There’s strength in numbers so perhaps that explains why now that I have three children I have so much more mother guilt than I ever had when I had one. Back when my oldest was an only I picked him up just one day a week from nursery. Instead of going to pick-up, I would sit in some nearby café and work on my novel — not yet then a source of guilt either — as though that pursuit required as much stay-at-your-desk face time as my former job at Goldman Sachs.
Sure I was misguided, but back then it didn’t even matter, because at the end of each day I would simply come home and my son would have my full attention. After a while my husband would join us and we’d all have dinner, then play games and read stories till bedtime. We were a perfect little troika. We had a perfect little life. And then we dared for more.
You could say we had two more children as a means of self-justification – both my husband and I are third children – or simply because we wanted a larger family and all the fun and chaos which that entails. Or maybe we were just naïve. But now, eleven years into the mothering game and the (still as yet) unfinished novel, I can finally see not just the positive, but also the negative, side of the ledger. There has been a cost for my betrayal of our Mother-Father-Son trinity and the cost is this: I have turned into the very sort of mother I used to hate.
I have turned into a Mother Whirl. A Mother Whirl is the sort of mother who runs around town trying to do everything for everyone though of course it’s impossible and wouldn’t even necessarily be constructive for her children, let alone herself, if it were. She misses her kids if she doesn’t see them at the end of their school day, cares deeply, way too very deeply, about what they ate for snack and lunch, and can tell you more than you would ever want to know about what her kids are learning, or would be learning, if only she were in charge of curriculum.
But there’s one big problem inherent in this take-no-prisoners approach toward motherhood. The harder a Mother Whirl works to please her children (and believe me, she works hard), the more, not less, her children want her, a fact which seems to countermand the whole point of the enterprise. For what is the goal of motherhood if not the production of self-sufficient, outward looking children? I know this, believe it to be true and yet nonetheless. . . . . I seem to have gotten lost on a path strewn with far too much mother guilt and far too many farflung afterschool activities.
Take yesterday for example. After spending the whole afternoon running with my children (quite literally at times) back and forth crosstown from school-to-pediatrician-to-ballet-to-tutor-to-baseball, by the time I finally got all of us home for dinner I was so exhausted and embittered that I was whirling right into becoming a post-millennial Mommy Dearest. We ate crappy, overcooked food. Tantrums ensued. And I’m not talking about the children. While any good mother worth her whirl would quickly issue abject apologies all around and reassure her kids that never again would she subject them to such emotionally scarring behavior, I was finally too tired for all of that and instead surprised myself by reverting to what my own mother used to do in similar situations back in the ‘70s. I put on the TV, poured myself a glass of wine (okay, were I really impersonating my mother I’d drink gin) and hid in the kitchen ignoring the mess around me while catching up on old New Yorkers.
About a half hour passed blissfully by and then I heard shrieking which made me jump up and run into the den ready to break up a fight or perhaps hightail it to the emergency room. But all I found were my three kids smushed up tight together on the couch like best friends, howling with delight at some misbegotten reality show’s misbegotten slapstick humor. And right then it occurred to me that perhaps our decision to expand our family out past its perfection zone was not nearly as imperfect as I’d thought. For what had my children become if not a holy trinity of their own?
And though we all fell multiple steps behind in the carefully calibrated march toward bedtime, my kids seemed so happy and playful and well, kidlike, at the end of the day that after I tucked them in I not only had enough energy to clean my kitchen, but I finally finished those old New Yorkers.