Retrospective: 10 years of parenthood (part II)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, which will be a three-parter. The second piece of general parenting advice I feel comfortable offering to prospective parents is, like the first piece, fairly simple:
  • None of us know what we’re doing. What matters is the effort, not the knowledge.
Sadly, it took me a few years to realize this important piece of wisdom. As a new mom, I felt like a constant failure to my son. All the advice I was getting — from parenting magazines, books, websites, medical professionals, in-laws, and church members — said I was doing it wrong, and I needed to change. No matter which way I looked or turned, it felt like someone was giving me different advice and telling me why whatever I was currently doing was wrong, wrong, wrong.
My own mom was sick throughout my son’s infancy and died a few months before his 2nd birthday. I used to call her, asking for advice or just wondering if this or that was normal, and she’d respond with a listless, “I don’t know.”
I’m not complaining, because it wasn’t her fault. Her lack of helpfulness was not an intentional choice; it was purely a result of the illness and in no way a normal response for her. I’m just mentioning this because the one person I’d always imagined I would be able to count on for wise, knowledgeable, and patient parenting advice was rendered incapable right when I tried to call on her. Unfortunately, my dad was no substitute — he was a great dad, but he simply didn’t know the answers to those day-to-day questions: Dad, how old were my brothers when they potty-trained? Dad, when did I say my first word? Dad, how do you teach a boy to pee in the toilet? Dad, how old was I when I first got chicken pox? 
It’s a terrifying prospect to think of failing this guy.

Turns out, dad doesn’t know the answer to any of those questions. He has funny stories relating to each of those questions, but he doesn’t actually know the answer to those questions — mom had handled the day-to-day details of child-raising, and she was the one who had known and recorded such things as first steps, first words, potty training milestones, and chicken pox sick days. Dad simply could not provide the necessary information for me to combine the data of myself and my 4 siblings into any sort of baseline for Kidling’s behavior.

On top of the difficulty regarding my parenting knowledge (or lack thereof), I suffered from serious post-partum depression after my son was born. I took care of him, because I knew I was supposed to and I felt fond of him, but I didn’t feel that deep, maternal, emotional bond that everyone claims you’re supposed to feel immediately. I felt confused and worried and scared when I held my son — worried that I didn’t feel a deep emotional bond, scared at my lack of experience and knowledge, and confused in general. Everything was so foreign, and I felt so completely and utterly alone. After my mom died, my depression became even worse.
To add to this, my husband and I were going through some relationship issues. Not surprising, given the situation — we were beset by financial issues, with only one breadwinner in the home; the usual new-parent conflicts; and stresses for both of us in relating to our new in-laws. Added to all those issues were my post-partum depression and grief from losing my mom, and the fact that we were still newlyweds — we hadn’t even figured out how to properly communicate within a relationship as partners, let alone as parents.
We had been married 5 years and parents for 4 when we separated, in July or August (can’t quite remember which) of 2006. By this time, I was so utterly convinced that my family’s history of mental illness and my own struggles with post-partum depression and grief made me an unsuitable parent that I didn’t argue when John told me his parents had advised him to seek primary custody and were flying his sister out to help him take care of our son. I agreed. I felt they were right, that I was an awful mom who could only cause problems in my son’s life and development. From the reports I received in the immediate weeks after I moved out, things improved drastically with my absence. Kidling was better off without me, under the care of his aunt and father.
I began working on putting my life back together. I found a studio apartment, applied for food stamps and welfare, and began looking for a job — a daunting prospect, given that we lived in a low-income area, I had no transportation, minimal job experience (and none within the previous 4 years), and only a high school education. So I decided to start working toward my college degree. Meanwhile, my dad and sisters were urging me not to give up my parenting rights so easily, and in a neat dovetail, John’s sister began working at a local retail outlet. They needed the occasional sitter for Kidling, and I happened to be both available and free of charge. So I began watching Kidling about once a week, in the beginning. It quickly became twice, then three or four times a week. This is when I discovered something amazing: Kidling thought I was a good mom.
Kidling took this picture of me on
one of our many walks that autumn.

It didn’t matter that I suffered from depression or that I was confused about all the conflicting information on potty training and video games. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a t.v. in my new place, or that all the toys I bought for him were from a second-hand store instead of shiny and new. It didn’t matter that I had to sleep on the floor while he slept in my daybed. None of that mattered to him — what mattered was that I was there, and I loved him. That I took him on bus rides and walks, that we spent time at the library and painted together and read together and cooked together.

For the first time, my refusal to let him have soda pop or stay up late didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if anyone else felt I was overprotective for not letting him climb too high in the jungle gym, or too strict for enforcing an 8:30 bedtime every night. For the first time, no-one else was there to tell me I was doing it wrong, and for the first time I realized that the only people whose opinion mattered were mine and Kidling’s — and later, when John and I resolved our issues, his.
I realized all the reasons I thought I was a bad mom were stupid — maybe if I’d been leaving my son behind nearly every night to go drink and dance at bars and cheat on my husband, then yeah, the judgment would have been valid. Maybe if I’d been smoking pot, showing up stoned to birthday parties and family events, then the criticism would have been valid. Maybe if I’d been a strung-out crack addict druggie with needles and a meth lab, or an abusive mom who slapped and pinched and hit her kid, then yes — criticisms of my parenting skills or lack thereof all would have been valid.
But I was none of those. I was simply inexperienced and fumbling in the dark, trying my hardest and being told by everyone other than my husband and son that I was a failure. My greatest failure as a parent was not listening to those who mattered most.

That’s who.

I approached my husband in early December with the modified child custody paperwork. For the first time in months, we spent time together with just the two of us, then time together with our son, and by Christmas we had decided to give our marriage (and family) another shot.

I can’t regret the separation, because it taught me some very useful things about myself as a person, as a mother, and even as a wife. I had been trying too hard to be what I thought other people wanted — not who my son and my husband and I needed. I had been trying to juggle all these balls of societal and religious and familial expectation, and in the process I’d been neglecting the only ones who mattered — my son and my husband. My family. I only regret that it took a separation to figure this out — if we had been able to learn that lesson earlier, it would have saved all of us quite a bit of grief.
So any new parents out there — if you find yourself scrambling to please everyone, stop and take a deep, deep breath. Look at the ones who matter — your spouse, your children. Block out all the other voices — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, church members, mom group participants — and listen to what your children and partner are telling you. Because if you’re trying, really trying, and giving it your best shot, the people who matter most will know and appreciate it.

This guy.
And this guy.

3 thoughts on “Retrospective: 10 years of parenthood (part II)

  1. This post is even better than the 1st. I love your transparency. And, even though it's general, the advice is great! I, too, suffered from severe post partum depression. The only difference, my lasted 3 yrs and not a single person knew the signs. I have no memory of those 3 yrs except for memories of images I happened to snap. Life is tough… and yes, we need our loved ones to be supportive and encouraging. I a revelation of my own relationship with my daughter… She thinks I didn't/don't want her. I've tried to tell her I never expressed that I did not want her. What she needs to know is: She was "unexpected", not unwanted. Getting pregnant and having a child so early in a marriage definitely throws some hard balls as well as many curve balls. I'm going to msg my daughter with that. To let her know that she is wanted… that my pregnancy was simply unexpected.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s