Friday, July 1, 2016

The Great Mommy Race

Parenthood is a competitive sport. I invite anyone who doesn't agree to sit in on a toddler play group and just listen for a few minutes. I guarantee phrases like these can be heard at any given time: "Oh, Johnny is still sleeping in a crib? Well, we got our little Susie, here, transitioned to to her big-girl-bed by her first birthday...AND got her to give up her binkie." "'re having trouble with potty training? [insert practiced look of supportive pity] Yeah, we had Jane completely out of diapers before she was 2. It took some time and effort, but life is SO much easier now that diaper changes are behind us [insert practiced genuine-looking smile and light chuckle to camouflage the shameless dig at the other mother's obvious inferior parenting]."

Awhile ago I was gifted a parenting self-help book, instructing us how to raise "almost perfect" daughters. After months of looking at it sitting on my table, I finally picked the book up. I agreed with a few points, disagreed with many points, but most of all, I was surprised by the intensity of my emotional reaction. It began before I even lifted the cover...with fear. 

A lifetime ago, I approached parenthood with all of the typical dreams and aspirations of a first-time mom. I would breastfeed for a full year, then I would make my own baby food with organic ingredients. I would be home to assist with homework and to make cookies. My kids would know how to properly fold a shirt...and a fitted sheet. I would be actively involved with whatever extra curricular activities my children chose. I would become president of the PTA.

Then Fate or God or The Powers That Be stepped in and threw a monkey wrench into all of my carefully thought-out plans by giving me special needs children. I love my kids fiercely, but - even now, 23 years later - I still mourn the motherhood journey I expected, the one I craved. I feared reading the self-help book would be a painful reminder of all that my life doesn't include. Truth? It did just that. It started off in the introduction, where the author stated, "It is my deepest belief that if we spend more time nurturing, focusing and guiding our children...we would have more daughters who are ("almost") perfect."

Well...I certainly can't be accused of not putting in my time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears (lots and lots of tears) as a mother. For me, though, that didn't - and never will - produce the successful, contributing members of society the author seems to claim will result from a little extra "parental elbow grease". That's because the [faulty, in my opinion] underlying assumption of the book is that, as parents, we all start off on equal footing. She stated, for instance, that good grades are an important indicator of good parenting and that extra time and effort tutoring will lead to our children earning the "A" (and occasional "B") grades we strive for (just like her two daughters did).

Nope. My oldest daughter (23) has high functioning autism with mild to moderate developmental delay. Forget A's and B's; we've been working hard for months on the life skill of grocery shopping...and I assume it'll be at least another few years before she'll have that skill down well enough for independent shopping...if we reach that goal at all.

The author went on to say that with proper manners, morals, and education, our daughters are sure to become the person everyone around them "can't help but love" - just like her daughters. Wrong again. My second daughter has a rare genetic disorder. It doesn't matter what I could ever teach her about social skills or manners. She will never be someone "everyone can't help but love". She's a 50-pound 20-year-old who is non-verbal, non-ambulatory, exclusively G-tube fed, and incontinent. She has the cognitive ability of about a 9-month-old and a seizure disorder. When most people see me rolling her up to them in her wheelchair, "uncomfortable" is the general reaction. It's just a fact of our lives.

In the "Great Mommy Race", I'm the runner with a prosthetic leg who finishes the marathon last. I FINISH, and I'm PROUD...but even though I'm working just as hard (or harder) than the first place finisher, I will never, ever win. Ever. That truth hurts sometimes, but then I pull a Taylor Swift and Shake It Off. My kids may not be "(almost) perfect", but there are so many reasons to be proud of them. Over the years they have blown me away with their strength, courage, heart, and grit. My oldest daughter may not be able to spell her way out of a paper bag (good spelling is mentioned in the book as a trait of almost perfect daughters), but she wrote a tribute to our recently deceased cat on Facebook that brought me to tears. She has a beautiful, loving soul that ANY mother would be proud of.

I applaud the author for apparently raising two beautiful, successful young ladies. I'm truly happy for her. I also understand that competition between parents is just a natural part of the human condition - as is judgement. I just ask parents to remember two things before letting loose with their scathing assessments of the "less successful" parents around them. First: even when it's obvious that we're not on the same playing field, we still feel the loss of never being able to win your have some compassion. My 20-year-old just "graduated high school" a few days ago. Clearly people aren't going to look at her in her wheelchair and judge my parenting because I don't have her college acceptance letters to proudly wave around. That doesn't mean I don't feel the absence of them in my hand. Graduation day was just another day for us...except for when I wheeled her off the bus and discovered her diploma discretely tucked away in her bag. I surprised myself with a cry - the slobbery, blubbering type, where you drop to your knees and emotionally vomit until your eyes burn and your throat is sore from your silent wailing. I pulled myself together and moved on just fine, but my thankful thought for the day was that she isn't aware enough to have any interest in things like graduation ceremonies. I don't begrudge all the beaming, happy, proud parents out there with their successful grads...but I don't relish the idea of sitting for hours, hearing about all of their amazing accomplishments and bright futures, either.

Secondly - and maybe most importantly, every parent is not equipped equally. Be proud of that straight "A" student of yours - you have every right to be! I'll be over here in an exhausted puddle on the floor, breathing my huge sigh of relief that with all of our guiding, cajoling, demanding, helping, pleading, and encouraging this year, our ADHD/dyslexic 7th grader squeaked by without a SINGLE "F" on his final report card. Heck, he even got twice as many "C's" as "D's" - I'm feeling like Mother of the freakin' Year right now!