Felicity Huffman is my new favourite celebrity, even though I don’t watch Desperate Housewives. She is so sane, which must be a challenge in La-La Land. I recently read an article in The Observer where she says in the new millennium, instead of fighting the icon of the perfect wife as we did in the 60s and 70s, we’re now fighting the icon of the perfect mother.
She says, ‘I don’t know about here, but in America you’re not allowed to talk about how it’s driving you crazy, or how you don’t like it, or how, if you have to give a bath one more time, you’re going to pull your hair out. Because then you’re considered a bad mom. There’s a very established conversation or litany, which is, ‘Isn’t motherhood the best?’ To me, that question just isn’t applicable. You can complain about your job, you can complain about your husband, you can complain about your friends, but God forbid you complain about your kids.’
Luckily for me, Germans complain about everything, so here it’s acceptable to moan about our children. But it’s more about the structures around child-raising: the interminable meals, the schlepping to activities, the lack of sleep, the challenge to fulfill everyone’s needs. I’ve heard Germans describe their children’s negative qualities with astounding frankness, but I’ve yet to hear a German say they don’t like parenting.
With my first child, I was the perfect mother – she ate nothing but organic food, hand-prepared by me, we read for one to two hours a day, we had daily walks that weren’t just grocery trips, I sat on the floor playing and doing puzzles with her and for the first two years of her life she never heard me raise my voice. Now, six years later, with three children, shouting is an almost daily occurrence.
I call it Parenting By Voice – I can’t physically control three children but I can yell. It’s not very attractive, for some inexplicable reason, it always seems to happen publically. Our two worst moments of the day are Leaving the House for Kindergarten and Walking Home from Kindergarten. In the former, there are issues with dawdling which involve which hat to wear and should I take my Barbie or my new colouring-in book with me and negotiating with my sister who should go out the gate first. This mostly results in some Parenting by Voice just as the neighbours are outside feeding their dog. In the latter scenario, we have the dawdling thing and the simultaneous Run Ahead and Hide thing. I’m pushing the pram somewhere between the two, and trying to keep both the runner and the dawdler out of danger using only my voice. Then I’m fair game for the whole neighbourhood.
My friend Georgie – a mother of three who are more grown-up than mine, and so saner – very wisely says that what happens with the birth of your third child is that you have to cede control. You can’t control every aspect of your children’s now less-than-perfect lives, and so you have to relax. She’s right but it’s not just that the more children you have, the less of a perfect mother you are (though it helps), it’s also a question of consciously wanting to release that image of perfection and be the person you really are. Wise Georgie also says it’s healthy for children to see that in a family it’s possible for people to behave badly, lose their tempers, apologise and forgive each other. The Italian model.
So I’m fighting the icon and trying to release my perfect, rose-tinted model of parenting and embrace something authentic but not always comfortable. I’m learning to relax. This is how relaxed I am today: I’m blogging in my pyjamas, my three kids are watching telly, the breakfast dishes aren’t cleared away because the supper things have only just gone into the dishwasher, there are mounds of washing to be done in the bathroom and in the laundry. I’m not totally comfortable with the mess, but it’s Saturday and we don’t have to leave for or return from kindergarten at all today, so let’s hope there’ll be some authentic, non-rose tinted peace.