These Are My Confessions

(Alternatively, this post could be called “Doing it, and doing it, and doing it well (?)”)

I am not a good mother. At least not by the standards that have been set up for the current generation of a certain ilk of  mothers. A generation who is expected to place their children at the center of their universe, and make all decisions about their adult life revolve around what is supposedly best for the child. A generation that is expected to sacrifice their own happiness to make sure their children are happy. A generation that has been fed the idea that having children is a choice, therefore if you choose to do it, you must accept all the self-sacrificing consequences that go along with it.

The other day, I attended a meeting where the topic to be discussed was having children while in grad school. I was supposed to be a co-facilitator in this hour-long discussion, but I ended up being about 20 minutes late. My lateness was due to the fact that I had to take Ahmir to school, and I underestimated how long it would take to ride our bikes there, because he rode really slow.  Then I got the room where the meeting was to have taken place, only to find it had been moved somewhere else. Campus buildings are not numbered in any rational way, so I had to find a map to find the building. So I was really late.

When I walked in the room, one of the first things I heard a new-ish mother saying was that she judges whether to go to certain meetings or conferences by whether they are “worth it” to leave her child, like the thing that doesn’t involve her child has to be really really great in order to justify not being with her daughter. And I immediately had to comment that that was  not my experience at all; I went to meetings or conferences or had lunch or coffee with people just because I wanted to. I don’t justify things based on how important they are in relation to my kids – that bar would be really too high.

My world does not center around my children. I do not make all decisions about what I do depending on whether they are “more important” than spending time with my family. Having down time to do whatever I truly feel like doing, which many times is NOT being with my kids,  is really important too.

And so my confession is this: while many people find the balance between work and family/children to be that they are giving too much to family (because they want to) and not enough to work, I find myself in the opposite position – according to the mainstream standard, I give too much to work and leisure and not enough to family. My children are not the center of my world. But I bristle at the thought that this means I love my children any less than the next mother. I do breathe a certain sigh of relief when I leave my house in the morning, going to do what I really love to do, which is to read and research and write. But I also know they are in very loving hands, doing arts and dancing, singing and playing, getting undivided attention that they simply wouldn’t get from me.

Part of my lack of mainstream mothering is my upbringing – I’ve watched women give their all to their children, against what I think they really wanted to do, and I think they were not happy doing so.  I don’t ever want to resent my children for stealing my dreams. On the other hand though, my parents had lives that did not involve me – my dad was a musician and played gigs away from home, and my mom also went to school. So I saw them doing it, living lives separate and apart from us kids.  Another part is my personality – the need to always be learning some esoteric academic discipline runs deep, and always being with my kids, even if I could be, would simply not work. I’m on the computer, they’re under my feet, climbing all over me. I can give an hour or two, but the pull of books or the computer is really strong. I am really independent and an extroverted introvert too – I need alone time until I don’t need it anymore. And alone means without my kids. Another part has been mental illness – I have bipolar disorder, and when I’m manic, I cannot sit still, least of all in my house, with my kids. And when I’m depressed, I’m no good to anyone. Those things I’m getting under control, but the first two I’m learning to accept instead of trying to change.

Why could I also call this post “Doing it, and doing it, and doing it well (?)” ? Because I’ve become sort of a “face” of graduate student motherhood around here, a person who so far is successfully juggling motherhood and grad school. I’m a really excellent student. On the outside, I seem like I really have it all together. But am I really doing it well? 2009 saw me get 2 major diagnoses – one of fibromyalgia and another of bipolar disorder, and a week-long stay in the hospital when it all came crashing down on me. Not quite the success story everyone expected. But as a result, I’m learning a great lesson, and I don’t think I have the same perspective as many folks. While I want to get my degrees, more than anything I want to be a type of mother that shows the world that neither your children nor your research has to be the absolute center of your life to be a “good” academic mommy. If you meet my children, you will meet happy kids, well-mannered kids, kids that know they are loved by their mama, kids who know their mama needs to do her work, locks them out of her bedroom when she’s busy, a mama who goes to the doctor and yoga several times a week. A mother who isn’t just their mommy, but also has a life of her own. If you meet my professors, you will meet people who know I have children, ’cause I do bring them to events, I talk about them in class, I explain that the impetus of much of my research is the fact that I’m a parent. A grad student who also has a life outside of grad school.

Neither things are the picture of perfection judged on their own. But my ultimate confession and what I am trying to really do well is to place myself, and really my God, at the center of my universe. Placing my health and well-being at the center of my universe and knowing in doing that everything will be okay. Happy and healthy mamas lead to healthy and happy children. If it makes you happy to make your children the center of your universe, then go ahead and do so. But I want to let some of you know that you don’t have to, and that’s okay too. That’s my confession.

20 thoughts on “These Are My Confessions

  1. Bravo, LaToya! You have moved me to tears over here. This is a lesson that is not easily learned, even though I intuitively know it to be true. Thank you!

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  2. Good essay. My daughter, now grown, criticized her upbringing for being too child-centered, leading her to feel weak and worthless as the center of our universe. She would say that it is good for children to be contributors and expected to do things to help others, not just recipients of care.

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  3. I feel like I’ve said something really wrong, commenting is sparse (except, of course, nazie and OW. thank you.) But I guess then that would be the point of my post. Do you all feel like I’m a bad mother because I don’t put my kids at the center of my life and let everything flow from there? I won’t be offended if you say so 🙂 But do say something…

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  4. Hey! I ain’t chopped liver! You had me in tears yesterday!

    I’ll add something else that I observed tonight. I am a much happier and more patient mother when I have things of my own going on. Also, my kids are learning by watching me do what I do. This is the kind of exposure you could not pay money for!

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  5. Hmmmmm. That’s a good question. The weekend has been a bit hectic (aren’t they always?) for me, which is one reason I haven’t responded. But the other part of me didn’t respond because I wasn’t sure what I thought about your post. I’m still not sure…as a new mother, I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m striking the right balance. I think it’s important to have personal downtime, and to pursue those things that give my life meaning outside of my role as a mother. But I also do agree with the statements you made about a “certain ilk” of mothers in the beginning: it IS about what is best for the child, and I DO have to sacrifice some of my own happiness to make sure my child is happy (and not superficially happy, but stable, secure, grounded, validated, etc.). I prayed for her; she’s here. It’s time to strike the balance…in her favor…I am proud of my ability to do so without resentment. And maybe it’s because I detected a little bit of disdain in your post for mothers who believe those things, that I delayed in responding.

    Is it true? Are you disdainful of that approach to mothering? Or are you just tired of people suggesting that your approach is not a good one? (You did, afterall, note in the end that mothers had to do what was best for them).

    Your post also seemed a bit conflicted; this approach seemed to work for you, and yet, some areas of your life are still out of balance. And that tension left me with a lot to think about. I don’t think it’s the sort of issue that can be resolved–or commented on–easily in one direction or the other. And what mother wants to suggest to another mother that she might have it all wrong? We’re all doing the best we can.

    I think you are right, though, that happy mothers make for happier children. I guess it’s about figuring out what really makes you happier and fulfilled in the ways that pay dividends in the lives of your children, and what makes you happy in ways that are fleeting, and take something away from your children.

    These are really hard questions, and many mommies are afraid to even admit they’re asking them. I thought it was a really courageous post… 🙂

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  6. Lamenting? Girl please, it was just the weekend 🙂 I absolutely feel your concern about this. I often wonder if I am a “bad mommy” for many of the same reasons. Friday at 10:00AM – Saturday at 7:00PM for instance I pulled an all-nighter at the office editing a film that I am hoping will one day make it to Sundance. When I came home I did go out to dinner with my husband and another couple, which is rare. As I got dressed in the bathroom however, my youngest son, Locke, asked me if I was mad at him.

    I agree with older woman to a certain extent. Many women who put everything into their children raise children who did not have a female model, at least, for empowerment. Furthermore, if you were a male corporate executive no one, including your kids, would clock how many hours you spent “at home”. Finally, if you were to take a full account of how present you are at home, grad school and all, I bet you would find that your presence there is overwhelming.

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  7. ORJ: do I have a disdain for women who do place their children at the center of their worlds? No. I wonder about it, what that might feel like, because it’s not something I’m fighting against – I really don’t feel it.

    But I often come across women who seem to have a disdain, or a certain amount of incredulity that I don’t have the same. In discussions around here, on campus, we talk a lot about how academia doesn’t respect our lives as mothers; I often am the one saying that our families and society often don’t respect our lives as something other than just somebody’s mama.

    I prayed for my children too; but I also prayed for my job and my husband and lots of other things. I think there should be room for all of us to be the kind of mothers we are, but I do feel that the kind of mother I am is particularly looked down upon. If say that I am not always concerned with what is absolutely best for my kids, that is seen like a bad thing. And maybe it’s a bit of a contradiction to say, though, that I would die for my kids, no questions asked, I do love them that fiercely. I just don’t think it serves them, or me, well to make them the center of my world. We’re all in this family thing together.

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  8. And Tanji, you are right. It’s a struggle to get off the internet lol, but when I am with my kids, I do *try* (not always successful) to be there – making cookies, dancing and singing, reading book after book, going to a playground. I’ve started setting every other Saturday to do stuff that we ALL like to do, like go to the beach, or a museum to play.

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  9. It occurs to me that our perspectives on this might differ based on the developmental stage of our children. I am still nursing, and hope to do so for at least a year. She doesn’t get many bottles, because I prefer it that way. Accordingly, for the next 5 months, she IS the center of my universe because of the choices I’ve made re her nutrition. When she is weaned, it might be a different story.

    That being said, whether or not they are the center of our universe, we are ALWAYS the center of theirs when they are this young. I was reminded of this when Tanji mentioned that her son asked her if she was mad at him after she had to be away longer than usual. Talking about balance is all well and good, as is pursuing activities outside of our children. But that doesn’t necessarily make sense to our little ones; everything is all about them, and when we go away for long periods of time, or choose other activities over them too often, they internalize it. We can do with that knowledge what we will.

    I love my career, and prayed for success there, too. But I work on ideas; my daughter is right here, flesh and blood. As is my husband. More than anything else, it is people who give my experience as a human being meaning. At the end of my life, I don’t think I’ll wish I had put more ideas out there, or even done more stuff that I wanted to do. I think I’ll wish I had spent more time with the both of them. In fact, I think I’ll realize that what I really wanted all along was to spend time with them, even though I didn’t know it at the time. And so, my decisions about being away from family must be informed by the question, “is it worth it.”

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  10. I agree – someone in the workshop i mentioned above made the same point about developmental stages. I breastfed as well, for a year and 8 months respectively; we co-slept, until I wasn’t getting any sleep anymore. My perspective is from having two toddlers who are more independent, who ask me to do things I know they can do themselves, so sometimes I think its in their best interests to make them do it themselves. I have to ask for hugs and kisses, while babies give those freely without even knowing they are doing it. Like Tanji’s Locke, my kids do ask me not to go when I do, and are really happy when I come back. Time with them is not simply time, but quality time cause we all appreciate it more because we recognize when we don’t have it.

    I think my point is more simply that I don’t make all my decisions about how it will impact my kids, which seems to be the dominant model. That’s all. Sometimes I do, but not all the time. Sometimes I go to yoga, even if there’s this great music class or play that the kids would really enjoy. I don’t rush home right after class even though I could – I’ll have coffee with a friend, or sit and read a book or go and get a mani-pedi. I’m sure all this time on the net is not in the best interest of my kids, LOL. That’s all I’m really saying.

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    1. I hear you, Toya. I definitely hear you. I’m still rushing home, and am anxious about leaving her 3x/week to teach for 3 hours (which, I know, is absurd; can you imagine what a wreck I’d be if I had a 9 to 5???). Part of it, too, is my personality. I’m a planner. When I’ve decided I need a massage, I plan for it, and don’t feel bad about going. It’s hanging around for a cup of coffee on the spur of the moment that throws me. I think I need to consider, the book break. There are so many things I want to read for leisure, and if I don’t plan for it, it’ll never happen…LOL–there I go, “planning” again…

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  11. Great post Toya. I think some of the feedback you get is also very Western. Many other societies function very differently around the role of children and the role of parents, community, etc and those children turn out just fine..some might argue “better” at some things than us. I admire the community you have cause I sure wish I could do me a little more and a little better. Be thankful and keep doing what works for you and your family

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  12. I don’t know how a mother can be a mother without considering their children’s needs, and it seems like you do that LaToya. So, the rest is up to the individual and what she believes she has to give to her children.

    Who cares what people say mothering is. Are your children getting all you have to give them? Yes, then that’s mothering. No, then give it to them.

    I just don’t understand how we can have the time to judge how someone else is doing, when *living* takes all my time and attention.

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  13. I am one of those mothers whose children are not the center of everything in her life. I confess that to be true. And I’ve battled that to the point of resentment and depression for the last 3 years. I love my kids. I really do. But I can’t revolve every single aspect of my life around them.

    I need to be happy in order to be a good mom. When I’m not happy, they, especially G, can tell. And it affects him. When I’m happiest, I’ve realized, is when I’m spending time with my family and enjoying and appreciating them AFTER a long week of doing many of the things I enjoy doing for myself.

    Thats why this new custody agreement is so important to me. I’ve been breathing a sigh of relief at not having to watch my son every day and getting a break during the week. I want to be able to focus on my work (which I LOVE), improving my physical and mental health (which is necessary for my survival), and get back to rediscovering the things I love about me, about doing things for me.

    Maybe it is a reflection of the recent developments in my life. But, honestly, I was feeling this long ago and for a while, I resented my son’s existence because I felt that by devoting myself entirely to him and his well-being, I was losing ME.

    I have been working hard to strike the balance between being a great mother and a great ME. It is hard, but it HAS to happen, for all of our sakes.

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  14. Thank you ladies. While I feel strongly about my confession, its nice to know women I love and respect understand and feel where I’m coming from. I just breathed a sigh of relief.

    Benee, while not exactly the same, my husband and I have nights “off” where 2 nights a week, I’m just not on duty, not responsible, can do whatever I want, wherever I want, and the same for him. It’s like having a custody arrangement in the same house. Both of us just really felt like we needed time to be ourselves, like we didn’t have kids. I do work a of the time, but I’ve been to bars, seen bands, or just slept, lol. Sometimes I think I want another child, but then I’m just like, really? And I remember to take a deep breath.

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  15. Greetings LaToya and CocoMamas,
    I just discovered your blog and have my own confession: I am jealous. (But also gratified.) You all have forged a wonderful community, one that fills in the gaps between the myriad forms of mothering, social activism, cultural critique. This site addresses practical gaps as well: I have white friends who are SAHM and WAHMs, academic mothers and academic women without kids, but the black academic mother is a rare gem. And a community of such mothers is a constellation. Kudos on finding each other, and reaching out to present a space.

    LaToya, your post sounds like me ten years ago when I was finishing graduate school. (Luckily, our university had a childcare voucher which finally helped me get completely finished.) My job interview was on my son’s first birthday. Now, I’m tenured.

    This dilemma–what kind of mother are you–will never be resolved as long as it is up for external review. (I often get invited to speak at events like the one you describe because I appear to do it all: I decline freqently.) You’ve done a fine job pushing it from the external to the internal: making your own definition, executing your own practice, and living your own philosophy of good mothering. I used to say “I am a bad mother. Being a good mother is too hard.” This was my strategy to critique the ideological and practical dominance of that “certain ilk” of child-focused mothering. It was a joke but also a mode of resistance. Now, however, I don’t make that “bad mother” claim (though it still has its uses). I am a good mother, a great one. I love my children. I parent them deliberately and with care. I live a full life. There is no need to apologize for that. I am glad to see that you are learning this now: your children will benefit from this. And so will you.

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  16. Lisa – thank you. I should probably let go of the “bad mother” label for myself; I admit it doesn’t make me feel good, even if I use it for making a point. I am a good mother, too. I do love my children, and they absolutely know it and never doubt it.

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  17. And LaToya, in the end, that’s what matters most. Your kids will never question that mommy loves them. All of their needs are being met. And mommy is meeting her own needs as well.

    I like the arrangement you and your husband have. Its SO key to have your own personal time and space, especially being young parents with young children.

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