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You Can't Escape The Guilt Trap

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Let's start with me. Mothering two children under the age of 3 often feels like walking a tightrope. Blindfolded. In clogs. How do I appease the suffering of my theatrical 2-year-old without neglecting the needs of my two-month-old? How do I simultaneously breastfeed my infant and entertain my toddler? The answer is simple: I cannot. I am unable to run the loop of my railroad apartment with a broomstick between my legs while balance-nursing newborn in the crook of my free arm. Believe me, I’ve tried.

So when I’m alone with my two girls — which I am, five nights a week — the notion of balance becomes as elusive as the notion of patience, and neglect becomes inevitable. When my toddler drops a roll of toilet paper into the toilet, on top of her epic, big-girl poop, the baby gets dumped in the bassinet. When witching hour strikes, and the baby begins screaming inconsolably, the toddler gets placed in front of a screen with a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

By the time bedtime rolls around, visions of anti-sleep uprisings are dancing through my head, and I’ve lost the willpower to wait until after I’ve nursed my newborn down to knock back a glass of wine. If she sleeps well, I worry that I’ve gotten her secondhand drunk, and pour another glass to manage the anxieties that surround my terrible mothering.

Maybe my upbringing — I was raised by feisty Italians who took immense pleasure in suffering for the sake of others — makes me more prone to self-flagellation. Or perhaps motherhood itself is a lifelong state of suspended guilt. Whatever the cause, the guilt that clings to every decision I make for and about my children is suffocating.

I spent my entire run on the elliptical texting my best friend furiously about what an awful mother I am.

Pregnant, I’d deluded myself into believing it would be a great idea to pull my toddler out of daycare during my maternity leave. My dreams of idyllic walks in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and lazy days on the beach, reading novels and board books while the baby napped in our new, state-of-the-art beach tent, evaporated approximately three hours after returning home from the hospital with my newborn. My doubt grew as midnight fast approached, and by 2 a.m., as one child screamed “Put the baby away” while banging her head against my thigh and the other simply screamed, I decided perhaps staying home with two children under the age of 3 was not the best route after all. My certainty that keeping my toddler in daycare was the right choice, for all of us, grows stronger every day, yet I can’t stop tormenting myself for my failure to take full-time care of two children while working part-time from home without losing my mind.

Know how I felt after I uncurled my toddler’s fingers from mine at drop-off, minutes after she’d tearfully informed me, “I miss you, Mom,” and proceeded to bound out the door to enjoy my weekly hour at the gym? Like cat puke. But I’d been looking forward to that hour all week. Amid the doctor appointments, the soaking of pooped-upon clothes, the wiping of vomit from my bare chest, I was anticipating that single hour when one child would be in care, the other would be with my partner, and I would be physically free.

I spent my entire run on the elliptical texting my best friend furiously about what an awful mother I am, and how sickened I am by the term “self-care.”

I should have taken her for a big-girl hot chocolate. I’m becoming the bougie mother I swore I never would!

Jackie, my kind friend reminded me, You need this hour to recharge. This hour is what allows you to be the incredible, attentive mother you are.

Even though I knew she was right, at least about needing to recharge, some poisonous voice — probably my mother’s — hissed in my ear: Your children need you more than you need to get your heart rate up to 187.

I didn’t feel at ease about my decision until I was home, back at the full-time job of feeding an infant, and even then, ease is too strong of a word. I had a lovely afternoon bonding with my baby and swatting at soft, dangling objects. But the real winner was my toddler. She got a morning glory muffin and the doughnut-print dress she’d been begging me to buy her.

Good job, mom. Filling your children’s emotional holes with junk food and presents.

How do the no-sugar, no screen-time moms do it? I’d really like to know. What, exactly, do you do when one child is losing their shit and the other is whining for your attention, i.e., what do you do most of your waking hours? And why can’t I manage to do it, too?

Sometimes, the expectations of modern motherhood make my head feel like it’s going to explode. We need to ensure our children have a healthy, diverse diet that includes foods other than boxed mac and cheese. We need to nail down a seat in a prestigious daycare months in advance, to buckle down and research the top-rated pre-schools. My six month old needs the stimulation of a dual language environment to thrive, goddammit! We need to engage them in imaginative, educational play (but don’t helicopter!) and limit the screen time (or better yet, pretend they have never zoned out in front of Peppa Pig so you could sit for 10 minutes on a lidded toilet, alone).

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We cannot raise our voices, but we must: sleep train, potty train, socialize, teach independence, and enroll them in classes. How do you expect your nine-month-old to become a successful adult without the “super dope” experience of baby DJ school? And oh yes, we absolutely have to go back to work full time so we can afford all the $35-a-pop classes and organic food. Didn’t you know? Being “just” a mom doesn’t cut it. Our society still doesn’t recognize or respect full-time mothering (and ALL moms are full time moms) for the badass, unpaid, no-vacation-ever job that it is. We need “real” careers so we can be eternally giving mothers as well as the strong female models our children need.

Whatever happened to feeling good about simply managing to keep your little person alive and smiling?

How did we ever get deluded into believing that mothers and strong women are two different species?

Is it because mothers of small children constantly look like they’ve just crawled out of a washing machine? "Take some time to take care of yourself" is for everyone who does not currently have a child under 5, and therefore doesn’t understand, or has forgotten, that going into Manhattan to get a hot stone massage entails the agony of pumping enough breast milk to keep the baby appeased for three hours. Because what kind of monster supplements with formula before the age of three months?

Confession: I do. I pumped my heart out with my first daughter, and it was never enough. So this time, I’m saving myself hours of slow torture by giving my infant baby formula once a week. I’m pretty sure my daughter won’t grow a second head, turn green, or lose valuable IQ points. But I still lie awake wondering why I’m not good enough, dedicated enough, to pump for my little one.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? Whatever happened to feeling good about simply managing to keep your little person alive and smiling? We tell ourselves that we don’t have to be everything for our children, then create laundry-lists of demands that no human can achieve, at least, not without losing large portions of their sanity.

Claire Cain Miller addresses this in her recent New York Times feature, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting” (which pops up almost daily in my Facebook feed). Miller explores the growing pressure on American moms to engage in more hands-on parenting than ever before, even though more American moms are working full-time than ever before, with the added stress of inadequate, or non-existent, paid parental leave, and few, or no, affordable childcare options. Although this phenomenon is more pronounced in the upper-middle class echelons of society, Miller finds that parents from across economic and social divides tend to agree that this kind of “intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children” is not just valuable but necessary for their children’s wellbeing.

Somehow, we’ve come to believe that we not only have to be everything for our children — loving mother, entertainer, educator, gentle disciplinarian — but have to give every last iota of time, energy, and extra income to our children in order for them to… what?

The appearance of a second little person in my life has left me with much less time and energy to fret about the nutritional value of Goldfish.

Miller attributes much of this to economic anxiety as, for the first time in decades, we are raising children without the assurance that they will have more than we did. Miller states: “For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.”

I see this anxiety all around me, in the panic that overcomes New York City parents at public-school application time, in the eruption of “best practice” advice all over the internet. In our age of ever-expanding information, there is a tremendous pressure to do everything right, in all areas of life. For moms, it is only natural that this pressure grows exponentially when it comes to our children. We are inundated with choices — Do I go with the UppaBaby Vista or the UppaBaby Cruz? Or maybe it’s the City Mini that my mini-me needs? — and the mounting pressure to get it right makes minutiae feel like mountains. I doubt and second-guess everything to begin with, and attribute bad behavior to my own mistakes. My educated guess is that other moms do, too. That every time we have to make a parenting choice, we feel like teabags drowning in scorching mugs of guilt.

I’ve been told the pressure eases a bit with a second child, and in many ways, it has, but not because I’m more comfortable with my choices, but because I have no choice. The appearance of a second little person in my life has left me with much less time and energy to fret about the nutritional value of Goldfish, or to count the number of hours between feedings. I lack the oomph, and the money, required to drag my toddler to Spanish class and baby ballet. So far, she hasn’t exhibited any lack in communication skills or coordination.

What a relief to remind myself that motherhood, with all the terrifying power it brings, does not actually bestow upon us the power of control.

Yes, every decision I make impacts my children in some way, even the decisions that don’t directly involve them, and this is a horrifying realization, especially for someone with a track record like mine. But within this larger truth lives a smaller truth that’s just as potent: not all of our decisions matter. Deciding to teach my daughter to practice empathy on the playground is important; but will rolling in the “wrong” over-priced stroller have even a negligible effect on her well-being? Modern moms don’t need pacifiers that simulate real nipples and baby wash that’s infused with expensive, organic essential oils. We need someone to tell us that it’s OK to make mistakes. Allowing ourselves to fail creates opportunities for growth. It models resilience for our children, and results in a less stressful living environment. I don’t want my daughters to be the best, I want them to be happy, and the best way to achieve that is to teach them that they can find joy and fulfillment while living a less-than-perfect life.

My daughters don’t care if I drink a glass of wine with dinner, and are completely unaware of the fact that they’re not bilingual. But they do care about whether I’m grumpy or relaxed. An hour on the acupuncture table, or banging out an essay about guilt on my keyboard might fill me with a guilt as heavy as lead, but factoring myself into the equation is crucial if we want to thrive, or simply survive, as a family. My girls are happier when I’m happy. They’re definitely a little less spoiled with a little less doting and fewer choices, which, I remind myself when I fall off the tightrope, is good for their character. I like to imagine that by understanding early on that mom isn’t perfect, and can’t be everything all the time, they will feel more comfortable with their own imperfections, and will develop their own authentic, deeply-flawed sense of balance.

My home might look like chaos to the casual observer. My toddler tantrums fiercely several times a week, my baby fusses daily, and I detonate into frustrated, angry tears every now and again. I like to joke that in our house, someone is always screaming. But we laugh, too. We love abundantly. It’s cheaper than a pair of used Natives, and it’s the best guilt-balm out there. This I know for sure.