I'm Still a Good Mom

I am a categorizer. As hard as I try to look for vibrancy, I see the world around me in black and white. I know the color exists, but it’s easier to just put everything, everyone, into a box that has reasons for all that they are, to separate them into groups. I place them into the two different lobes that dwell in the front of my brain. Negative or positive. Good or bad.

My firstborn, Anabel, is by definition, easy. Patient. Obedient. Good. To this day, she has never thrown a public tantrum. She is kind and compassionate, and carries an intelligence that far surpasses my own. She taught herself the entire alphabet by the time she was 16 months old. By 18 months she was fluent in sign language and potty trained, and by three years old she was reading. Quick as a whip, that one. She loves green vegetables and books. Of course, not every day has been perfect (she is the one who taught me that Love was Heavy, after all), but even when she struggled, I found a way to help her. I knew what I was doing. And I constantly applauded my own efforts and was sure that all that she was (and is) was because of how I mothered her.

For a long time, we fit in the boxes. Good kid, good mom.

But your methods can be a screaming success with one child and then completely crash and burn when applied to a different child. Motherhood has a way of proving that sometimes nature is much stronger than nurture.

Olive, my 20 month-old, is aggressive and strong-willed. She is independent and fearless and funny. She doesn’t sleep well at night. She likes to make messes and color on the couch and break things that can be broken. She has no interest in toilet training or the alphabet. She likes foods filled with sugar, and will throw asparagus and green beans on the floor.

My daughters were born on the same day separated by two years. According to astrology, they share a lot of the same truths, but they are two uniquely crafted individuals. They are beautiful in their own right. They are good at different things, struggle with different things, and balance the scale out in all of the best ways—but different, so very different. If they were to exist in boxes, they would not reside in the same one. I have a hard time not putting my daughters into categories that define them, and labels that give me reasons for why they do what they do.

***

It is 1:26 in the morning. Olive is awake for her midnight tantrum (not to be mistaken with her 6 a.m., noon, or bedtime meltdowns). This has been happening regularly, for weeks. I don’t think her eyes are open, but her muscles are more than awake. I don’t know if I am just tired, or if I am wrestling a wild animal, but her flailing in my arms demands my attention in a way I cannot ignore. She’s arching her back violently, angry that I am holding her, but angry if I put her down. She is mad that my breasts have run dry. She is mad that she’s tired. And she is mad that she is awake ... but she won’t go to sleep. This is how Olive communicates. To her, everything is an emergency. She grunts, growls, screams. Her emotions sit on both ends of extreme, whatever she is feeling her voice is loud when expressing it.

This middle of the night fight brings me back to this evening in the supermarket. I had to use a force I am not proud of to prevent her from back flipping out of the cart. She is yelling so loud and moving so fast, there are alligator tears and so many strangers’ eyes on us. A man even stops to say “wow” out loud. It is both humorous and humiliating. I am afraid of my own baby. I am afraid of who I can become because of my own baby.

After wrestling with each other for almost an hour, trying to calm her with energy I cannot muster, she collapses in my arms. Her sleeping face has a street lamp glow next to the window. Almost instantly, I am overcome with the love I feel for her. Even after all of the frustration, everything else fades into the dark, and the love is what I feel. I rub the back of my hand slowly across her cheek. It is not often that I get to marvel over her still body, and in these moments all I can think is, what a miracle, I am so lucky.

My dear Olive. She is a lot more work than Anabel ever has been, but she is also so normal.

Sometimes, normal feels synonymous with bad. Sometimes, I feel like normal is breaking me. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I can be a good mom to normal. Lately, my good efforts are not enough, and my children can be difficult.

For once in motherhood, I don’t know what box I belong in.

But, hell, I am still a good mom.

Even if my attempts at feeding them food filled with plants are punctuated with frozen meals being cooked in a metal box with radio waves. Even when they use a pacifier long enough for their teeth to grow funny. Even if they are in diapers longer than their peers, or not talking as soon as them either. Even if they take their first steps in daycare.

I am still a good mom if there are hours of crying or hard diagnoses. Even when I lose it and I yell. Even when my house is a wreck. I am still a good mom if my marriage ends or my kids grow up and make mistakes. I am still a good mom, even if no one is clapping for me, and even if I do not fit in a box.

I’m still a good mom. They are still good kids. And we are all just trying our best to figure this out together. We are beautiful and broken and so terribly loved. We are made up of the little bits of joy that are in between all of the hard and heavy moments.

I am not the sum total of their milestones or their tantrums or their sleeping habits or their good manners—and neither are they. My success as a mother is not determined by the amount of control I have over my children’s behavior or volume. I was called to guide their development, not to dictate it.

They are not my mistakes, and I am not their meltdowns.

I am defined by the love I feel for them, and that love for who they are, exactly as they are, is as colorful as a kaleidoscope and will never, ever fit inside of a stupid box.


Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.

Ebb and Flow

I reflect on our distant summer travels, sitting on the beach, gritty and warm. The air is dense with the smell of salt as the indigo waves create a rhythmical pattern. Growth. Decline. Regrowth. Squabbling seagulls dart on the blanket-littered sand as I welcome myself to listen. The ocean’s pulsing heart is speaking to me as the water swells and crashes onto shore. Maybe this is how life is. I find myself getting caught up in continual need for growth and betterment, but maybe our lives should follow the ways of the waves, ebb and flow.

***

Buzz. Snooze. Buzzzzz. Okay, I have to get up this time. Responsibilities are waiting. The hot water rinses off the sleep as I quickly shower. I pour a large mug of coffee and head out into what seems to be the night. It is early and dark. My family is still fast asleep. On the hour commute that I could drive blindfolded, the word "provider" circles my consciousness. This word helps keep my mama guilt at bay, and I remind myself why I do what I do.

She gets up while it is still dark;
she provides food for her family.

Proverbs 31:15

***

The work day is a funny thing, like living in the balance. Oftentimes there is heartache from being away from my willful toddler and I feel as though I’m riding on the back of a snail. Periods spent envious with a swirling green tide crashing within me. He gets to spend the daylight with our son, my mind viciously licks. But contrarily gratified for their time together.

Other days are lightening speed brimming with emails, phone calls, meetings and deadlines—this momentum is my favorite. Regardless of the pace there is always an end. I pack up like a bag lady; get in my car for the second hour of reverse commute.

I arrive home just in time for the change of guard, except for without the colorful spectacle of the British pageantry. It is more of a rushed, "How was your day, what did the toddler eat for lunch and when was the last time the dog went out?" as I drop my work bags and husband swiftly runs out the door to his job. Then it is just my toddler and me for the night time hustle. Cooking, dinner, bath, stories and lights out. As I listen to my son talk to his stuffed animals in his crib for a few minutes before falling asleep, I settle in with my laptop to finish incomplete work.

***

Each week is rushed and packed full of work responsibilities and by the time the weekend rolls around, I am ready for connection, socialization and play dates. As I sip the last of my lukewarm coffee and my toddler plays, I tap out a text to a friend.

Play date before naps today?

Sorry, we’re heading out on the path for a family bike ride. Are you free one late afternoon this week?

No, sorry—I’ll be working. We need to find a weekend to get together soon.

Another text like all the others. Throughout the week the stay-at-homers mingle and now is their family time with their husbands who work. Again I find my toddler and myself alone in this ebb season of life that seems to have no end in sight, like when caught in the undercurrent of the ocean. The waves keep coming, harder, stronger and faster. Their pull has unimaginable strength as they drag me under. When will the flow come? I need to come up for a breath. I know flow is coming—it simply has to.

During these days turned months, I find myself with a heightened awareness of the ebbs and flows. This consciousness is a valuable element because as a family we intentionally squeeze out every extra bit, when there are bits to be had. On the rare days we have a little time together, we hurry to the park for one last swing and one last swift ride down the tall slide before the sun hides for the evening behind the towering oak trees. In these moments I see the flow, and know how blessed we are.

***

I find myself torn, spread thin, and feeling like I need to be better at everything all the time. But as one person, how can I be fully mom, fully career woman, fully wife, fully friend, and fully myself? There is just not enough time and simply not enough me. So I am painfully reminding myself that life is all about the ebb and flow. I surely do not have it all figured out, but I am learning how to lie on a raft in the waves and simply ride them wherever they may come.

There is hardship and there is joy. There is time with family and there is time to work. There is bitter and there is sweet. There is ebb and there is flow. This all creates a fulfilling and interesting life. As the years continue to mount on top of one another I am starting to comprehend that we would be desperately bored without the waves moving on and off the shore.

To you my fellow career mama who feels all alone in this—I am here, too. We are not alone in trying to figure out how to do it all. Let's remember grace. We are enough for all our responsibilities.

And I think we are doing a better job than we believe.


Guest post written by Kara Smith. Kara is a Chicago suburbanite trying to savor every moment with her husband, highly spirited toddler and Craigslist dog. By day she works in healthcare marketing and by night she loves cooking, and on occasion writing at ThePassionateParsley.com. You can also follow her day-to-day adventures on Instagram.

Tick-Tock

“Is Ashlee pregnant?” my mom asks my husband, a visible twinkle in her eye.

Amused, my husband holds back a smirk, “What? No. Why would you think that?”

“Everett told me ...” she says slowly, “He said there was a baby in mommy’s tummy, and that it was a girl.”

She looks suspicious, certain she’s uncovered classified information, but my husband doesn’t budge. “Ashlee is not pregnant,” he confirms again.

I learn of this story over dinner a few hours later, which is all the more comical considering one of my friends asked the same question via text message earlier that day. Apparently Everett told a few of his preschool friends I had a baby in my tummy as well. Apparently he was telling everyone.

To his credit, we have been talking about babies in tummies. Two of his friends recently received baby siblings, both third babies born to two of my close friends. We’ve been talking about those babies a lot, and also asking our kids if they too would like one more baby sibling.

“Do you think we should have one more baby?” I casually ask while building peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the kitchen counter.

Everett, 4.5, always answers with an ecstatic, “Yes!”
Carson, 2.5, always answers with an apathetic, “No.”

“Do you think the baby will be a boy or a girl?” I ask as a follow-up.

Everett yells, “A girl!”
Carson repeats, “No.”

I place the strawberry jelly back in the fridge and close the door, where the family calendar stares back at me. Everett turns five in a few weeks. A small sigh catches in my throat.

***

Last summer two of my close friends announced their third pregnancies back to back like falling dominos. One was carefully plotted and planned; the other a total surprise. The how didn’t matter as much; both babies, boys, would be celebrated and loved beyond measure. And of course, they’d be the best of friends.

My initial excitement for my friends, while genuine and true, coexisted with a nagging feeling I was almost too embarrassed to name. But these were my friends, my real friends, so I decided to call myself out, somewhat in jest.

“I feel like I’m being left behind,” I texted each of them. I added a laughing face emoji so they’d know I was half-kidding.

But the other half of me was dead serious.

I later confided in my friend Lesley, attempting to explain to her that I was 95% happy for my friends and 5% sad for myself. And that I felt dumb and lame for admitting that out loud, but it was the truth. My friends were moving into three-kid world without me. They’d be pregnant together. They’d have their third babies together, almost equally spaced from their firsts and seconds. Not only was I being left behind, but my kids were, too.

I knew it wasn’t the right time for us to have another baby. There was the book, for starters, and pregnancy hormones combined with that level of stress would surely be a catastrophe. (I was already crying a lot.) And secondly, we had just come out of the fog of adjusting to life with two kids. Everyone was sleeping through the night. I stopped carrying a diaper bag. My velcro baby was walking and talking and could finally function off my hip.

Didn’t we owe it to ourselves to stay there a while? I needed to regroup. I needed to catch my breath. I needed to finish the book. I didn’t want to be left behind, but I also needed … time. Just a little bit more time.

Tick-tock.

***

I remember the day the clock started ticking. I was at the movie theater with a handful of close girlfriends, all of whom were mothers except me. I can’t remember what we saw that night—a stupid chick flick, I’m sure. One of our friends had left her baby for the first time, and I remember her complaining about her boobs. They hurt? Or maybe they were leaking? We walked outside in front of the movie theater and a 20-minute conversation commenced about breastfeeding. I remember standing there, silent, looking at my feet with nothing to offer or contribute. I remember driving home, angry, as if the conversation had anything to do with intentionally excluding me and not everything to do with the fact that several of my friends had just gone through a monumental, life-changing transition.

I remember complaining to my husband when I got home, and literally saying the words, “I need new friends,” like a dramatic teenager.

But that wasn't true. I didn’t want new friends. I just wanted to have what they had. I wanted to be in their club. I was 23 and not yet ready to be a mom, but I didn’t want to be left behind either.

***

My husband and I never had a problem getting pregnant, and I realize what an immense privilege and blessing that is.

We were not casual about the “when” but we were not extremely calculated either. I have friends who meticulously planned their pregnancies to coordinate with the seasons, their career goals, a desired spacing between siblings. I have other friends who got pregnant on accident, and yet other friends who tried to get pregnant for years. In that sense, I suppose we fall somewhere in the middle of the grid—our plans to get pregnant were neither over-analyzed nor under-analyzed, neither accidental nor stressful. I seem to remember both conversations going something like this:

“Are we ready?”
"As ready as we’ll ever be.”  

And now here we are, parenting two sweet boys spaced 2.5 years apart, perfect companions. If we had continued along this pattern, I’d already have a newborn in my arms right now, just like my two friends.

But my boys are running wild and free, my arms are empty, and I am still faithfully taking that tiny turquoise pill each night at 10pm. I feel time running out, not in the same way I would if I were ten years older, but these boys are growing up and the gap is getting wider and if not now, when?

Here is the truth: I desperately want to have another baby. We both do.
Here is the other truth: Even though I’ve done this twice before, I somehow do not feel ready.

In fact, I sort of feel the least amount of ready, which makes no sense. I’ve got all the stuff—the maternity clothes and rocking chair and sound machine and tiny baby pajamas. I’ve done the scheduled c-section and the surprise unmedicated VBAC; I know how to pack a hospital bag for both. I know all about fenugreek and lactation cookies, and that dieting while breastfeeding is impossible because I’m hungry all the time. I know the women from MOPS will bring the best meals. I know fevers can be treated with Tylenol and that babies will sleep through the night when they’re ready.

Five years ago, my lack of knowledge made me feel unprepared to have a baby. But today? It’s knowing the full scope of what’s to come that makes me feel not ready.

I mean, are we crazy to do this again? Can our marriage survive another baby? Can we afford a bigger car? How will our youngest adjust to becoming the middle child? Will I ever sleep again? How long will it take me to get three kids out the door? How will a new baby affect the already-not-enough childcare I have? What do babysitters even charge for three kids anyway?!

I worry I will miscarry, because I haven’t yet and it’s probably my turn. I worry I won’t savor this last pregnancy as much as I want to, because I have two kids and a job I love, and none of those will cease needing my attention if and when a new heartbeat appears inside of me.

I keep looking at the calendar trying to decide the “right time” to start trying, but all I see are dates and trips and occasions for which I do not wish to be pregnant. June: girl’s weekend in San Diego. July: 10-year wedding anniversary getaway. August: work conference in LA. There is no nine-month window where I can consume Cheetos from the couch in stretchy pants while I feel tiny limbs dance in my belly for the first time of what will most likely be the last time.

I just see … chaos. I see children to care for and work deadlines to meet and a marriage to tend to and stacks of mail to sort, and I suppose if we wait for the “right time” to complete our family, we could be waiting forever.

Come to think of it, we could be waiting until it’s too late.

On the other hand, were we ready the first time? We checked a number of items off the pre-baby bucket list, but I can assure you: none of that mattered the day we drove home from the hospital holding our breath over every speed bump. Were we ready the second time, when I went into labor a month before the scheduled c-section? There wasn't even a carseat in the car when we pulled into the birth center parking lot at 1am, surprised and clueless.

Maybe I've got this all wrong.

Perhaps there is no “right time” to have a baby. Perhaps time has a funny way of working itself out like that, whether it’s our first or third or sixth. Perhaps at some point, once the dust settles and everyone is sleeping and you have enough room to breathe, you’ll look around at the beautiful life you’ve created—the faces around your kitchen table, the names carved in the oak tree in your backyard, the legacy of love in stories and photographs—and perhaps you’ll think to yourself: I can’t imagine this family any other way

Perhaps we didn’t feel ready.
Perhaps we’ll never feel ready.
Perhaps it was total chaos.

... perhaps that really was the perfect time.

(Tick-tock.)

Honeysuckle and Mock Strawberries

I wish I could remember exactly how you said the word, “honeysuckle” last year. All I know is that you were obsessed with the bushes from May until sometime in the fall.

It started on our long walks around the three-mile loop. We went as often as I could until the pregnancy fatigue got to me. I remember vividly all the landmarks as I pushed you in the stroller— how we passed the yellow school bus before cutting down a side street, then the place where we once saw water bubbling from the ground, then the place where we could see mountains and then the bamboo (which you pronounced “boo bah”).

After the bamboo, we reached the honeysuckle and were just about halfway done with our walk. We would stop and pick the honeysuckle, and you would ask for flower after flower, sucking the sweet drops into your mouth. We rarely had time to try any ourselves, and you never wanted to leave.

Before long, we gave up on the long walk, but there were honeysuckle bushes near my mom’s house that bloomed for an incredibly long time. We always had to stop by when we visited, and you even asked us to stop the car if we weren’t walking. Sometimes it felt like an inconvenient obsession that I wished would go away.

My belly grew rounder as the season continued. You were a busy two-year-old who had just started to talk about the baby in my belly. When you grew frustrated, I could cuddle away your angst, and we took long, sunshiny naps every afternoon. You were usually easy to distract if you got upset, and I wondered whether the baby would disrupt the closeness and the quiet rhythm we had. I still couldn’t imagine a world where you would spend the night away from home or a world where I might be happy to see you go, just for a night.

As the honeysuckle slowly turned brown and disappeared, we talked about how the leaves would soon turn yellow and orange and it would be Fall. Then Winter would come, and it might bring snow. Then after Christmas, our baby would come. “After the winter, the honeysuckle will come again,” I told you, “and Baby will be here.”

A lot seems to have changed since then. The other afternoon, I drank in the May air, syrupy sweet with the yellow and cream honeysuckle flowers. And I said, “Look, Liam! Honeysuckle.” To my surprise, you looked confused. How could you have forgotten, though? How could you have forgotten something that you pointed out for months? And how could I have ever grown tired of picking flower after flower, pinching off the bottom, pulling the stem down just far enough so my golden-haired boy could suck the one tiny drop of liquid out? Those were simple, beautiful days.

Our days now are beautiful, too. But they aren’t quite as simple as our honeysuckle days. We have a three-month-old, just as we hoped we would when the honeysuckle came back. And you and I have both changed, too. Cuddles don’t fix everything. You refuse to nap, and if you do nap, you are impossible when you wake up. You’ve started hitting me when you get mad, and there’s a lot more screaming. In the midst of a tantrum, you told me yesterday that you wanted to “leave and go where no one could find you.” And as frustrated as I was, seeing your earnest little face in so much pain broke my heart.

In darker moments,  I wonder if we did something wrong in disrupting the peaceful life we had. Or maybe we didn’t disrupt it soon enough. Either way, I wonder why you seem more difficult and I seem more difficult now. Why is there shouting and frustration so often?

But they all say this is natural—as natural as those honeysuckle turning brown and the seasons changing. You are learning and growing. You want independence. You are developing your will. And this brings out new sides of me, too.

I realize that these days will probably fade in your memory, too. The days when it seems so urgent for you to be carried everywhere. The days when we get you a sprinkle cookie for helping me with the grocery shopping. The days when you want to run away, and the days when you say, “Don’t want to hit you ever, ever again, Mama.”

This year, it’s the mock strawberries in our backyard that have captivated you. You ask me to go with you to pick “wild strawberries,” and you particularly like to get the “super biggest one in the whole world.” And it doesn’t feel like an inconvenience because I know how quickly this will pass—how different we will both be by this time next year. Our life with you will continue to gain complexity, something I never understood until now.

I will remember this part of your childhood more than you ever will. And I don’t know what you will remember or when you will start to remember. But I do know that our days even now do matter; you are constantly growing and learning. So even if you don’t remember, whenever you smell the honeysuckle and taste that tiny drop of sweetness, I hope you have a memory of being safe, loved, and delighted in.


Guest post written by Heather Tencza. Heather is married to her college sweetheart, and they live in Georgia with their two little boys. She writes because it keeps her from talking too much (sometimes). She has been featured on several sites including Mothers Always Write and blogs at www.heathertencza.com