Book Excerpt: When Did I Get Like This? By Amy Wilson

When Did I Get Like This is the hilarious story of one mother’s struggle to shrug off the ridiculous standards of modern parenting, and remember how to enjoy her children – enjoy the excerpt!

When Did I Get Like This?: Chapter 1

by Amy Wilson

This morning, my six-year-old son, Connor, told me tearfully that I “always do more nicer things” for his younger brother, Seamus, than I do for him, and if that was how it was going to be in our house, he wished he had never been born. This was because I had let Seamus, and not Connor, have the highly sought privilege of waking up Daddy for the second day in a row, but jeez louise, that was only because it was Seamus’s birthday. I rolled my eyes at Connor’s rant, standing there in my saggy old nightgown unloading the dishwasher; but I would be lying if I said I did not also examine my guilty conscience for other acts of less-than-evenhanded treatment I had recently committed. If Connor felt that way, my conscience was whispering, it must be my fault somehow.

My two boys are on constant watch for any such slights, and every night at dinner, they measure their two glasses of watered-down apple juice against each other to ascertain whether one of them might have gotten two or three drops more. Of course one of them will have, and in my attempt
to correct this affront, I will end up sending the other into doleful protest that now, he has less. Pouring the exact same amount of liquid—down to the microliter—into two different glasses is not a rational standard to which I should hold myself, but that doesn’t mean that my kids let me off the hook. Or that I stop trying. Day after day, I do my best to achieve something that is, on its face, impossible. This, I think, is motherhood itself.

I spend a large portion of my life as a mother falling short and then feeling bad about it. In just this Pouring of the Juice moment, for example, I might wonder: Why can’t I distract them from this nightly battle? Why can’t I remember to buy nontranslucent cups? And why aren’t they drinking water? Am I trying to give them juvenile diabetes? I fail each of my three children daily in myriad ways, and every time I turn on the news or open a magazine, there is a new way to fall short, a new recall from their toy box, a new environmental poison from which it may be already too late to safeguard them. All I can do is fret about the damage that my deficient protection of my children, my shoddy mothering, has wrought.

Before I became a mother, if I was not good at something, it did not shake my fundamental belief in my capabilities as a human being. As the oldest of six children, and twenty-five grandchildren, I always figured becoming a mother—and an excellent one at that—would be a cinch. I mean, my mother always made it look pretty easy. But now that I am myself the mother of three small children—Connor, who, at this writing, is six and a half; Seamus, who is almost five; and Maggie, who will soon be two—I have one overriding daily thought: I suck at this.

And I think I am right. What kind of mother feeds her kids dinosaur chicken nuggets? Three times a week? What kind of mother lets hand washing after using the toilet slide, as long as it was just Number One? My kids have no problem with either of these policies; sometimes they are happiest when I am at my most half-assed. I am the one keeping a constant, running tab of all the things I am doing wrong. If I cannot immediately see how I have failed in a particular situation, I will just look harder, certain that a shortcoming is there somewhere. Around 11:30 p.m. not long ago, I found myself consumed by the Backyardigans-themed gift bags I was creating for my son’s fourth birthday party, suddenly certain they would be deemed without merit by his thirty-five tiny guests. Kazoos, bubbles, and assorted organic fruit leathers were hardly sufficient parting gifts. What was in the bags at that other kid’s party last weekend? Should I run back out to the all-night drugstore for thirty-five packs of washable markers and three dozen Super Balls?

I was halfway to the front door before I stopped and thought: When did I get like this? Why do I doubt my parenting abilities, day after day? Why do I suck at something my mother was so effortlessly good at, when I’m the one with a babysitter and a cleaning lady once a week and Dora on DVR? Where did the Old Me go, the one who exercised and accessorized and took a little pride? I was a Virgo, for heaven’s sake, the Tracy Flick of the zodiac! Why did motherhood have me walking the edge of wackadoo?

Truthfully, I have always been “like this”: a planner, a perfectionist, and extremely hard on myself. And until I became a mother—until I became someone who would become a mother—it actually served me pretty well. It was not until my interior leanings met the fecund, guilt-rich soil of motherhood that they burst into full flower. Once I became a mother, I was suddenly subject to a world of experts and advertisements dedicated to making me feel off-balance and unsure. I am a sucker for these messages of self-doubt. For a perfectionist like me, there is no greener and more dangerous pasture than modern motherhood, a garden in which all my neuroses have grown to rank fruition.

Today, everything from pacifiers to preschools seems to be marketed to mothers in one overarching way: this product, the ads say in one way or another, is chosen by mothers who want what is best for their children. Well, who doesn’t want that? Honestly, what mother would aim to give her children what is merely mediocre? But that is where the hard sell begins. If you want what is best for your child—which, of course, you do, you must, if you are to be a mother at all—then you have to utilize this prenatal audio learning system, hire this parenting coach, hang these bilingual flash cards over the changing table, provide this latest essential for your children’s well-being, one of which you have only just been made aware. Should you ignore this new and helpful parenting suggestion, you are in effect saying that no, you do not want what is best for your children. Good luck sleeping tonight with that on your conscience. It is easy for people who are not mothers— who are, for example, fathers—to say, “So don’t listen!” But the guilt missiles are not aimed their way.

With every step we mothers take these days, we are aware that there is only one right and true path that we should follow, a “better” way to feed our baby, a “best” birth. But a birth isn’t best unless it’s vaginal and drug-free. Breastfeeding isn’t really successful unless we do it exclusively and for a full year. (Not for one day more than a year, though; then you’re a hippie freak.) Jarred baby food is unacceptable entirely— the mother who wants what is best for her children will mill it herself from local organic produce. (In a pinch, she may choose to have Cheery Organic Farm Baby overnight her their kettle-cooked, all-natural baby purees in their biodegradable packaging, swathed in a layer of dry ice. However, that’s just in case of a real emergency.)

Even if a mother manages to be superlative on all these counts, there is still something new to add to her panic list every day: bisphenol A wreaking hormonal havoc in sippy cups, salmonella hiding in after-school snack cakes, lead lurking within the delicious painted exterior of Thomas the Tank Engine. The onslaught of things we are supposed to worry about is bewildering, all the more so because it is often contradictory. Caffeine causes miscarriages! (Wait, no it doesn’t! (Hold on, yes it does! (Sometimes!))) When we can’t be sure that anything is safe, what are we supposed to do but worry?

I’m not saying that I am a basket case all day, every day. After seven years as a mother, I have come to believe that Teddy Grahams dropped in the sandbox are still perfectly suitable for consumption. But as I watch Maggie chow them down with her filthy hands, there will be a teeny-tiny voice inside me saying: A good mother would not let her toddler eat sandy Teddy Grahams. Why, a good mother would not let her toddler eat Teddy Grahams at all. A good mother would bring blanched green beans in a citrus broth, enough for the whole sandbox to share, and she would have used her portable steam sanitizer on the communal shovel before her daughter teethed on it. There is always a way to fall short, and so there is always a corner of my brain reverberating: you are a failure.

The really sad part is that my standards have gotten progressively lower with the arrival of each child. At this point, I just want not to be horrified by how old I look every time I pass a mirror, maybe have planned what the kids are eating for dinner before 5:55 p.m., and have a house that does not look like a crime scene. Since I put in about fifteen hours of hard mothering a day, should that not be possible? Yet I find myself unable to meet even these lowest common denominators. Chaos threatens at every moment to take over our home. I flutter and hover and multitask, but the perfectly trachea-sized LEGOs multiply across the floor of the foyer while I am not looking, and Maggie finds an orange marker and colors on the new couch, and then my husband David walks in from work and dumps out the contents of his pockets onto the hall table: seventeen coins, a partially sucked Halls in a tissue, fifty-seven receipts, and a toothpick, which Seamus will immediately commandeer as a tiny sword for his microscopic Playmobil knight.

I used to have my act together. Not anymore. Our home reflects all too well my state of inner disorganization and frayed nerve endings, and I wish I could be as Zen about it as David, who does not seek to derive his self-worth from the state of our children’s toy bins. David and I have been married for ten years, together for fifteen, and ours is a relatively easy, loving companionship. There’s not that much to fight about: as far as parenting goes, at least, we are nearly always on the same page. But if he is a calmer parent than I, that is because we both know who will think to rummage around in the closets a week before Easter to make sure all the kids’ baskets are in there somewhere. We are like almost every family we know in this respect: the mother, whether she works outside the home or not, is the repository of all child-related minutiae, and it is she who gets to be overcome with self-loathing every time some small detail is, inevitably, overlooked.
I did not think that I was going to be a neurotic mother. I thought motherhood was going to be when I finally relaxed. As the oldest in my family, I had been babysitting for free since second grade, so I felt more than ready for whatever motherhood would throw at me. I knew how to take care of kids. The freaked-out mothers were the ones who had never held a newborn before their own. That was not me. Besides, I had the most unflappable Roman Catholic mother who has ever existed, capable of handling a brood of six, spread over nineteen years, with ease and endless patience. When my mother was my age she had five children, the oldest (me) a junior in high school, and that just floors me. I feel far too young to have responsibility for a first grader, let alone someone who has a learner’s permit. But my mother went about her days blissfully—or at least calmly—and if she over thought anything about my life, I never noticed it.

But my mother did not need to over think like I do. I think. Certainly there was less to worry about then; before the advent of Purell, you had to shrug at a few germs, ’cause seriously, what else were you going to do? But it is also probably true that back then, sweating the infinitesimal stuff had not yet become synonymous with merely sufficient mothering. My mother covered her avocado refrigerator with the yellowing columns of Erma Bombeck, who served up her leftovers with a side of wry attitude and never seemed to feel particularly bad about that. My mother’s primary child-care resource was a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which began, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Second-guessing was not a way of life.

My mother did the best she could, but without the pressure to make her children’s every waking moment an optimal learning opportunity. For mothers today, there is no such thing as an un-optimal moment, an instant where we might let our attention flag without ill effect. A good mother is constantly on her guard. A choosy mother will choose If, and keep all the optimal outcomes and hypothetical pitfalls for each family member on her radar screen at all times. She will be on constant, vigilant watch.

And so I almost certainly overthink everything I do for my children, from when I should get Maggie off the bottle to what Seamus should wear to school for Orange Day. In order to stop, I have to convince myself that either (1) I know what I’m doing, or (2) whatever I am fixated on is not really that important. As a mother, there are only two things of which I am ever certain: (1) I have somehow eluded detection and have been given three children for whose care I am remarkably unqualified, and (2) every decision I make for these small, helpless beings is of the utmost, life-altering importance. Nobody disputes the enormous responsibility a mother has for shaping her children’s lives: I get to shape their personalities, their experiences, their very futures. Isn’t that wonderful? No. It’s terrifying.

I do not worry about every little thing my children eat, touch, or see. But whenever I manage not to be neurotic, I worry, in turn, that I am not being neurotic enough. Every time I turn on the TV, that blasted Your Baby Can Read! infomercial is on, and 95 percent of me can be certain it is pure bunk, while the other 5 percent worries what it will have cost my three children that their mother did not love them enough to teach them to read aloud from The Complete Works of Charles Dickens as they pooped in their diapers. A mother who has her head on straight may well be able to keep up with it all, or alternatively, ignore it altogether. Maybe I am the only mother who questions herself this way. Or maybe I am the only mother bothered by her own inadequacy. If some “slacker moms” don’t give their kids a home-cooked macrobiotic meal every night, it is because they do not give a hoot. I wish I were one of those mothers. I wholeheartedly wish them well.

Much has been made of the alleged “mommy wars” and how judgmental mothers are of one another. The media portrays us as living in a mom-eat-mom world, bitterly divided into breast versus bottle, stay-at-home versus working, day care versus babysitter versus attachment parenting. But I do not think it is other mothers keeping up the daily drumbeat of my maternal anxiety. And I don’t really think I’m alone in feeling this way. Most of us mothers are far too wrapped up in our own guilt to judge anyone else, too certain that everyone else is doing better than we are to look askance at a neighbor’s choices. We are sure other mothers are judging us because, well, they must be, when we suck so exceptionally. But we are our own worst enemies. If nearly all of us have these daily moments of doubt, these nagging fears of failure, the ones we are hardest on are ourselves.

This book is a collection of some of the times in the last seven years that I have gone over to the far side in what began as a sincere effort to be the best mother I could be. Each time, I swore that I would never again be suckered by the “Don’t you want what’s best for your children?” question. And yet, time after time, I was. Sometimes, the record will show, I may have been right to obsess. At other times, it has been distinctly counterproductive. But I learned my first lesson
about being a mother while still trying desperately to become one: for me, “just relaxing” did not work. Giving it everything I had—and then some—was what worked. As a result, whenever I am not doing that for my children, I fear I am falling short. But that feeling, like a noxious gas, can easily expand to fill all space available.

I am thrilled that I am a mother. I have never felt as low as I did when I could not get pregnant with my first child, and lived with a sinking panic that I might never become a mother at all. I love my three children, and I know every day how very lucky I am to have them. I just don’t want to have sinking panic about mothering them anymore. I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t want to be a disaster, either. Somewhere— anywhere—in the middle would be nice.

Over the last seven years of long days with little children, I have certainly had many moments of joy, calm, and peaceful reverie. This book is about the other moments. I am still too much in the thick of things to have the perspective of experience, but if there’s one thing I can be sure of, it is that my children and my mothering career are still relatively young. All in all, I’ve gotten off easy so far. This only gives me the sneaking suspicion that I ain’t seen nothing yet. But the role of mother is one I desired above all others, and so I will probably keep on being like this—trying daily to achieve the impossible, pour three glasses of juice that are exactly the same, and give each one of my children what they so richly deserve: my very best.

Buttoned Up will be giving away THREE copies of this book! Keep an eye out for the giveaway and enter to win your copy – or if you can’t wait, you can purchase one here!