Gabriel?" my son cried. "I have to wear a dress? And a gold headband?")
• Grounding my older kids for crimes that I later discover they did not commit
• Misjudging their friends
• I've even gone on their Facebook pages and responded to their friends' posts. Okay, I've done that only once, but my son Ian sure hasn't forgotten it. I doubt he ever will.
Being a mom is a big job—a momumental one, if you like mash-ups. Children are born with astonishing potential. As parents, we can create a home environment and develop relationships with our children that will stretch, ground, and prepare our children for lives of creativity, health, and love. Of course, our days as parents teem with everyday tasks related to our kids' physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. We cut fingernails, schedule dental appointments, keep our kids in clothes and shoes that fit them, monitor their homework and academic progress, give them hugs and kisses, encourage them in their spiritual lives, teach them manners, and do their laundry.
We're bound to mess up. All the parents whose dirty little secrets I've shared here—including me!—are loving moms and dads, most of the time. We are patient, most of the time. We model courtesy and respect for our children, most of the time. We are attentive, most of the time.
But sometimes we mess up. None of us is perfect, but I think my son was onto something when he said that what matters is what we do most of the time.
When we've actually done something wrong, we must take a breath, tell someone about it, apologize to the person we've wronged, and accept the grace that is always available to us from a loving God.
We have to start over, over, and over again in the funny, broken love that is family.
Excerpted from MOMumental by Jennifer Grant, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. www.worthypublishing.com. Used by permission. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: @MOMumentalBook @WorthyPub.