The Myth of "Mother Knows Best"

First, A Quiz

I don’t claim to be a professional quiz-writer like the ones for YM, but indulge me for a moment. For each of the following statements, answer “Always,” “Sometimes,” or “Never”.

  • I know how to respond when my child asks a difficult question such as, “Why do all people have nipples?”
  • I know when my child is actually sick and when she is just being a butt-head
  • I am an effective disciplinarian
  • My children listen to me
  • I set a good example for my child. Like, I could say in all seriousness, “Do as I say AND as I do.”
  • My child is safer in my care than she would be in anyone else’s
  • When it comes to my children, I do what I feel is right rather than what “everyone else” is doing
  • I feel confident in the choices I make about my child
Finished? If you answered “Always” to any of these statements, then I would like to know if there are any vacancies in your household, because apparently my kids would be much better off with you, Mr. or Mrs. I’m-an-Imaginary-Parent-that-Doesn’t-Really-Exist. Because really- always? There’s no way; I’m calling your bluff.

The Truth

Let’s all say it together, this awful secret that none of us wants to admit: About half the time, we parents have absolutely no idea what we are doing. Yes, it does get somewhat better after the first child, but one thing that I have learned in the past five-ish years is that parenthood is a complicated guessing game. I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I have looked at each other and asked, “What do I do?” or “Did I do the right thing there?” and the other person just shrugs and makes that face that seems to say, “You think I know?”
We make countless decisions every day. Some are small and need to be made on the spot: Do I ignore my daughter when she insists on using the word “poop” 875 times at the dinner table, or do I address it? Do I intervene in a sibling squabble or let them figure it out on their own? Other decisions seem huge and take a lot more forethought: Should my child undergo surgery in order to have tubes placed in her ears, or do we take a chance on less invasive treatments? Which pre-school should I send my child to? What do I do when I feel my child is being bullied? And these are just regular scenarios; I can’t even imagine being faced with the choices the parent of a child with special needs has to make. 

I Make You Feel Like a Better Parent

The choices keep on coming, and at times it can feel overwhelming, because what if we make the wrong decision? Well, I’ve done it, and I can tell you what will happen. You’ll feel shitty, you’ll learn from it, and if you’re lucky no one gets hurt or severely emotionally scarred in the process. A few cases in point:
Here’s hoping I don’t irreparably damage these three sweet, crazy girls…

When Maggie was about two and a half, she woke up and was acting like a total brat. She refused to eat her breakfast and then kept dissolving into a screaming puddle at every little thing. “You’re hungry,” I insisted. “You just need to eat and then you’ll feel better.” Despite her hysterical protests, I finally got her seated at the table. In my meanest, sternest voice, I commanded her to take bites of apple sauce. After about three bites she threw up all over herself and the kitchen table. Clearly not my proudest moment, but guess what? I felt shitty (I still do, but maybe writing this down for all to see will serve as my catharsis and I will finally be able to let it go), I learned from it, and I hope to God that Maggie does not remember it, because there could be some expensive therapy sessions down the road…

Here’s another one. Just a few weeks ago, Maggie asked if she could go in the backyard by herself to play on the new play set. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll keep an eye on you from the kitchen window,” and I continued with the dishes I was washing. Only minutes later, Matt glanced outside and asked, “Is Maggie okay?” The poor child had been playing in the baby swing, it had somehow tipped over, her feet were caught in the ropes, and she was now hanging upside down, unable to get out. She was scared, but fine, and of course, I felt shitty. (Actually I felt even shittier because she looked really funny and I couldn’t help but laugh. To be completely honest, even now when I think of her hanging there I can’t help but laugh. I don’t know why it’s so funny to me- maybe it’s a defense mechanism to keep me from crying. Either way, crappy parent right here.)

The Moral of the Story

Obviously these are not the only times I have made the wrong call or done the wrong thing. Some of my bad decisions may not even be clear at this time, but will reveal themselves down the road when my kids are adults that still use the word “poop” 875 times at the dinner table. 
I guess I just want to debunk the whole “maternal instinct” myth, the one that makes you think that in the heat of the moment, the “right thing” will magically make itself known. When my baby is screaming and I don’t know why, it’s not maternal instinct that leads me to a solution, it’s a lot of trial and error. The same goes for when my toddler is acting like a wild animal in the grocery store. I think sometimes people equate not knowing what to do with being a bad parent, so we’re either really hard on ourselves or we over-compensate by trying to project confidence about our own parenting style and choices. I’m probably in the former group, and I look at the latter and secretly hope to find a chink in their parenting armor. 
But neither of those reactions is fair. We’re all in the same boat. Or, to look at it a different way, we’re all in totally different boats, with totally different passengers, so how can we possibly compare ourselves to or judge other parents? None of us is right all the time. None of us has perfect children. If you do, let’s trade, and you can have a go at making mine perfect too. All we can do is support one another, offer guidance when we can, and be as forgiving of our own shortcomings as we would be of our children’s. 
(Like for instance, I should not feel shitty about using the word “shitty” multiple times in this post, even though it sets a bad example and is not what I would want my children to do. But hey, they can’t even read, so whatevs. I’ll worry about that one later.)

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