The internet is an amazing thing. In an instant, mothers from all over the world can connect with each other online. We share interests, tips, stories about our children; we compare ourselves and pick one another apart until we can finally decide, once and for all: Who is the best mother? And what makes her that way?
The internet is a microcosm of "real life," nothing happens there that hasn't been happening since the dawn of society. On the internet, it just happens faster. Without delay, mothers can declare to one another their children's achievements: three-year-olds who read, four-year-olds with impeccable table manners, teenagers who are always in a good mood. Of course, these amazing children are all the result of amazing mothers who always took their prenatal vitamins, never raised their voices, always kept a clean house and never got a good night's sleep, because a good mother never sleeps.
What if I can't come up with exciting educational activities every day?And what if my preschooler does not heed my every soft-spoken command? What if I can't come up with exciting, educational activities for my kids, every day, all day? What if something happens to me that I just can't plow through like a champ? What do I tell the other internet mommies when I'm too depressed to do more with my kid than watch Disney movies all morning? What do I tell the child I have failed by not giving him stimulating days of learning and fun?
Last fall, I developed a home preschool program for my two and a half year old son, Menachem Mendel (Moo). We had a regular routine that started after breakfast and carried us through to lunch. Every day he was learning more and his behavior and his ability to follow instructions was improving. He had a new baby sister, Adelle Shayna (Shiny)z"l, who didn't require a whole lot of stimulation. It was easy to tend to her needs while teaching her brother. After naptime every day, we would go to the park or the museum and the other mommies would marvel at all I was accomplishing.
In November, the rest of life started getting in the way of my prize-worthy mothering. My hours at work were getting longer, though since I work at night, I still had time during the day. Menachem Mendel started waking at night and needed to be soothed back to sleep. The disturbance would wake Adelle Shayna, who would then also need to be soothed back to sleep. I was getting overwhelmed and tired. On top of work and sleep deprevation, I had a trip to plan. By myself. With both kids.
He could sense my distractionMaybe he could sense my distraction, because Menachem Mendel started getting distracted, too. His routine slowly dissolved as he started making his own decisions about how he wanted to spend his time. Our firm routine gave way to independent play. It wasn't a bad way for my son to spend his time, but he wouldn't be reading by age three. I promised we'd resume our home school program when we got back from our trip and got settled.
Meanwhile I felt like I'd lost something, but what? I had lost my place in the contest for Best Mommy.
I found my promise really hard to keep. The sleep disturbances didn't stop. Menachem Mendel's attention span didn't get longer. And then, a month after we returned from our trip, my plans were completely derailed.
On Saturday night, December thirteenth, Adelle Shayna died of SIDS. It was the kind of tragedy for which no parent can be prepared. Any ambition I had to impress the other parents or push my child to his utmost potential vanished. My concern turned to emotional survival. I felt like there wasn't enough left of me to be the kind of mother I was before. I gave up on the idea of homeschooling. I had serious emotional work to do if I was going to make it through this time in my life. I think my brain knew this better than I did and dedicated a significant amount of space to the effort. My memory declined, my logical reasoning suffered. My mind was too busy for those things.
I had to live day to day and moment to moment. I had once been devoted to Unconditional Parenting, but now I found myself unable to carry through with the philosophy. I needed behaviorism and efficiency, so I started using consequences and rewards, which I had previously sworn off. My house had always been clean and tidy, but chores felt meaningless to me suddenly. For the first time in a while, dishes went undone, messes accumulated. For hours on end, I found myself in a sort of mental stasis, staring at nothing or reading something of very little substance while Menachem Mendel watched a movie or played on his own.
What if they blamed me?When I snapped out of it, I felt terrible. What happened to my son's teacher, his great leader of field trips, the brilliant stimulator? Was she gone forever? Would his brain turn to mush? I would read parenting boards online and think, "Oh no. What have I done? I can never be like these women. I'm cheating my son." And then I was struck by an even more horrifying thought. What if they blamed me for Adelle Shayna's death?
You see, depending on whom you ask, Adelle Shayna was either at the least risk for SIDS, or at a great one. She was exclusively breastfed, and slept, swaddled, in the family bed with a pacifier. She was alone when she died. Most people, regardless of their position on the issue, have enough common sense not to say something to a grieving mother about her responsibility for the death of her child. Of course, there's one exception in every group. Every time I would post to a parenting board I held my breath, waiting for the accusation. Finally, it came. About six months after Adelle Shayna died, a mother on a forum posited that it had happened because the baby had been left alone.
It was hardly the crushing blow for which I had braced myself. In fact, it was rather amusing. By this point I had done quite a lot of research and I knew that babies died of SIDS in family beds, in cribs and even in their parents' arms. Breastfed babies died of SIDS. Formula fed babies died of SIDS. I passed this information on to the other mother and invited her to learn some tact. Then, I left that parenting board--forever. What good was it doing me, reading about how wonderful all these other mothers were and pondering how terrible I might be?
We have to step away from the mommy race When surrounded by tales of Supermommies, it's hard to believe something could occur that could throw a mother off her game. Things happen in our lives, things we need to process and heal from. Real things, big things that affect the way we function. Pushing them aside to go on with the business of winning at motherhood doesn't make them disappear, it just pushes them to the back of the fridge. By the time we get to the original problem, it's a big, moldy, sticky, unrecognizable mess and it still needs to be dealt with.
Before it gets to be too much, we have to step away from the mommy race. We have to realize most of it is exaggerated anyway. We have to take the time to think, to process, to heal. We have to realize that while we do that, some TV and take-out isn't going to permanently damage our children. A mother with a festering heartache who hasn't taken the time to work through it really could damage her children. We need to forgive ourselves for the time we need and realize we will come out stronger for it. In the end, we'll be able to add "overcoming adversity," to our list of Supermommy accomplishments.