Nov. 14, 2013 07:00

Release the mommy guilt

As a single parent with a full-time career, I have a lot of balls to juggle and occasionally I drop one (or two or a bunch). As much as I try to give myself the forgiveness and "no parent's perfect" pep talk that I would offer a client or a friend, I often find myself overwhelmed by "mommy guilt." That sick, pit-of-your-stomach, tears- trying- not-to-fall- feeling of "I'm not doing enough so I must not be good enough." Though my mind can say this feeling isn't rational, my heart takes it hard. 

I had a particularly bad case of mommy guilt over the last two weeks when Avery's teacher informed me that Avery was struggling in reading; not just struggling, but out-and-out failing her last few reading tests. This was a new experience for us, not just the failing part, but taking tests, talking about grades, making what turns out to be a pretty tough transition from kindergarten to first grade. (Speaking of that transition, I think there should be some kind of designated post-kindergarten-to-pre-first-grade warm-up school over the summer to help kids make this big leap from kindergarten to first grade, but that's another topic for another day.)
When I got this news about Avery's reading grade, my first thought was "oh #$%)&* I dropped the reading ball! How could I have done that?! Of all the ones to drop, I missed that one?! Dang it!" (or something like that). 

I felt so bad that Avery was struggling, and it explained a lot why there had been so many complaints from her lately about getting up for school, a little more separation anxiety than usual, a little less pep in her step on the way to the bus.  Every morning I reassured her that everything was going to go well at school and that she would have a great day, and every morning it was painful to watch those short, brave little legs march up the school bus steps. But more than feeling empathy for her, I'm embarrassed to say that I was really making this about me. In talking with a wise friend, I was reminded that as parents we can personalize way too much our children's successes and their failures, becoming far too invested in their outcomes instead of just loving them and accepting them, strengths and challenges and all. I was interpreting this reading problem as a referendum on my parenting, and if I take the attitude that "Avery does well = I'm a good parent, Avery does not so well = I'm a bad parent," the next 12 years and up are going to be a lot harder than necessary -for both of us.  

I'm not saying  I shouldn't care how Avery does in school or take no responsibility for her behavior or the choices she makes - far from it. It's just that if I make it all about me then I'm teaching Avery that her successes or failures are because of me and not the result of her own effort or choices -positive or negative. In addition, if a child's life is too easy and everything is handed to her, character and humility don't have the opportunity to grow. Although all parents are proud of their children and definitely deserve some of the credit for "how they turn out," it's a slippery slope when you invest your whole self-worth as a human being in what your children do or don't do. I want to raise a good, kind, person, but it's pretty self-centered to think I'm the only factor that determines how Avery develops.  As any more advanced parent can tell you, you can raise a child the best way possible, and he or she can still make choices or do things that surprise you for better or for worse.  

So, after wallowing in mommy guilt for a while and feeling sorry for Avery and myself, I got back to being the action-oriented parent. I talked to her teacher, arranged for Avery to have tutoring once a week, worked with Avery on making sight word flashcards, and read and re-read the story about the tadpoles and frogs every night. Avery also learned that it was okay to ask for help at school when she didn't understand a test question. She made a 9/11 on her last test, and we were able to celebrate her hard work and the fruit of her effort. When I asked her how she did on the test, Avery said: "I missed some, but it's not the end of the world." She's exactly right, and if I drop a ball or two, that's not the end of the world either.

Avery on her way to school