Mommy guilt and daughters

A friend once explained to me that having two kids was like being married to two people at once — you feel as strongly for one as you do the other, and it can be just as complicated.

I’m starting to understand what he meant.

The love part I already felt, of course. Before I had two kids I honestly wondered how I could care as much for the second as I did for the first, but I did. It just happened that way. The complicated part wasn’t as obvious. But now that I’ve been home with both Lyra and Pandra for the last three months or so, it’s become more clear.

I don’t think Lyra likes me much right now.

Lyra and her dinosaur
Lyra can play with her toys happily by herself…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still her mommy. She still needs and wants me around. But if there’s someone else around who can help her with things, do fun stuff with her, read her stories, or anything like that, she’s choosing them over me.

I can’t blame her for it. Nearly every moment of time I’ve spent with her over the past three months has included Pandra. I can’t play toys on the floor with her because I’m nursing Pandra. I can’t run around the field with her because I have Pandra in the wrap and can’t run with her. I can’t give her my complete, undivided attention for very long because Pandra interferes. And Lyra has never complained about Pandra, or shown herself to be particularly jealous.

What has changed is her relationship with me. She tunes me out more, as expected I guess, since I’m now the authority of her daily life. She gets mad at me and refuses to tell me things. She shows her preference to spend time with other people. I’d be tired of hanging out with me too, considering all the time we spend together now.

On the other side of things, my relationship with her has changed too. I have to be more than I was before, since I’m her daily source of entertainment, education, or whatever other activities she may need. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not very good at that part. I don’t enjoy coming up with or carrying out age-appropriate activities. I’m not creative in the right ways to be very good at it, and what’s more, I don’t have fun doing it. So I’ve taught her how to play some computer games, and I try to do things like bake with her (she’s only interested in the eating part, really)… things that I enjoy too. I take her to playgrounds and she runs loose and plays with other kids. I take care of her — she gets the things she needs. But I’m not a teacher, I’m not a daycare, and I’m not a kid who can play at her level. When I do push myself to do things like this, I don’t have much fun, and I’m sure Lyra can tell.

I’m happy that she’s in preschool – for two hours, three days a week, she’s getting some of those activities in, and meeting and playing with other kids. I’m getting time alone with Pandra (and sometimes, if Pandra naps, time alone, period). But I wonder, and I’m worried. If we don’t have fun, or if I’m distracted taking care of a three month old baby, or if I’m just exhausted and frustrated and tired of trying to entertain the bottomless pit of boredom known as my Lyra, is it going to hurt us somehow?

Mommy guilt

Tonight Adam told me that Lyra confided something in him that I would hope she would be willing to tell either of us. She said she didn’t want to tell us about it at all.  I’m glad she has that strong of a relationship with her dad — I shouldn’t be upset that she told him about it and not me. I am, but not the way I thought I would be. What I’m upset about is this feeling of guilt — that I’ve somehow done something wrong in my mommy duties lately, and that I should be working harder to not get frustrated with her, and trying to get better at keeping her engaged.

Being a mom is hard. Mommy guilt is painful.

I’m afraid of somehow ruining our relationship. I think it’s a bit early for that, but I guess it’s better to keep that fear in mind and act to prevent it than it is to realize someday in the distant future that it’s already happened, and that I’m not someone she trusts or wants to be with.

And so, I’m up at one o’clock in the morning, worrying about how to fix things. And I might even be on the right track.

I need to find something special that Lyra and I can do together — just the two of us, no Pandra, no Daddy, no uncle Jordy. We need to spend time together in a way that isn’t tinged with frustration on either of our parts, and it has to be doing something that both of us enjoy. Now I just need to figure out what, and fit that into our schedule somehow.

Being a mom is way more difficult than being married. And I’ve got two girls now, plus I’m also married. It’s both fragmenting and infinitely fulfilling.

Searching for praise and approval

While cruising Reddit the other day I discovered a parenting article about the power and perils of praise. It got me thinking about my own complicated relationship with praise, effort, and accomplishment, and the skills I would like to help Lyra and Pandra learn when it comes to dealing with these things.

In short, the article talks about studies that suggest that praising children constantly for the things they are in an effort to build their self esteem may actually be creating problems in the long-term with their ability to work hard, follow through, and be successful. It’s not necessarily all about the self esteem. Kids need to learn how to be proud of their own efforts, instead of the results of them.

It’s hard, as a parent, to not praise your kids for everything. The author of the article addresses that, too. You really want to support them and show them that they’re awesome, so you tell them they’re smart when they figure something out, they’re strong when they do something that was hard for them, and so on. But what the studies suggest is that this isn’t the right approach, and that we’re potentially creating people who need constant praise and approval, as well as the feeling that they’re good at something without trying, instead of people who work hard at something that doesn’t come easily and find happiness in their own efforts rather than the recognition of others.

I’ve seen it in action in plenty of adults. And I’ve got my own personal demons when it comes to looking for approval and praise, although I don’t think, in my case, it’s because of an over-abundance of praise received as a child.

My history of feeling bad at everything

I may not remember things as they exactly were, but in my memory, praise was never given easily or lightly. It was a rare commodity when I was a child, and more often I remember being on the receiving end of comments that made me feel like nothing I did could ever be good enough, if I got any response at all. This made me desperate for praise and approval from anyone who would provide it.

In elementary school I remember wanting to be asked to read aloud in class because I knew I was good at it, and I loved doing it because I was good at it. But I never felt like I got asked. It seemed to me that the kids who weren’t good at it got asked way more than I did, and it was frustrating. Looking back, of course, I can see that the logical thing for a teacher to do would be to give the opportunity to students who needed the extra practice, but to a young, insecure girl who wanted to show that she was good at something it always felt like I was being ignored.

Throughout most of my school years, from elementary to high school, this trend continued. I wanted, desperately, to be singled out and told I was good at something — anything — because at home I never felt like I was good enough. I can remember with a vivid clarity the day I was walking around the house, singing the entire soundtrack to the Little Mermaid. I was probably around fourteen years old, and my self esteem was already low, but I felt like singing was something I was good at. I was, and I still am, and singing always made me happy. But on that day, as I danced around the house pretending to be Ariel, dreaming that someday I would grow up to be a voice-over artist for cartoon musicals (yes, that was a ‘when-I-grow-up’ dream of mine) I was shattered by one offhand comment from a parental unit.

The girl in the movie does it better.

From a sibling, the comment would have been easy to shrug off. From a parent? Well, I pretended it didn’t bother me, but I was devastated. I started to avoid singing when people were home, and wanted badly to hear words of praise for something I thought I was good at — but began to believe I wasn’t. The slightest criticism of my singing made me flush with shame and embarrassment.

It wasn’t just singing. This sort of offhand criticism had been going on for years. I wrote a song when I was six years old that I sang for my family, and was told outright that I stole it. Didn’t write another one until I was 21, and still feel the pain of that accusation to the point that I just don’t play or sing the songs I write. Ever.

Slowly, with everything I was slightly good at, I convinced myself I wasn’t anything special or that I was actually bad. I waited and hoped that someone would recognize I was good at things — music, writing, photography, or anything else I showed promise with — because I believed that I needed that approval and praise to prove to myself that I was worthwhile. Other people had to believe in me before I could believe in myself.

The kind of approval I needed — a direct assurance that I was good at things — never came from my teachers. Maybe they assumed I knew already, because my marks were good in those areas. I’m sure they didn’t know the kind of response I got to being good at things from home — indifference to criticism — so how could they know that I felt broken inside, and that I couldn’t ever be good enough at anything? And they probably didn’t realize that those good marks I got were mostly achieved without any real effort on my part. I try not to think about how good I might have been at school if I had put some effort into anything. I wanted them to tell me outright what I was good at, because then I thought I might try harder at that one thing. They didn’t, and I didn’t.

It didn’t come from family either. All I got from that corner was indifference at best.

As an adult, it slowly started to come from friends, some of whom eventually buckled under the weight of my neediness, I think, and drifted away from me. There’s only so long you can tell someone they aren’t useless before you get frustrated with their inability to believe you, and stop trying. And then sometimes it would come from jobs.

Wherever I found this praise and approval, I would cling to it. It was never healthy — sometimes it got me into a lot of trouble — and I turned into someone who required praise to feel like I was good at anything.

When things got hard, I would quit

The side-effect of this was that if I wasn’t automatically so good at something that I could receive accolades for my skill, I simply wouldn’t continue doing that thing. The effort of learning something that I wasn’t already good at wasn’t worthwhile to me. I missed out on the opportunity to learn so many things, and get better at so many others, just because they were a little bit (or a lot) hard in the beginning.

In college, there were projects I never even started because they were too hard, and collaborations I avoided because I didn’t think I was good enough for anyone to want my contributions.

In work situations, there were jobs that I walked away from because I would have to learn and do new things that were challenging and difficult.

In daily life, I would try an activity once, determine that I wasn’t an instant prodigy, and abandon it.

This went on for years. And then, at some point, I started to change.

Maybe it began when I decided to get rid of my phone phobia by taking on a reception coverage job. I hated the phone passionately. I would get a panic attack every time it rang. So my self-diagnosed medication was to get comfortable with the phone by making it my job to use it. It worked. I got over the phobia (and instead developed a hatred of talking on the phone, but that’s an entirely different issue).

I started mountain biking years ago. The whole idea terrified me in theory, but I tried it because Adam wanted to get into it and I wanted to do something with him. I wasn’t very good. I kept trying it, and fell down a lot. I moved to British Columbia, and realized that mountain biking on real mountains + a fear of heights don’t mix. I kept riding. I got myself hurt. I kept riding. I got better. I’m still not very good, but I kept going out there, afraid of hurting myself or worse every time. But I figured out, somehow, that the actual riding is a whole lot of fun. Mountain biking may be the first thing I’ve tried, sucked at, and kept doing anyway — all for the sake of the effort, the trying, for getting better at it and for the joy I feel when I ride really well. I came to terms with not being a prodigy, not being among the best at it — I never will be. But it’s fun, even if I’m not the best.

That lesson took me until my late twenties to learn.

I backslide sometimes — especially at work, when I realize that I want to do something well simply because I want my manager or co-workers to rain accolades on me, and reassure me of my awesomeness. It’s a hard lesson that I keep having to learn, wanting to do something because it’s worth the effort.

Praise, approval, and my own children

So I’ve said a whole lot about myself and my experience with self esteem issues, praise, and approval. But how can I use what I know to help my children be better at this than I am? Because, ultimately, I want my kids to be better at me than everything.

The article I linked at the beginning suggests praising a child’s process and effort, rather than the outcomes or their skills directly. For example, rather than saying “You’re so smart!” as a general concept that might leave a kid thinking “I’m smart, that means I don’t have to work hard at things” a parent could say “You did a great job working so hard on that tough math homework.”

It seems like a good approach to me. I want my kids to learn that hard work will get them far. They might have some uncanny talent that takes very little training, but practising that talent will make them better. And they’ll also have a hundred things that don’t come easy. I want them to feel the satisfaction of working hard to accomplish something, or to feel pride that they overcame their fears to do something awesome. I want them to be determined to succeed, not necessarily for the sake of success and the praise it will bring them — that praise might be empty and unfulfilling. I want them to be proud of the work they’ve done to get something.

I want them to not give up on something just because it’s hard.

I want to give them the tools to be better than I was.