Monday 13 June 2011

The Ten Commandments of Mothering and How to Subvert Them

In this culture of mothering there are certain golden rules with which all the experts agree and for which there will be dire consequences if they go ignored.  Well a lot of this is pretentious bullshit and it's time we let ourselves off the hook for kowtowing to their inflated importance.

1)  Thou shalt breastfeed thy babyIf thou failest thy child will have sub-average intelligence and be hopelessly constipated for life.  I did breastfeed and I got a lot of approval for it but the thing is this commandment put a lot of pressure on me as well.  Breastfeeding was not easy and I needed to do it because we couldn't afford formula but worse than that I just couldn't face the possibility of failure.  I hated that!  I knew that once I admitted defeat there would be those who might gloat over my prenatal arrogance thinking I could pull this off.  I know this is ridiculous but that was how I felt.  For six weeks I dealt with cracked and bleeding nipples, two cases of mastitis, pumping, supplementing, crying, never sleeping and hating myself for being such a colossal failure.  I am extremely grateful for the cheering squad that my in-laws turned out to be on the subject, but it was my mother who said the words that ultimately led to my success.

"It's okay if you can't do this.  Seriously, if you're this miserable is it worth it?  Just quit, get some sleep and start enjoying your baby."  Having her tell me it was okay to quit gave me the resolve to keep trying because at any time I had the freedom to choose to stop and it would be okay.  Everyone had my back.  So now if asked on what is best (no one asks), I think I would say whichever one gives you and your baby happiness.  If breastfeeding makes you miserable just stop.  If it makes you happy do it until you get their college acceptance letter.  And if anyone else has an opinion on your choice choose the colourful response you like best and get on with your life.

2) Thou shalt not expose thy child to sex and violence in media.  If thou so doest thy child will become a criminally insane sex-offender.  By the time Frick was three he could lisp the names of the characters on Family Guy and would cuddle with us on the couch as Daddy and I watched CSI.  We would kid each other about how wrong it was and keep doing it because we just didn't care.  He was three and most of the material was over his head.  Other shows he either watched or was exposed to slightly while playing on the floor in front of the TV include: South Park, 24, House, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and of course various action movies because Daddy and I can't get enough of them.  As he got older we stopped allowing him near South Park, 24, and a couple of the action flicks because they were too much but the rest was still up for grabs and now Frack enjoys them as well.

It didn't really hit me how controversial this is until we were at a family dinner and one of the other moms there came over and informed me that there were people watching Family Guy on TV and that my kids were in the same room.  I almost laughed until I saw she was serious and remembered that she doesn't allow her kid to watch Curious George because she thinks the monkey is a "bad influence".  I actually felt pressured into having to make a choice between keeping my kids quiet and happy or stirring up a fuss so I can disingenuously try not to look like a bad parent.  I chose peace and quiet.  I regret nothing.

We watch most of this material with our kids and explain to our kids what is going on and answer their questions.  I don't like the idea of sheltering them.  I prefer to have open dialogue about this stuff so they can be influenced by me and my opinions before their peers cut off all communication between us.  Maybe this isn't right for everyone but it works for us and, having spent most of my early childhood watching horror movies with Mummy Dearest, I'm sure they'll turn out just fine.  Or close to it.

3) Thou shalt not use profanity in front of thy child.  If thou so doest thy child will repeat thy blasphemous words and reveal thee to be not a lady.  Believe it or not that is my only fear.  Not because I really am a "lady" but because my in-laws think I am and I'm in too deep now for them to find out I've been lying to them.  The thing is, as a self-styled writer I love and am passionate about words.  I have an extensive vocabulary and a post-secondary education but my favourite word of all is the F-word.  In fact I have such a deep respect for it that I will call it the F-word right now rather than say it directly because I prefer to save it for special impact.  Overuse of a thing renders it meaningless.

I don't think there are bad words, only bad connotations, and I think that we should be free to use all words.  I don't have a good reason to give my child as to why the F-word is somehow wrong.  My explanation goes as follows: "There is a time and a place for certain kinds of language.  When you are alone with your peers it is inappropriate to speak like a Rhodes scholar and when you are in church you shouldn't speak like a construction worker and as a  little kid people expect you not to swear at all.  As long as there are no grownups around use whatever words you like, I won't care."  Think what you like, this is how things end up anyway no matter what you do, unless you're a Mormon.  And probably Mormons swear, too.

4) Thou shalt eat only at the dinner table and never ever in front of the TV.  If thou so doest thy children will be condemned to a lifetime of morbid obesity and then choke to death on a bucket of chicken in front of American Idol.  The only time our family eats at a dinner table is when we visit our in-laws or go to McDonald's.  Two reasons: 1) We do not own a dinner table or a dining room in which to put said table and 2) we like watching TV and movies while we eat.  And, surprise! my kids aren't fat.  Because I know that TV dinners do not a fat person make.  My meals are (reasonably) healthy and portion-controlled and my boys burn lots of calories tearing up the neighbourhood and fighting over that spot on the couch.  And no, they do not begin salivating like Pavlovian dogs the minute we turn on the TV.  Like all other kids they are hungry every few hours unless you are serving meatloaf.  Not everyone can afford to live in a home where there is an eating area separate from the living area and so I find this commandment to be distinctly classist.  I just make myself happy with the fact that we are at eating together as a family and leave it at that.

5)  Thou shalt have control of thy emotions at all times.  After all, thou art the adult and so more is expected of thee than of a child.  This is impossible.  You can't.  I have tried and wasted so much time beating myself up for allowing my temper to flare, for screaming and yelling, for telling them to shut up....all things I swore I would never do before I had kids.  But that was also before I knew what it was like to live with them.  They are experts in psychological warfare and destroy everything they touch.  One night as I was berating myself yet again for losing my shit I began to question why this was so bad.  Getting angry is a natural response to most of the stuff they do and if they don't figure that out when they are still in your care they will go out into the world as complete assholes and won't understand why no one else can stand being around them.  Kids need to know about consequences.

6) Thou shalt never assign adjectives to thy child's person but only to their actions, lest they conceive of themselves as "bad".  You know what?  I spent about five years dancing around the words "good boy" and "bad boy".  I artfully (and somewhat awkwardly) reconstructed these words into phrases like "what you did was bad" and " you must be proud of yourself".  I knew that this careful use of language would convey to my child that he was loved and good and would only be judged by his actions.  I was an idiot.  What I learned is that kids have a remarkable capacity to make everything about them.  Every time I used these careful sentences all they ever heard was "good boy" and "bad boy".  Their brains just aren't developed enough to know the difference.  Seeing as how it made absolutely no difference what I said it seems to me I wasted a lot of time playing word games and then more time having to explain it all to them and they never ever got it anyway.   I try not to berate them too much when I hate the things they do but I also stopped thinking twice before giving them an enthusiastic "good boy!".  I do other terrible things to my kids like calling them both my favourite and telling them that I am proud of them instead of directing them to be proud of themselves.  I know.  I'm going to hell.

7)  Thou shalt not bribe thy child.  If thou so doest thou shalt create a greedy monster who will never perform without compensation.  When Frick was three he decided that toilet training was for suckers.  I tried every trick I could think of or find on the internet.  I was firmly locked in a power struggle with him and this was a power struggle I could not lose.  After sticker charts and yelling and begging and cheerios and story times and potty in front of the TV nothing was working.  All the while I knew that if I bribed him with the offer of candy he would use the toilet.  But no that would be breaking a holy commandment!  I would be spoiling my child forever and he would spend his entire adult life refusing to eliminate without the promise of gummi bears.  When I finally hit rock bottom, and was seriously considering admitting myself into a psych ward, I made the bribe.  It was magical.  I had seriously underestimated the power of gummi bears.  I still use gummi bears for various situations, my current favourite being to buy good behaviour from Frack at the grocery store.  Frick uses the toilet with no fanfare anymore and is fine with it and someday I believe Frack will be able to behave in public without candy bribes.  I call this commandment 100% bullshit.

8) Thou shalt only provide perfect nutrition for thy child, preferably organic, at all times.  If thou doest not thy child will be ridden with tumors for life.  Some moms like to brag about how their kids don't even know what white bread is or they say things like "Oh, Paisley doesn't even like soda.  She only ever drinks wheatgrass juice."  As if it is some kind of reflection on your awesome mothering that your kid is entirely ignorant or disdainful of whatever food you've deemed unfit.  It's normal for your kids to want to eat crap and that has nothing to do with what you have or have not fed them.  Like language there is a time and place for sugar and fat and I do not take personal pride in being the mother of the only kid at the birthday party who won't eat cake or drink gingerale like all the other kids.  I know from experience that kid is a pain in the ass because now the hostess mom is made to feel inadequate as she rummages through her fridge crammed with party treats for healthier alternatives she did not anticipate needing.  Besides I have personally known people who grew up in wheatgrass juice homes and they all now struggle with Coke addiction. (The cola).

9) Thou shalt place thy child in a bubble lest they come to any harm.   I'm no different from any other mother in that I am constantly terrified that harm will come to my children.  But I began to notice that no matter how fast they grow up it still takes a long time and I just can't handle constant fear.  After a while I kind of became desensitized to it.  This is a good coping mechanism in that it allows me to do things like let them out of my eyesight for a second.  I can appreciate how this must be difficult for some moms because it hasn't been a cakewalk for me either but we have to let go sometime.  I really wish those moms would realize this as they are giving me the stink-eye because I am not within arm's reach of my three year old on the playground equipment but sitting and reading on a park bench instead.  Frack is awesome at climbing, a kind of kinetic genius actually, but it gives me an aneurism every time I watch him attempt new feats.  He rarely falls and he seems to know what he's doing so I learned to trust him and I sit there keeping an eye out for predators instead.  As a child who was used to being kicked out of the house at the crack of dawn and not being allowed back in it until the streetlights had turned on I find it disturbing that the sight of a child playing uninhibited on a playground is actually cause for alarm. 

10)  However thy children turneth out, good bad or ugly, it will be all thy fault.  I know there is a lot to be said about the way a person's childhood can influence the adult they become but isn't it actually pretty arrogant to think that all the glory or all the blame can be laid at the feet of the mother?  When I was too stupid to know any better I dated a boy who was "damaged" and therefore "hot".  The relationship lasted about a working week.  He was so bad and so misunderstood but really he spent a lot of his time bitching and moaning about how his parents (who I met and who were perfectly nice) were ruining his life.  This was disgusting to me because all I could think was "So, what are you going to do about it?"  As an adult I can recognize the ways in which my parents shaped me but I don't give them credit for my accomplishments and I don't blame them for my failures.  Those are the things that I own.  They are mine because I am no one else's responsibility but my own.  So why is it that I can recognize that as a developmental necessity for being an adult but I can't recognize that the same goes for my kids?  If my kids grow up and find the cure for cancer or reverse global warming I can't go around saying :  "You see?  I made that!"  And so for the same reasons if they choose a life of crime or worse, end up on a reality TV show,  I can let myself off the hook saying, "I did the best I could.  The rest was up to them."

My  grandmother caught me agonizing over parenting styles and disciplines and everything else and offered me some unsolicited advice (as was her expertise).  She said:

"I noticed that most mums do the best they can with what they've got, at least the good ones do.  As long as they do that the kids turn out pretty much okay."

I think she's right.

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