Yesterday was a rather marvelous day at my house. My four year old read his first words. My baby stood without holding onto anything. I managed to successfully avoid the laundry. The general vibe was filled with humor and love. We sang songs and danced in the kitchen. We roughhoused with the couch pillows and got a little kooky at dinnertime. We almost had a food fight. It was a great day, all in all. And yet, as my husband and I were putting the children to bed I couldn’t shake the thought that I am somehow, in some unknowable way, screwing up my kids.
My greatest fear as a mother is not that I will die or that my children will die or any other extreme sort of horror. Those kinds of fears are catalogued under the heading that could never happen to us, so I ignore that lot. The kind of fear that stays with me through each day of decision-making is this: will this choice that I am making right now totally mess my children up in the future?
I’m no seasoned parent. Every single day I get at least 30% of what I’m doing totally wrong, but I do it with a smile on my face and at least one punch line. If you were to ask my four year-old to recount mistakes I made just yesterday, he might bemoan my laziness in the kitchen. The kid asked for French toast covered in chocolate and candy and maple syrup the size of a tall tower. What he got was a bowl of hot steel cut oats lightly flavored with homemade maple syrup and a side of sliced apple. I saw that as a healthy choice and a gesture of culinary love. My son saw that as treason and declared that I was fired from cooking, Mom! You stink!
The little twerp…
I’m not worried that by ignoring outlandish requests from my son that I am causing irreparable harm to his future psyche. I am worried about the small but unpleasant everyday things that don’t seem that bad until they add up over the years. For example, when I get stupid with hunger or dumb with exhaustion, my immediate reaction to almost anything is overreaction. If the kid is getting rambunctious with wild-eyed energy then instead of just letting him fly through the house on his determined mission to break the sound barrier, I lob nagging reminders to be careful or suffer the consequences of a serious timeout at him as if he is the invading Russian army.
Sometimes I just snap and yell. I become that Mom. And then when I go to bed at night I cannot sleep well because I am smothered in guilt. I toss and turn while mentally going over 100 different ways to redirect that do not end with me getting overly frustrated and yelling.
With each decision that my husband and I agree on there is always lingering doubt slowly coalescing in the part of my Mom brain that breeds Fear. By choosing homeschooling will my son end up a social weirdo? By not allowing toy guns at our house will my son end up being too embarrassed to have friends over for dread that I might say something in Mom*ese? By choosing to not allow fast food will my son hate me for preventing a cultural norm in his childhood? By deciding that Saturday morning cartoons are too violent and the accompanying commercials too obnoxious will my son think I’m too old-fashioned or that my feminist values are ruining his one allowed day to eat cereal on the couch?
I turned out OK and my parents did not appear to me to ever stress about the same things that I am currently preoccupied with. I’m sure that my children will ultimately be fine. I imagine that they will grow up to be loving and kind men who will lead interesting and wonderful lives. I hope.
But mostly, I hope that all this time wasted on over-thinking my parenting decisions is really just an exercise in keeping me balanced on my toes long enough to understand that everything I say and everything I do matters. A lot.