WRITTEN BY Aileen Kelly
This Dance is Hard: Motherhood at the Quarter Century
With Older Son’s 25th birthday quickly approaching, it’s time for me to write up a few things I think I know about motherhood.
I have been a mom for a while, longer than some, not as long as others. 25 years so far. I have two children, one is 24 years old and one is 8 years old. There are no two people I love more in this world or beyond. They have been my great adventure and terror and joy and…well, all the things. They have given me dimensions I would not have developed if it were not for them. I think I am a better person because of them.
They have done and are doing a good job of raising their mother. The older one did a lot of the heavy lifting, especially there at the beginning and then 16 years later when his brother was born. For that I am grateful. The younger one had to live through enormous emotional and physical upheaval and throughout it, he has been unfailingly cheerful and just generally up for it, which if you have ever been on a disastrous vacation you know how much it helps to have that kind of person along for the ride. A mother couldn’t ask for two better guides through this ongoing shitshow we call motherhood.
And then there were two…
Giving birth is so personal and complicated I still don’t fully understand what happened. I was pregnant and then I wasn’t. There wasn’t a baby and then there was. I remember saying to my younger son, right after he was put on my chest, “You weren’t and now you are.” That’s about all I have ever understood about childbirth.
The first year is always the most psychotic
I did not know parenting was going to be so mind-numbing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrifying and glorious and all the big things people say it is but what people tend to leave out is what a mental freeze it can be. I watched all of Glee over a two month period in little bits and snips between the hours of 1 am and 5 am and I cannot for the life of me tell you anything that happened. There was singing. The clothes were awful. Jane whats-her-name was in it. That’s all I’ve got.
I have made chili once a week since 1997 and yet when I went to make chili a month after my younger son was born, I couldn’t remember how to make it. I stared at my older son and said, genuinely panicked, “I can’t remember how to make chili.”
“Good,” he said and left to go buy the family yet another bag of tacos.
I’m still not certain I have the chili recipe right. Every time I make it there is a corner of my brain that whispers, “You’re forgetting something important and you know it.” I’m left muttering over the pot on the stove, like a disheveled suburban witch, “Is it chives? No, that’s tacos. Garbanzo beans…gross, no. Goat cheese? No, c’mon, get it together here. What lunatic puts goat cheese in chili?”
Maybe you had help the first year. Maybe you had that holiest of grails, a night nurse. Or maybe it was no one but you and baby. No matter how much or little help you had, it was still a wrenching shitshow, right? Why can’t we accept that something can be both glorious and everything you ever wanted and yet it took everything you had to carry it off. That’s success. You look back and think, with genuine wonder, “How did I do that?” And yet you obviously did because here you are, the first year is over, everyone made it through and now you’ve only got the rest of your life to get through. I have raised two kids, one all the way into adulthood, and no parenting experience was as relentlessly difficult as that first year.
Do not let anyone tell you different: this dance is hard. It’s a dance so there is joy and grace and beauty but the learning and the daily practice and the sacrifice it takes to learn…that is beautiful, too.
Three year olds should never, ever be left alone
It’s a better idea to leave your teenager in front of a computer with a credit card and your Amazon password than it is to leave a three year old alone anywhere at any time. And yet you can’t be with a three year old all the time. Mostly because they are annoying. I mean, there is no one on this planet more adorable than a three year old but man, they are terrible to deal with. Two year olds are NOTHING compared to a three year old. There are all sorts of important physical and mental developmental reasons why three year olds are the way they are.
That is immaterial. Your job is to endure. Also, squash all behaviors that if someone ten years older engaged in, would be untenable. Hitting, biting, yelling. Throwing anything unsanctioned. Talking to you as if you work for them. You do not work for them. I know it feels as if you do but you don’t. Please try and remember you are the adult.
Three year olds need to know that:
- You know how the car works and they don’t so hand over the keys.
- You control the flow of snacks in the house as well as what appears on all screens.
- They are safe with you in charge and can relax.
Nobody feels safe with someone who gives the impression they have no idea what is going on or how to deal with it. Before GPS was widely available, I was lost most of the time. When we were lost, my older son would announce, “We’re lost again.” I would nod and say, “We are but I always get us home so don’t worry.” And we got home. Obviously. But I have to be careful. Confidence that rolls over into arrogance isn’t comforting. It just makes you look incompetent in a different way.
The best thing about parenting three year olds is, when all else fails, you can still just pick them up and put them somewhere safe. Teenagers…not so much.
Schooling, volunteering and other bad ideas
(I obviously starting writing this in February 2020, before our national distance learning experiment in terror began. Oh and I was right to break out in a sweat, I am an incompetent, lazy teacher and I feel sorry for Six)
Welcome back to school. It has been going on without you, lying in wait, getting weirder and more complicated. From preschool to college, you will guide your human through the process of being socialized, educated and squashed into a pigeon hole they will then spend the rest of their lives trying to pry themselves out of. And that’s okay. You can homeschool and many people do an excellent job. We should find someone to talk about homeschooling because whenever I hear the word homeschool, I break out in a flop sweat.
So, school. I really have nothing here. I endure and have endured as best I could. I’ve got one through college and the second one is in 2nd grade. Yesterday he was complaining about homework as we were driving to the store. After I parked, I turned in my seat and said, “You think I want to do homework? This is my third trip through 2nd grade. If I missed anything the first time I caught it the second. This is all pointless review for a test I will never take. Now, we can do this the hard way or we can do this my way.”
My younger son frowned. “Those are the same.”
“Yes. Good job. You have learned the great lesson of school which is someone older, tired and over it is in charge of your education. Figure out how to pacify them and you will go far.”
“Can I have a puppy?”
As you can see, he missed the point completely. But that is okay. No one teaches multiplication as well as Schoolhouse Rock and I have that shit on every delivery method known to man. There might even be a set of VHS tapes somewhere, left over from Older Son. (It’s on Disney+)
You will get through schooling. However you are doing it, you are doing a good job. Volunteer or don’t. Park and walk in to get your kid or stay in your car in the pick-up line like the antisocial troll you are (that’s what I do). No one needs me standing around making pithy comments while other parents are trying to answer work emails and make a grocery list and keep their younger child from eating a rogue Cheeto she found under the lunch table.
It’s okay to love being deeply involved at your child’s school. Don’t let the grumps ruin your fun. Do it up, throw yourself into it, make it big and loud and pour some glitter on it. Sign up and then show up. Chair a committee, run for PTA office, take over the school website redesign. Be the mom other moms dread. You own this moment and it’s yours just as much as it’s the cynical, frankly bitchy mom who makes fun of you with sly comments. Ignore her. Ignore all of us. You’re doing great and yes, I got your email and I’ll…I mean, yes I do know how to bake and wait, who told you I know how to sew?
Or don’t. Don’t volunteer. That’s okay, too. No one wants your put upon vibe at the bake sale or whatever else we’re doing to raise some money to pay a gym teacher so we can all stop feeling so guilty about the flotilla of screens anchored around our lives. This shit is hard enough without herding someone who doesn’t want to be there. I have placed a moratorium on volunteering until May. With my older son, I was constantly volunteering and going on field trips. I loved it. This time around? Not so much. Something has changed. Maybe if I could volunteer with the grandmothers rather than the moms? I love moms but grandmas know how to conserve their energy. They know three hours in the booth at whatever fun fair we are in the midst of is a marathon and to keep the chit chat on a slow roll. It’s not a first date. We are never doing this again. And if we do, what the hell are we going to talk about next time? Leave them wanting more. Or, just stay home and pretend you forgot there was a funfair this weekend and take the kids to the movies.
Never let them forget that this thing they are doing is hard
Middle school is garbage. From beginning to end. High school isn’t much better but if you are lucky you figure out a few bedrock things by sophomore year. Also, having at least one person who cares if you show up to school is a plus.
I’m probably still processing my high school experience and I graduated 30 years ago. When Older Son was in middle school I got the impression he thought there was someone at his school having a better or easier time than he was. No one was.
“This is hard,” I told him. “Go up to any functioning adult raised in the US and say ‘middle school’ and watch them crumble. Don’t ever forget that this is all hard and you are doing a good job. I am proud of you.”
I said this all through middle school, high school and college. I say it to him now.
People love to act as if youth is some magical time. It can be but it’s hard becoming who you are going to be. Never forget that. If someone tells you there is an easy way to grow into an adult human, they are selling something and it’s probably a cult. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit.
That about covers it
You are not going to be a great parent at every stage of your child’s life. There are going to be stages you are just better at than others. I am not the world’s best mom of children aged newborn to about when they start talking. I find this stage infinitely frustrating. I know they want something but I just can’t seem to figure out what. When they start talking, I can say yes or no and then we can negotiate from there. There is no negotiating with a screaming infant.
Weirdly enough, I tend to handle middle schoolers pretty well.
The best field trip I was ever in charge of was when I took 7 middle school boys to the zoo. Allow me to explain.
I have taken four year olds, 1st graders and middle schoolers to the zoo. The 1st graders were the worst. We got in that gate and they scattered like spies dropped behind enemy lines. I still mentally scold a 24 year old adult woman every time I see her for the disappearing act she pulled on that field trip. She scared the bejesus out of ten adults for half an hour as we scoured the zoo looking for her.
The 4 year olds stuck to me and each other like glue. It was sometimes hard to walk without tripping over them. At the end of the trip, they somehow managed to get into the gift shop and it took an hour to get them all out. I think a few of them shoplifted but I didn’t care. The 1st graders loved the gift shop as well. Some of them had money but most of them didn’t and there was a lot of smug parading of cheap stuffed animals amid quiet, envious tears.
The middle schoolers were great. They shuffled from enclosure to enclosure, mumbling to each other and gesturing in a very restrained, I would go so far as to say decidedly British, manner. They snickered at the chimpanzees, gazed with our peculiar human longing at the elephants and when we hit the exit I said, “I will buy everyone here ice cream if we can skip the gift shop.” To a person, they agreed. We were the first group back to the bus. I passed the driver a slightly melted ice cream sandwich and she fired up the bus for us. We sat in the air conditioning, eating ice cream and looking everywhere but at each other.
It was glorious.