Measuring up as a mom

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by Jen Rouse
The Short Years
Oregon writer

It’s hard to tell if I’m doing this job right.

Someone asked me recently whether I preferred newspaper writing or longer-term projects, and I said that one thing I like about newspapering is the immediacy of it. You write an article, it runs in the paper, and within days (or within hours, sometimes) you start getting feedback. If it’s good, you hear about it. If you screwed something up, you REALLY hear about it. Either way, you know quickly whether you performed well or not.

Motherhood is not like that.

Sometimes I get compliments on my children’s behavior, and I always smile graciously and thank the person. I truly appreciate these comments–you don’t know how much. But inwardly, I’m smirking. I’m thinking, “Lady, if you saw me at 7:59 p.m. when all I want to do is throw my children into their beds and shut the door so I can be DONE WITH THEM already, you wouldn’t be saying such nice things.”

It’s like the thing people always say about politics. That laws are like sausages; it’s a messy business, and you really don’t want to see them being made. Sometimes that’s how I feel about raising children. Those clean, ponytailed, ribboned creatures that I send off to school each day with full backpacks and matching shoes are not my real children.

Look at that kid. Hair in her eyes, dirty pants, shoes so old they barely have any laces. Where is that child’s mother?

My real children are the ones who come in the door at 3:35 p.m. and throw their backpacks and shoes down on the floor. My real parenting behavior is that I step over all the crap on the floor until 7:35 p.m., at which time I realize that I’m exhausted and the house is a mess and I start yelling at the children to clean up all their stuff or I’m going to come in here with a *garbage bag* and *clean it up for them.* And then it’s time to tuck them into their beds and give them kisses and sing them songs, and I don’t want to. I actually said that to my husband last night. I whined at him. “I don’t want to read them stories,” I said. I wanted to sit down on the couch by myself, without anyone on my lap, and watch television shows that actually contain adult themes and are not appropriate for those under the age of 7.

You wonder, sometimes (all the time), what they are going to remember. Will they remember the mom who grumped at them and threatened to throw away their shoes? Will they look back and think about how I told them to make their beds and said I was too busy to color with them? Will they appreciate the fact that putting dinner on the table every single stinking night is work, work that I did for them, for their benefit? Are all these family dinners and loads of laundry folded and soccer games dutifully observed doing any good?

And really, when will I know? If they turn 18 and graduate from high school and aren’t living on the street, can I fold my hands and sit back and consider my job done? If they get decent jobs and have families of their own, then do I count it a success? You know that if they up and murder someone at 35, the reporters are going to start digging around into what kind of childhood they had. When does a parent ever get to be done? When do I know if I did a good job?

Probably never. Probably that’s okay. Probably it’s a process, not a destination.

As far as I can tell, it’s a minute by minute, hour by hour thing. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I win.  Which is hard for me to accept. I like constancy, consistency, and finality. I am not a fan of loose ends.

Today I sat down on the couch to read Evie a story. Her face was all covered with Nutella from her sandwich at lunch. (And the mental voices say to me: Bad mom! feeding her such a sugary food. Bad mom! Not bothering to wipe off her face.) But she was precious in that moment, all eager to read and smiling her chocolate-faced smile. And I scooped her up in a hug and whispered to her. “Guess what? I love you.”

She pushed my kisses away and pushed open the book on my lap. “I knowed that already,” she said.

I’m sealing that sentence away in my heart. I’ll count it as a success.