My littlest one, Vivienne, a strong-willed four-year-old, sat on the potty in the bathroom. She grunted. She sang. She read wordless board books. And then, she started to cry.
All morning Viv had squirmed awkwardly while playing, laid her head down while nibbling on food she usually devoured, and instead of being generally pleasant, she was generally pretty terrible. By lunchtime, I insisted she spend some time in the bathroom.
I stood in the hallway when my oldest, Nadia, a looking-sixteen-but-she’s-really-twelve-year-old, asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
I, a very over it forty-year-old, said, “She needs to poop.”
“Are you sure?” Nadia asked.
I looked my oldest daughter in the eyes with a blank, almost stunned face. Am I sure? That’s the money question, child. Do you know how much I’m actually not sure of when it comes to parenting?
I smiled at her though, maybe patted her cheek, and laughed a little as I shook my head and said, “No honey, I’m not sure.”
In my gut, poop was the answer. But I didn’t really know—it could just be one of those days.
If there was success, I’d feel vindicated. And if the little one spent the better part of our afternoon on and off the toilet, if dinner time rolled around and there was nothing to show for it? Then? I’d feel awful.
I took a deep breath, walked passed Nadia, and gathered myself for yet another round of hand holding, humming, board book “reading,” and 1-2-3-push!-ing and entered the bathroom.
“I’m either the best mom or the worst mom,” I said. “And I’m just not quite sure yet which it is yet.”
Up to this point in my children's lives, I have given myself the labels of Best Mom and Worst Mom more times than I can remember.
There was the time I decided that Nadia, as a baby, should cry it out for nap time; she ended up working herself up so badly she vomited all over the carpet. And the time I was in the bathroom and my son shocked himself (with real electricity) by trying to pry off the baby-proofed outlet covers with a metal spatula. Once, I went to get my kids new shoes the lady told me the ones my kids were wearing were two sizes too small. From forgetting it was pajama day to losing my temper to turning to talk to a friend while a little one jumped without his wings into the pool. Worst mom, worst mom, worst mom, worst mom.
But there have also been times I’ve called myself Best Mom. Like when I caught one of my boys from falling off his changing table when he decided to roll over for the first time. It was one of those spectacular, one-handed, sixth sense type of things—because I wasn’t even looking. Or the time I insisted my child hold my hand in the parking lot, only to reactively pull him out of the way when a car started to back up in front of us. From the times I just knew I should go check on the kids who were playing too quietly, to the times my kiss made everything better. Best, best, best, best.
When I first had kids, everything was new and unknown. It was like I was feeling my way around in the dark, stumbling over pacifiers and piles of burp cloths left on the floor and stubbing my toes on the legs of a coffee table. But in time I adjusted to the lay of the land. I learned to maneuver through motherhood without having to think too hard about the once-overwhelming obstacles.
But at each new chapter, I’ve revisited the same disorientation and desire to figure things out. To get it right. To seek after being the Best Mom and avoid being the Worst.
I know it’s not right. But this is my nature.
This past summer, Nadia began attending youth group at our church, riding her bike independently to and from swim practice, and generally having more freedom. This month, she started middle school.
My Best Mom and Worst Mom labels for this next chapter of our lives lay on my kitchen table … right next to composition notebooks and a house key for which this once-baby is now responsible.
Without any interest in entering into a public dialogue or debate of its necessity versus perils, I will simply state that our middle schooler doesn’t have a phone. (Yet.) But, we’re happy to have her friends over whenever she wants. We give her a bedtime she considers way too early. But she has clothes and shoes and food and parents who are trying to figure out the balance between pretty involved and too hands-off. She’s allowed to read anything she wants, but we set limits on what she watches. She has daily “responsibilities,” but she’s also allowed to use our technology to FaceTime her cousins and text her friends.
At any given moment these days, I could be the Best Mom or the Worst Mom.
My own mom passed away before I ever had kids. But I’d love to ask her if she felt this pull between Best and Worst. I’d love to know if she had the same kind of moments I’ve had throughout my entire motherhood journey, the ones where I feel like I’m either crushing it—or am at a complete loss. Did she fist pump the air when she made a good call from little more than her intuition? Did she go to bed with a crumpled forehead and a heaviness on her chest, the way I do some nights, after a day where my friable patience ripped apart from the very smallest of irritations?
My youngest did poop that day, and I did feel proud of myself. (Strong work, momma, you knew it. #Bestmom) But what I said to my oldest daughter stuck with me. Am I really “the Best” when I make a good call, and “the Worst” when I do something wrong?
I’m so quick, so quick!, to judge myself on merit. To give myself a worthiness when I accomplish, produce, achieve, protect, or correctly guess. And I let myself take on feelings of guilt and shame, lack and inferiority—even grief—when I don’t.
This is not how it’s meant to be, I know. Grace is sufficient, right?
But is it?
Because I don’t always carry this truth into motherhood.
For my sake (and for my kids’) I know I need to shift my thinking. I need to stop operating in such a binary, black and white, un-nuanced way. Because no matter how strongly we want to slap a label on ourselves in the moment, we are not judged by one point in time.
We all mistake the hungry cry for the I’m wet cry, and shyness for control issues, or embarrassment for indifference, and tiredness for needing to poop. We all look away. Don’t go check. Let go of hands. Feel so done at the end of the day. And it doesn’t make any of us Better or Worse. Maybe it’s just part of the journey.
There is grace for those who knock it out of the park, and grace for those who are just getting through the day. There is grace over our mistakes and grace over the circumstances not even in our control.
We are not the Best or the Worst.
We are simply Mom, as it was meant to be, and it’s sufficient.