My children were very young when the atrocities of September 11, 2001 happened. The following summer, an Amtrak train derailed near our house, and in October, 2002, the Beltway snipers killed a woman at our corner gas station. I remember thinking: “how do I raise these children successfully to adulthood in a world gone mad?”
It was a harrowing time, and it permanently reset my mom-o-meter. My expectations of the world and myself radically shifted. I lost all illusions about my ability to create a perfectly safe and perfectly fair environment for my children. How do you get anywhere near that, when it seems like logic no longer has any bearing on events? The notion of an ideal childhood flew out the window. Getting them to 18 alive, and with all our sanity intact, seemed a target aspirational enough.
When you can’t rely on externalities, it seems safer to turn in. I ramped up my own measures and began tuning out most of the chatter. Focusing on practicalities allowed me to avoid the swirling conflict of cultural messages:
- How can you be a good mom if you put your kids in child care?
- How can you be reliable and committed at work if you have kids?
- How can you be so selfish to want a career and deny your children your full attention?
- How can you take years off to be with your kids and expect to be taken seriously as a professional?
Somewhere in my peripheral vision, the absurdity of these messages struck me. My subconscious connected the dots, and my awareness of the absurdity only really emerged when the process was complete. My new perspective lined up puzzle pieces that were impossible to fit together:
- Women must have children for the species and society and economy to continue AND women are systematically punished monetarily for having children.
- All individuals universally depend on others for essential care, usually in the early and late years of life, yet those who provide that care are taken for granted or poorly paid, if paid at all.
- When women behave like women, they are deemed less worthy than men.
- When women behave like men, they are deemed ‘unwomanly’ and less worthy than other women.
It’s a lose-lose-lose. So I kept my own counsel, rejected guilt, and did my best according to what I thought was important. I can’t change the culture overnight, or even in my lifetime. It’s an imperfect world, and I’m an imperfect human. I decided the thing to do was to teach my children how to live by the way I lived, accepting limits, forgiving myself, forgiving others, and continuing to try with the full knowledge that the cards were stacked against me. Here’s what I do now:
- When I make a mistake, I apologize and let them see me do it.
- I don’t assume things don’t come out right because of my own personal shortcomings.
- I accept responsibility for the things I can change, but don’t allow myself to be cornered into accepting responsibility for the things I can’t control.
- I don’t say I will do things I know I don’t want to or can’t deliver on.
- I value my time, my energy, my goodwill, and all my other resources.
- I require my family to do the same, do for themselves when they can, and commit to the community of us by contributing to the collective good of our home and what happens inside it.
In learning how to respect themselves, my children have learned how to respect others. In learning how to forgive themselves, they are able to forgive others.
Our world may be crazy, our politics and institutions often don’t make sense, and justice and fair treatment are ideals to be aimed at. Falling short is no cause for guilt. It’s the common outcome of being imperfect humans in a man-made world. The only person you have to satisfy, ultimately, is yourself. Knowing that you behaved consistently with your own values is simply as good as it can get.
Valerie Young is a public policy analyst who focuses on the economic status of mothers and other family caregivers. She promotes social justice by arming mothers with information and a healthy dose of outrage. She is the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers’ Centers, and is a reporter for The Shriver Report and contributor to Brain/Child Magazine. Follow her blog, Your (Wo)Man in Washington, on Twitter @WomanInDC and on Facebook as Valerie Young and Your (Wo)Man in Washington.
To join a community of new mamas who are all returning to work at the same time you are, join the Mindful Return E-Course. The next session starts soon.