On Feb. 6, Amy Schumer, one of my favorite comedians and mother of a 3-year-old boy, Gene, posted the following comments on Instagram:
Being his mom is heaven on earth and also means a constant feeling of guilt and vulnerability I will never get used to. Your heart feels like it’s outside your body and you’re too old to drink the feelings away like you used to. When you were in love and scared. Send help!!!
Now as a woman who brought up two kids myself, I get it. I understand and empathize. I’ve been there. And if you read the comments on IG, tons of other moms offer understanding and empathy.
But I wonder. Is this the best we can do? Is this suffering and disquiet, guilt and vulnerability, part of motherhood the way giving birth is part of becoming pregnant? A burden as heavy and aching as milk-filled breasts?
When I had a 3-year-old I also had an infant and we were dirt poor. In some ways that matters, but in some ways that doesn’t matter very much at all. All the money in the world and a whole team of nannies can’t protect your kid from childhood cancer or adult-onset schizophrenia or running in front of a car or falling into a swimming pool or turning out to be stupid or mean or sickly or God knows what.
Like Amy, I asked for help too, but there was no Instagram, nor was I famous, nor was there much help available. Like Amy, I had my husband, who was a huge help, and yet no help at all against the guilt and vulnerability.
So what did I do?
Let me share it with you.
I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, so I don’t want to sound a bit smarter than I was in that emotionally challenging period. But if I had to go back and put into words what I was doing, it was something like this.
Somehow I figured out that suffering isn’t self-validating. By that I mean, just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean your suffering makes sense and so yes you have to suffer. There may be nothing to validate!
If I’m trembling with fear because I feel there’s a monster under my bed, that doesn’t mean there is a monster under my bed. The correct response to my fear would be, “Knock it off, there’s no monster there.” Boom! Problem solved.
So I looked at my situation as a mother, with all my guilt and vulnerability. And I thought, let’s tackle guilt first. Why would I feel guilty?
Well, for not being a good enough mother, of course. Except that, as you know, with all the books, and advice, warnings, and comments people make, you can’t possibly be a good enough mother.
But wait. Does that make sense? My mother was a peasant woman with a fourth-grade education who’d brought us through the Holocaust and its aftermath in Europe, plus poverty as a single mom in New York City, and she had all kinds of problems...and yet I was fine. I could—and did—critique the hell out of her, but in fact she was a plenty good enough mother. I mean, I’d have preferred a mother who’d have been a combination of Bess Myerson and Hannah Arendt, but if she wasn’t a perfect mother, I sure wasn’t a perfect daughter either.
So I realized you don’t have to do backflips to be a good enough mother. Einstein’s mother didn’t. Neither did Picasso’s. Neither did pretty much every other mother who ever lived. Feed your kids, clothe them, send them to school, love them, listen to them when they talk to you, do your best to keep them safe (with the wisdom that being overprotective does more harm than good)...and don’t worry about the rest.
I mean, if you want to get all caught up in the you’re-not-good-enough-unless-you... business, go ahead. But a) you’ll never have a minute’s peace of mind, b) you’ll be riddled with guilt, and c) you’ll end up resenting your kid for sucking the life out of you. And for what?
Where’s the evidence that all this guilt-prevention magic makes any difference? Turns out, there isn’t any. What it does make is hyper-vigilant parents and over-anxious kids. So do your best and don't worry about the rest. Bye bye guilt.
And what about vulnerability? Okay, do this. Turn the clock back to before you got pregnant. Imagine you (and your partner, if you had one) made a pact. “Having kids means giving hostages to fortune. We can try to protect our kids, but there are zillions of ways things can go wrong anyway. So what are we going to do? Not have kids, because something might go wrong? No. Have kids, and be hyper-protective and feel hyper-vigilant? Well, yeah, if we want to be like so many fucking neurotic parents today. Or we could, reckless monsters that we are, say, hey, we’ll be reasonably responsible parents and beyond that we won’t worry because kids are resilient, and besides, worrying and carrying on about your vulnerability never accomplished anything. Yeah. That’s the one we’ll go with.” Bye bye vulnerability.
Anyway, that’s what I did.
While I was not able to send out IG messages about my guilt and vulnerability, I actually just stopped accepting the inevitably of those feelings and instead changed my relationship with motherhood itself. I threw all the shoulds and oughts out the window. All the concern about things I couldn't control. I refused to listen to any of the judgmental voices around me that I knew would make it impossible for me to enjoy my kids. I knew that if I were just a good-enough mother, we’d all be happy, all have peace of mind, and we’d all turn out well.
They did turn out well, and we have great relationships. In fact, when my younger daughter became a teen, she told me we should write a book about parenting teenagers. We did--Parent/Teen Breakthrough--and it became a Parents’ Choice best parenting book of the year.
So listen to the voices that are leading you to feel guilty and vulnerable and tell them to shut the fuck up.
The picture of Amy Schumer is NOT from her Instagram post. The Leave It to Beaver pic has my captions. Those are pix of Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, and Hannah Arendt. The other pix are of moms from Disney movies.