Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves! No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough. We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.) THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.
American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics. Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts. It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better. But no one tries harder than we do to parent right. We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen. We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic! , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.” We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.
And, what’s that you say? One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff? Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder. So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports. Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside. So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup). So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games. Then feel bad about it.
It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now. Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today? Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?
Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay. But things were different then. People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.
Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks. For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake. This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate. Win-win, right? Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony. (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.) Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would. Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way. If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids? And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?
My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way. Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider. It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.
There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent. But here’s the good news. Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting. For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom. Well, minus the verbal abuse. What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top. He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree. Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.
Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.
On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom. When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom. I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.
(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food. Kick-ass wardrobe. But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were. But c’est la vie!
And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:
“Zoe! Theo! Dinner!” And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.
Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one. But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.
[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]