Hey Moms: If we could have done better, we would have.

by renegademama

Look what kind of bullshit the world handed me recently. These two photos are taken one year apart, to the day:

One day, we have the child we’ve always known, and the next day, we don’t. This is hitting me so hard right now, and I’ll tell you why: The boy who I somehow felt was always going to be a little boy is suddenly a teenager with size 13 shoes and I feel like all I did was yell his entire childhood.

Get off my case about the soaring drama, okay?

Sometimes, I don’t care what my Facebook and Instagram look like and I don’t care about that time you had dinner in my house and thought we were just such a loving family. What we really were is a fraudulent rage family.

Was I ever a real mother?

So many nights I’ve rested my head on my pillow and wondered if I said even one kind thing to any of my kids that day. I don’t mean “You’re the most special creature I’ve ever encountered and I’d die for you.” I mean just a compliment, at all. A recognition of them as human beings trying to grow up.

Or did I simply bark orders? Did I simply lose patience? Did I simply tell them to do this and do that and then, that night, did I think tomorrow, damnit, tomorrow I will be better. Tomorrow I will ask my boy about how things are going in general and maybe I’ll suggest we go get some tea together and my god Janelle you went to the grocery store with him – you could have talked – were you on your phone?

Were you too busy? Did you even notice?

 

And as I rest right now at 3am on a mattress on a floor in Holland, my four kids tucked into their rooms, the boy in the photo who used to sleep every night in a pile of stuffed animals and blankets on our floor, currently snoring behind a CLOSED DOOR if you can imagine that shit; as I lay here next to my husband who does not stay up at 3am wondering about these things, my whole body aches for some relief. My whole body seems to shiver with a desire to go back, to see him one more time as the little boy I’ve always known, the little boy I held held held until he shut the door to his room.

Those nights, when I’d watch my life screaming past me in frenetic monotony, I’d tell myself, “At least he’s still a little guy. At least he’s still just a boy. Tomorrow.”

What do I say now?

 

After a week of these highly fruitful midnight contemplation sessions, I have decided I am sick of this fucking guilt. I am sick of the way my brain wraps it all into regret, wraps it all into you coulda done better. You know what? I obviously could not. If I could have done better, I would have.

But let’s talk about this, the “mom guilt.” What a terrible feminist I am for even admitting I have it. MOM GUILT!

We don’t have that since we’ve been liberated. We don’t have it because men don’t have it, because it’s an invention of the patriarchy, because we congratulate dads for bathing their offspring, so this is all nothing more than internalized self-loathing, so stop.

Okay fine, good talk. I feel so much better.

I don’t. I don’t feel better.

And you know what? I’m tired of every feminism that doesn’t meet me where I am. Every feminism that tells me I have to love being fat all the time. Every feminism that tells me feeling a loss of identity when I became a mother is a betrayal of my bra-burning ancestors (read the comments).

Yes, it matters where the guilt comes from so we can deconstruct it. Unexamined life, etc. But HEY FRIENDS I’m here now. There’s no solution in “Don’t feel that way, Janelle, because it’s a construction of the patriarchy.”

OH SO FAKE IT THEN? What a fresh take!

And as much as these self-empowerment gurus tell me to shed that shit alongside all lingering desires to diet, the feeling is still here. If I were to declare otherwise, I’d simply be lying to myself. How is that “empowering?”

I want something real, something tangible, something actually freeing, not just some fucking band-aid rhetoric.

We are where we are, and if you can’t help me from there then you’re just trying to sell me another line. A workshop, perhaps. A retreat. A book.

Weird how the world makes money off polishing my shit into something more palatable.

 

And the truth is this: I have missed a lot of my kids’ lives and I feel like shit about it. Some of it I missed because of alcoholism, but most of it I missed because I was living a life of seemingly impossible circumstances.

Years of a husband leaving at 3am and coming back at 5pm only to not see raises except in healthcare costs and student loan payments while babies keep getting shot in school and the rich get richer and my degree gets smaller and they keep telling me my discs are crushed because I’m fat, which is probably true. I’ve just spent so much time so fucking tired. Always, it seems. Tired, worried, drained. A frantic monotony. How quickly life can become something to survive, kids something to manage. Manage. Manage.

Play with? Engage with? Cuddle with? Stolen moments here and there. A glance.  A book before bed.

But inside of myself, you know, there was often such turmoil. So much goddam pain.The world suggests “self-care.”

You know what? Sometimes we’re too poor for self-care, too tired to even remember. We squirm under the boot of a damn-near impossible life then beat ourselves up for “missing it.”

And that, my friends, is some bullshit.

 

After more tears than a feminist like me (lol) would like to admit, as my breath stops in my throat when I think about Ava going back to America in three days to finish high school in the States, when I think about my first two babies never returning to how they used to be, and I feel once again I may die from the sadness of what’s gone, of what’s lost, of all that was once in my hands, I follow it all the way to the end – past regret, shame, wonder – to a deeper part of myself. The part that knows I did the best I could with what I had, and I always fucking have.

We always, always fucking have.

And sometimes, sometimes for years, it isn’t much. But if I look, I see those stolen moments. I see the times I looked at my kids as they sat on our front porch, and handed them an ice cream to watch a movie with me, and watched them sleep, reached for their hands while driving.

Hey, little one. Here I am. And damn, you’re beautiful. In this mess, this fucking crazy life, I race and race but I show up when you need me more times than not and sometimes, for mere seconds, I stop to feel your palm against mine. Could that be enough?

The other day at dinner I asked my teenagers “Do you feel like all I did was yell at you your whole life?”

They threw their heads back and laughed. “Absolutely! It’s been terrible!”

Ava then turned to me, her voice a serious tone: “Why would you ever ask that, Mama?”

And I see in a flash that today is where the freedom lies, the healing, because today is the day I will someday yearn for, when they were young, when we were young. Someday, I’ll look back at today as the years I can’t get back, and I’ll remember the time I asked them if all I did was yell, and I’ll remember the way they glanced at each other and teased me, the sun against their sweaty teenage necks, and the way I sat between them, almost in their hands.

****

Speaking of mom guilt, have you read my book?

It’s not really about mom guilt I just couldn’t think of a segue. 

Also, did you know I’m teaching a five-day writing retreat on a magical island in British Columbia? 

 

40 Comments | Posted in I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING HERE. | August 7, 2019
  • JMegan

    Happy birthday to Rocket, and good luck in high school to Ava!

    And to Janelle, you are awesome. Thank you for putting words to your truth – and mine. <3

  • Lisa J

    God damn Janelle, you are gifted. Thanks for this.

  • Kathleen Raftery

    Jesus you made me cry again. If you didn’t live so damn far away I’d ask you to be my friend. I guess all we can be is aware. Pushing away the feelings doesn’t work much does it? I’ve tried. Keep trying. My baby is little now and he is in the other room playing with someone I am paying so I can sit here at a computer and work (while sneaking off to read this post) and that crushes me. Anyway, love your writing.

  • Heather P

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you. I really needed to read that today.

  • Sarah

    AMEN to all of this. Every single goddamn word. Thank you for putting this out there. It’s some real bullshit for sure. At least we can all support each other in calling it for what it is.

  • Judithellen Kennedy

    Yes, I hear you. We all hear you.
    My mother was a terrible mother. A good person…brilliant to the extremes, but a terrible mother, raised as it turns out… by an equally terrible mother, a fact I did not consider or even know before I was well into my fifties. When I finally got up the courage to tell her that I , at 8, was regularly sexually molested by my piano teacher ( a highly respected Professor of Music and Dept head at Syracuse University ) she said and I quote here… ” I highly doubt that!” She did not, however, resist when I refused to continue my lessons.
    Left to her own devices I have no doubt that she would have been a Supreme Court Justice or at the very least the CEO of some dreadful Fortune 500 company that scourged the environment and employed toddlers. Instead she married my dad, right out of grad school ,and immediately settled into the stay-at home life that she despised. Not once did she say she was unhappy. Not once did she complain. Not once. She didn’t have too, we all knew ..well ..except my dad who did his best to fill in the gaping hole that was the life she didn’t have… at the same time wondering why.. his life and career as well as the care and feeding of her children brought her no measure of fulfillment or dare I say it…joy?
    I have only vague memories of my mother’s mother who died at age 46 from a “condition”. (I’m guessing the vapors ) that we were not allowed to talk about, along with any topic that bordered on the personal or the equally vile…”feelings.” **Until her death she still signed her cards “Mom”…never” Love Mom.” God forbid she express the simplest and most basic of human emotions.
    Years ago I got up the courage to ask a good friend of my grandmothers, what kind of mother she had been before her early death and all she would say was she was “very strict”… expected absolute obedience and that she had never …ever ..seen her touch my mother or her sister “affectionately.”
    I dug deeper. My grandmother was the oldest of nine. The only girl. The family did have “help” but because she was female, she was treated, by her brothers as an extra servant. Eventually being allowed to marry my grandfather was a way out of her dismal existence. The wealth, status and opportunity of her family was never extended to her.
    By the time I had developed a picture of who my grandmother was and how my own mother had been raised…I began to soften my attitude toward my own mother. The strict Anglo-Saxon ,stiff upper lip…,nobody is interested in your feelings.. bloodline… was there …but it was weakening.
    My point here is this. What I discovered was, our parents did/are doing the best they can. If they had known better they would have done better. I tell myself this everyday. I …also try everyday when dealing with my own brood ..now six grown humans …to strive to learn more about this parenting trap… so I can at least try to do better. Sometimes I do..sometimes I fail miserably. But I am trying and that…. is after all … the only thing that matters.

    • Kerry

      Thank you for sharing this. We have a bit of a similar story and I really appreciate your insight.

  • Gailen

    Hey
    Thanks, that so resonated with me .
    Ive been thinking about that a lot and the whole feminist thing and beating myself up for not being jolly through all of this shit and the rhetoric of the outside world

  • Laurie

    Hey, you know what Janelle? I had an only child (the result of getting married for the first time at 19, divorced at 27, and not getting married again until I was 43)and I was (and still am) madly besotted with him. I did all that treasuring stuff and told him he was brave, intelligent, funny, and that I would wade through twenty miles of cow shit just to drink his dirty bathwater (kidding on the last one? you decide) every day. None of that mattered to my Mom guilt. I still have massive Mom guilt from the divorce and the going back to school and the interim boyfriends and life itself. It’s not a matter of understanding why that it’s always ourselves that we need to forgive, forever and ever. I, like you, try to accept that I did my best, whatever my best was at that time. Guilt is like paying a mortgage on happiness. I have regrets because everyone does! But regret is like mud: you can’t build anything on it; it’s only good for wallowing in. Though Peppa Pig jumps up and down in that shit–I’m gonna give that a try. Love your words, as always.

    • Rose

      “Guilt is like paying a mortgage on happiness.” OMG I love this WOW!

  • Jaime

    Once again you’ve taken the words out of my fucking heart.

    Thank you.

  • Hannah

    I have three little boys still safely tucked in my nest. One of my dearest friends has four big boys who are stretching their wings, teetering closer to takeoff. Yet I remember when hers were so very small, like mine are now. The time is slipping through my fingers, and it often feels like some cosmic joke that these precious, fleeting years are essentially spent in a haze of fatigue, body aches, and “dammit where are your shoes?!”
    I have to trust God/the universe that we’ll come out the other end of parenting with our kids having our everyday love carved deeper in them than the bleary monotony that sometimes seems to weigh down each interaction.

    • Erin

      “The time is slipping through my fingers, and it often feels like some cosmic joke that these precious, fleeting years are essentially spent in a haze of fatigue, body aches, and “dammit where are your shoes?!””

      So much this. Exactly.

      I want to be able to push pause so I can catch my breath, grab some uninterrupted sleep and then jump back in. I have two little ones and I truly see how precious this time is. But it is also so relentlessly exhausting!

  • Chandra Bourne

    “Why would you ask that mama?” Slayed me. Beautiful writing as always. Thank you.

  • Rose

    Mine are all in college now – I have been saying for years I found the late teen/moving in to adult hood phase much harder than all the others. There are literally hundreds (thousands?) of books about how to care for and raise infants and toddlers and child development, etc etc. Not so many books about how to be the parent of the emerging adult without breaking into small pieces. Worrying yourself into an ulcer. Questioning ‘did i do enough?’ ‘was I good enough” “did I give them the tools they need to get through life on their own”. Trying not laying YOUR fears and worries and need onto THIER shoulders. Nobody tells you how damn hard it is to learn to let go.
    And for putting this out there – we all do the best we can -THANK YOU !

  • Dionne

    God how I love this. Because I needed to hear it, because it is me so many nights, wondering if I missed too much of the good stuff because I was struggling so hard to keep pace and do it right and not fuck it up too badly. Because now that my kids aren’t kids anymore, I often cannot remember if I remembered to be a sweet momma when my kids needed it or if I was just out of patience and breath from running this stupid, unwinnable race. There is, at least, some solace in knowing I’m not alone in my grief and worry and guilt. Thank you for letting us know you are right there in it too. Much love.

  • Megan B

    This. So much this. I probably shouldn’t have read this at work because now I’m fighting back tears at my desk . . . have you been spying on me? I feel so much like all I do is yell, and then I try to make up for it with extra giggles, extra hugs, extra moments of love. But I always wonder if it will be enough or if they will only remember the yelling and how grumpy their exhausted (and introverted) mama always was. My girls are still young, but I hope one day they laugh at me the way your kids have for even suggesting such a thing. Thank you for this piece.

  • Jennifer Wolfe

    Yep. I am all that too. I look at the photos of my baby now nearly 20, and know that I tried. I did my best, and then they leave for good and when they don’t sleep in their rooms every night I wonder what happened. It makes me feel old. And fat. And all those things you said, and like the best is behind me. I have felt a lot like that the last few weeks, and I want to snap out of it. It takes time, I guess. I’m glad you are writing again.

  • Danielle M Gruhler

    Wow. Your last paragraph is absolute writing-gold. Love it. Gorgeously poetic.

    Have been reading your blog for quite some time. So often, you say something I didn’t know I needed to hear until you said it.

    Thank you! (Am eagerly following your Instagram posts as of yesterday!)

  • Kirsten

    You guys! Every word from each of you straight into my heart! My daughter will leave to college next year and my son has overnight turned into a tall lanky man… I KNOW I’ve done my fkn hardest!! Was it always good enough? Probably not… But the overall picture could have been a hell of a lot worse! Now to the crone phase of life… I have no plan yet, but I’ll be damned if I do what my parents and most of my friends parents did – keep sitting at home wasting the next 30 years away! I’m buying a motorbike this month, you’ve gotta start somewhere with the midlife crisis stuff 👍🏻😂😂

  • Peggy

    Thank you for being my voice,
    Somehow though we’ve never met.

    Happy Birthday to Rocket !
    Good luck in your senior year,Ava.

  • Jamie

    You are brilliance and love, as always, and that last picture is sheer heaven. Any feminism that doesn’t meet us where we are is no feminism at all. And from someone who just ran out of the house because the 4-year-old hasn’t stopped screaming MAMA every 5 seconds when he needs a lego or a crayon or an episode of Paw Patrol, and who also cannot stop grabbing my boobs– thank you. Thank you for the reminder that he also said he loved me about 11 times before lunch. Have a wonderful, magical year.

  • Lilli

    Weeping.
    My oldest is “only” 5 and yet I feel every word of your piece so poignantly. I almost ripped his head off this morning. Then I took a shower and did something radical (at least for me): I apologized and asked him for a do-over. He agreed and the guilt fell away. Well, mostly fell away. So, so, so tired of that dumb guilt.

    Thank you, as always, for your beautiful words.

  • Jessica G

    I see you, Janelle, and I feel seen by you. Thank you for that.

  • Sarah Fanelli

    And you know what? I’m tired of every feminism that doesn’t meet me where I am. Every feminism that tells me I have to love being fat all the time. Every feminism that tells me feeling a loss of identity when I became a mother is a betrayal of my bra-burning ancestors (read the comments).

    Yes. This was/is the past 5 years of my life. Thank you for sharing. I feel less alone which is an almost unbearable relief.

  • Kelli Shaw

    You are my spirit animal…or spirit person. Both of those things sound terrible. I’m a mom of 2 sets of twins…no joke because people with 2 sets of twins DON’T joke about things like 2 sets of twins!! Every time I read what you write I think to myself, “I hear you Mama!” Thanks for sharing your journey. Keep on rocking it the best way you know how!!

  • Tara

    it’s all so heavy. my son and rocket are the same age and they are similar dudes… all these years i’ve read the words you write that i too am thinking and felt you on so many levels. my guy grew 7” over the last 7 months, he seems humongous, other worldly. today before this post i texted a friend on this topic i said, “he’s not mine anymore, he’s his own self in a way i’ve never experienced before”… seriously, the closed door? who knew that was gonna happen to the baby who screamed when he wasn’t touching me? to the kid who quietly sidled away from conversations about sleepovers cause why would anyone not want to sleep in their own house? i too lay next to a man who doesn’t stay up at 3am wondering about these things and i too have been comparing the picture from a year ago and wondering how this happened so fast and did i make the right choices for him? did i do the best i could? i’m right there with you janelle, reach out in the 3am dark and you will feel me there, this motherhood gig is not for the weak.

  • Cayenne

    My 7 year old referred to himself as a “sometimes moron” tonight at bedtime. This sparked a 40 minute conversation about how it can feel to have a mom, dad and a grandma barking orders at you all at the same time and possibly feeling the tension between the adults and just not being able to handle the pressure and taking a nerf gun you knew your mom was pissed at your dad for buying you and slamming it into the 3 day old laptop your mom just got for Christmas, denting it, causing the mom dad and grandma to all hiss a sharp intake of air in surprise, and then feeling like a sometimes moron about it for the next 9 months. So we talked about forgiveness. Of self, of others. We talked about how it’s human to make mistakes and we should expect them of ourselves, learn, and move forward. The lines about who we were talking about blurred, as they should. The pain… the pain!!! The expanding dull ache of the full human experience is just way too real. Thanks for writing about your human experience and not limiting the characters in my own reply.

  • Shannon

    This resonates so much and I think speaks out loud one of my greatest fears. My son is only 2.5 but I already find myself wondering if I’ve missed it. If I worried away his baby years, was frustrated too often, and now am in the midst of the wildness of toddlerhood. I worry that I’m the only one who feels this tired, who feels like mothering asks more of me than I have to give or at least than I know how.

    I love that your kids teased you when you asked. My husband does the same for me when I get all up in my head about how I’m failing. It’s a relief to know others don’t see you the same way you see yourself, but the trick is how do we see ourselves the way they do? I don’t know, but I think you’re on the way and I hope I’m not far behind.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Marya Valli

    Thank you for the sting of tears your words brought to my eyes, the swell of emotion. Thank you for telling the truth.

  • Katie Strah

    Jesus, Janelle. Thank you. I don’t know how you are in my head all the goddamn time, but you are. Weird.I get this so hard and my babies are still babies. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  • Jessica Farrell

    Omg…. I can’t stop the tears. Beautifully written!

  • Johanna Glinsboeckel

    So. Much. Awesomeness!!! You pull the words, fears and spinning thoughts right out of my brain. Thank you thank you for all of your gut pourings. I’m sure they are hard to write but sooooooooo amazing to read that we are all so much alike, silently sharing in all this.

  • Marianne

    Every. Single. Word. Of. This.

    My baby boy turned 15 last week. How the hell? I’m right there with you, Janelle. Love your writing!

  • Brin

    I needed this so hard today. Well said mama.

  • Lee Szymkiewicz

    Thank you. This is exactly what I’ve been feeling. I needed this.

  • PhysicsBear

    He may shut his door now, but all your kids have always known they could climb into bed with you, and you would be their rock, their heart, their comfort for as long as they wanted. If that isn’t being an awesome mother, then I don’t know what is. Fuck the guilt. You love them, they love you, and you’ve done everything you could, with what you had.

    • Lisa Rose

      Love, love, loved this post! The youngest two of our 6 turned 13 in July. One is taller than me and the other the same height and both have bigger feet. Six kids in and the move to teenagehood hasn’t got any easier. It does only seem yesterday that they were creeping into bed with us in the night…

      At the other end of our spectrum, we have 4 out working and adulting (sort of, they all still live at home :-)). The big crunch moment for me with the older ones was the first time they made their own doctor’s and hair cut appointments.

      I think that it’s the huge collection of all the tiny moments that they remember. None of mine remember the games we couldn’t watch; they remember the games we did go to. None of them remember the failed cakes for birthdays; they remember that they had cakes for their birthdays. They recall big arguments in the light of family legend* and story telling. They don’t remember all the notices we forgot to send back to school or the mufti days where we sent them in uniform. They remember all the things they got to do at school and the costume dress up days. They don’t remember cheese on toast for dinner as a bad thing; they remember it as an adventure day. The nights when I didn’t do veges with their dinners? Those were great meals from their point of view! They also don’t seem to remember the times we really cocked it up, which is somewhat of a miracle!

      We absolutely did the best we could. Every day. If some days we were more successful, that was a bonus! But we got up. We showed up. Every day. And we should be well proud of ourselves for that!!! (I include all parents in this, not just my own little group of parents!)

      Thank you for writing this post.

      *I do have to issue a caveat here that one daughter is still bitter that I never did party bags for the older childrens’ birthdays, but caved ONCE with the twins!!! She will never let me forget…

  • Allison

    Holy fuck….

    I’m struggling to find the words right now so let me start with this – thank you.
    Thank you Janelle for writing.
    Thank you for every single person who commented and just made me feel like I got a much needed hug from the universe.

    I have one son – 18 – and the past few years have been this horrifying realization that they don’t stay little forever. I have been screaming over and over in my head “why did NO ONE fucking warn me about this?”

    And I wonder – why are we not talking about this? Because as moms we are expected to be super woman. We multi task, we solve impossible problems, we touch the most disgusting substances a human can produce, and we walk around telling everyone we’re fine.

    I was a single mom until my son was about 7, and we survived because we had to. I didn’t have the time to sit down and feel sorry for myself. I had to hustle to put a roof over our heads. And I am guilty every single day for the time I missed with him when he was little.

    And I yelled. A lot. I’ve felt guilty for that until literally yesterday. My son, while going through this dickish teenage phase, picked up and moved out a few months ago and broke my heart. But he’s moving home after coming to the realization that the grass really isn’t greener out there, and he had it pretty damn good at home. He lived with his girlfriend for a while and they had zero rules and zero yelling. He thanked me for yelling at him and told me he finally gets it when they say your parents are not your friends.

    Holy shit. that… just… happened…

    I don’t know what good karma I have to deserve this but I honestly thought it would take 10 years to hear those words. But he thanked me for the yelling. And my sweet baby boy is moving back home.

    Although we’ve never met, I feel like we’d be pretty damn good friends if we did. The way you raise your kids is so much like I raise mine. While most parents are bragging about their kids getting into their college of choice, I’m over here excited because my kid bought his first VW bus and is confident he got a deal because he was wearing his lucky Grateful Dead t-shirt.

    What I’m saying is – if your kids are anything like my boy – they are learning the lessons you are teaching them and they are going to be amazing humans. And that’s all that really matters. Just make sure your kids don’t grow up to be assholes right?

    Don’t let that mama guilt get to you. All I can say to you is – you’re doing it right. Keep that shit up. After all, who the fuck else is going to remind me that I’m not a shitty mom? ;o)

    So thank you.

  • Rachel Smith

    OK that does it, I have to stop reading your posts when I’m a) premenstrual and b) have work to do.

    So here I am bawling.

    Mr Nearly 5 is back in our bed and I ever so secretly love it. I am grasping at every second this kid is still a baby. I have less than a week left til he’s 5 and that seems like such a massive milestone, it just catches in my throat when I think about it. Also, he’s my only kid so everything feels amplified and I so know that feeling, of wanting to go back. Craving one more day with him as a chubba bubba.

    GAWD. Thank you. And also – gah – because you made me cry AGAIN.