I I I I I I I  

Reasons My Children Will Need Therapy

I'm doing my best.

That's what every mother says, from Joan Crawford to Donna Reed. It's just that some people's bests are obviously better than others. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; it's as good a definition of parenting as any I've heard. Despite my wonderful intentions, I often have a sinking feeling that instead of saving for college, I should be setting aside money for my children's therapy bills. College is usually only four years; therapy can last a lifetime.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," poet Philip Larkin wrote in This Be the Verse. Before I had children, this struck me as an astute and comforting observation. Whatever issues I had accumulated, they weren't my fault. It was all due to my parents' spanking me too much, or not breastfeeding me long enough. It never occurred to me that once I had kids, I'd be the one doing the fucking up. There was no room for dysfunction in my idealized view of family life.

When I envisioned motherhood, it was in a soft focus glow. Perfectly groomed, I nursed my infant and gazed down at him beatifically. My children sat around me enraptured as I read Alice in Wonderland. Dressed in white, we built sand castles on a deserted beach at sunset. I was going to be the living, breathing embodiment of every Mary Cassatt painting in existence. My children were going to be adorable, brilliant, compliant bundles of joy who slept through the night at three weeks and spoke in complete sentences before their first birthdays.

I bought and read every book on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and infancy I could find, including (but not limited to) What to Expect When You're Expecting, Spiritual Midwifery, The Birth Book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, Breastfeeding Basics, The Baby Book, Attachment Parenting, and What to Expect the First Year. I believed that with the right information I could be a perfect mother -- infinitely patient, wise, and nurturing -- and raise perfect children. I never considered that I am not actually a very patient or wise person. I suppose I thought that I would develop these traits somewhere in between morning sickness and a perfectly natural, un-medicated labor.

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Things began to deviate from the plan before my first child was born. Instead of the low intervention Bradley birth detailed in my birth plan, I got the full complement of IV drip, pitocin and monitoring. I labored for hours with little progress, and then had a c-section. Followed by mastitis -- a really nasty kind of breast infection that regularly killed nursing mothers in the Good Old Days. Initially breastfeeding was so painful that I gritted my teeth through every feeding. On one particularly memorable occasion, my five-day-old son latched on and I screamed, "fuck!" and yanked him away from my breast. So much for Mary Cassatt.

It went down hill from there. Against my better judgment, I had my son circumcised and then changed my mind, vowing that no future sons would undergo such indignities. The child who hates change was in five different childcare situations before he was three-years-old. The one who craves variety has stayed at home with me her whole life. I failed to teach either of my children to "self-comfort" and rocked them to sleep until their feet dragged the floor. When my calm, reasoned requests fall on deaf ears, I resort to yelling and threats. Frequently, I cut straight to the yelling. It saves time. I rapidly reversed my position on television and encourage them to watch Blues Clues and Dragon Tales so that I can hole up in the office and write. I only play "Go Fish" or "Candyland" under extreme duress. Frankly, I'd rather read a novel.

While I focus on the ways in which I have failed to live up to my expectations for myself, my children will probably loathe me as much for the ways in which things went exactly as planned. After the initial discomfort (doctor speak for pain and agony), I loved nursing and continued to breastfeed well into their second and third years. I have a casual attitude toward nudity and allow them to run around the house and yard naked. I've taught them correct terms for all their body parts and answered all the "how are babies made" questions with ruthless honesty.

At times, my politics and ideals have taken priority over my children's comfort and pleasure. I take them to anti-death penalty marches instead of children's concerts. I've banned Barbie dolls and toy guns. I neglected to warn my son that if he wore purple nail polish to preschool the other children were likely to tease him.

Finally (and perhaps worst of all), after I realized that I could never be a perfect mother, I had a second child and now I'm expecting a third. On the other hand, maybe that's a good thing. Instead of focusing all my neurosis on one child, I can spread it around a little bit.

But here's my dirty little secret; my children may need therapy in twenty years, but I'm a much healthier person since I had kids. Before I had children, I still secretly believed in magic; that if I learned the right rituals and followed them exactly, I could invoke a certain outcome. I thought I could control all the variables and produce children who would conform to my ideal, who would validate me and prove to the world that I was a great mother and an exceptional person. I may not be the mother I once aspired to be, but now I understand that my children are separate individuals with their own personalities and agendas. They are not rosy cheeked little angels from a painting; they are exuberant, willful, real children. I can help them realize their potential and I can direct their energies in some ways, but ultimately I can't make them be anything other than what they are. With any luck, this will be the saving grace in my less than stellar parenting. Whatever scars my children take into the world, I hope they leave the nest knowing they are loved and valued for themselves and that their lives are their own, to fuck up or not.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children, Drew and Franny, and her husband Adam. The chaos factor is expected to go up exponentially when their third child arrives in August. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


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