I’ve been a personality-type junkie as long as I can remember. I was 10 when I asked my parents to buy a copy of “Please Understand Me’ – and I loved discovering that I was a type, and that my quirks were part of my structure, rather than some failure to live up to the norm.
In this light, the things we agonize over as mothers are often traits we lack. I, for example, am an introvert, and worry that I am too hasty to withdraw from the kids into my own world of books, thinking and computers. I wish that I was more like my husband and the mothers I admire – parents who enjoy nearly every moment of being around kids (to all appearances) and who love playing pretend, playing soccer, etc. I don’t play well. Even as a child I preferred reading and the company of adults over play. So when I’m comparing myself to that crazy quilt ideal, I seem distant and neglectful.
But I see, at the times when my feelings of inferiority fade, that my kids have certain strengths because of my personality traits. My children have an astonishing capacity to entertain themselves, and play together for hours. They have so much fun together that it is often difficult to call them back for homeschooling. Another way this failure of playfulness can be seen in another light is that my children are being exposed to a role model who reads, writes, and thinks passionately. They probably won’t remember me as an energetic, playful mother. But who says that it is a bad thing to be remembered as a sympathetic mother you could always seek out reading underneath a tree ?
It is important for us to understand that we can’t do and be all the good things in this world. We simply can’t embody every virtue. Sometimes virtues are in conflict. For example, I *could* keep a tidier, cleaner house and then I could claim the virtues of order and cleanliness. Or I could do as I have – take care of the basics, fight the good fight against the clutter monster, and live a joyous tumble of a life – and claim the virtues of even temper and pleasant countenance. Which set of virtues can claim supremacy? The answer is simple – those that suit our family best. Valerie Bendt wrote, “We should not let the good things crowd out the best things.”
Being dissatisfied with our parenting can be a sign that we need to make changes. But we need to ask several questions of ourselves before we embark on a mothering-makeover. Why should we make this change? This question is central to making good changes. I have caught myself longing for a particular trait, only to discover, when I dug deep into my thought processes, that I thought that this trait would make my life perfect. If only I did X, or were Y, then I could guarantee my kids would have the perfect upbringing. The second question that we must ask here is: Who’s idea of perfect? A Hallmark commercial? A bossy and convincing book writer? Our family?
In all of our tossing and turning we need to understand whether we are talking about a weakness or merely something that is different. We can hold to our ideals so doggedly that we leave no room for seeing that something that is different from our assumptions is still a good thing. My picture of a perfect mother includes a gregarious, playful woman, and my difference from that picture feels like failure. But it isn’t a failure, it’s a departure from my inner script.
I’ve had to retune my thinking. None of us can be all things. We can’t simultaneously be the gregarious mother and the quiet, listening mother and the active mother and the reading mother. We must, for our own health and happiness, accept that there are many models of motherhood. We must accept the good we do embody, while finding a way to seek improvement in a way that does not devalue ourselves.