When a friend recently remarked on how patient I am with my kids, I literally laughed in her face. Patience is not one of my virtues, in parenting or otherwise. Traffic jams fill me with rage. People in the Midwest, where I live, walk and talk too slowly for my liking. Practicing piano with my 7-year-old sometimes feels like torture. But not long after my friend made that comment, another made a similar observation, forcing me to consider the possibility that they were onto something.
How could they see me so differently than I saw myself?
Part of the explanation is that I’m too hard on myself; when I think about my parenting, I focus on the times I’ve lost it and forget about all the times I could have, but didn’t.
But it’s more than that. When I’m around other people, especially other mothers, I really am a calmer parent. I don’t want to be known as that mom who yells at her kids all the time, so when the kids act out in public, I grit my teeth and fight the impulse to go ballistic. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, I see how I could give the impression that I’ve mastered the art of staying calm.
I know I’m not the only parent who fakes it. And I bet that mothers do it more than fathers. My hunch is based on a very scientific study of one father in particular: my husband. Sure, he might save his sternest dad voice—the one that’s an octave lower than his speaking voice and means shit’s about to get real—for the privacy of our home, but for the most part, the way he talks to our kids doesn’t change much depending on who’s around.
Sometimes I wish that I could be more like him. But I’ll admit it: I hate the idea of other parents judging me. And I bet a lot of other moms to do, too. Mothers feel the pressure to be “perfect” more acutely, I think, and part of being perfect is always keeping your cool. Some of that pressure is self-inflicted, sure, but some of it comes from parenting books and articles that portray the ideal mother as an ever-smiling paragon of patience.
And so, we mothers try to live up to that ideal—at least when other people are watching.
The upside of faking it is that it often works: When I’m in public, I usually handle sticky situations with my kids better than I otherwise would. At home I might resort to snapping or yelling when my kids are being difficult, which doesn’t end well—the kids cry and I feel crappy. But when my kids act out at after-school pick-up or in the supermarket check-out line, I generally do the things the books and articles advise—get down on their level, talk to them in a calm voice, tune out their whining and screaming as I take slow, even breaths—and everyone cools down.
The downside of suppressing our more primitive parenting instincts is the false impression it gives other moms—that all the other mothers have everything figured out, that none of the other mothers ever feels like pulling her hair out. But every mother feels that way sometimes. It’s easy to forget that.
I was reminded recently when a friend, who I consider to be one of the most unflappable people I know, revealed to me that under the stress of a recent move, she snapped so badly at her kids that she reduced them to tears. It was hard for me to even picture her cracking like that, but it was reassuring that even she was not immune to losing it.
We’ve all been told that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other moms, and while that’s wise advice, it’s hard for me to follow—it’s in my nature to compare. If you’re like me, and measure yourself against others despite your best intentions, repeat after me: Every mother yells at her kids. Every mother loses it. Even that mom you so admire, the one who seems to have it together at all times. She does, too. She loves her kids fiercely, but sometimes, she treats them unfairly or even unkindly. She has good days, when she feels that maybe she’s finally gotten the hang of this parenting thing, and bad days, when she’s counting down the hours to bedtime. On most days, she probably has both feelings at different times.
She’s not perfect, but she’s doing the best she can. Just like you.