This June, I was laid off from my job in media. Don't feel too bad for me. I got a nice package after almost 10 years at a large company, and it was early summer. In truth, it was kind of a dream. (Well, except for the 3 am, "What if we can't pay our mortgage?" panic attacks.) And it meant, I thought, that I would have a few months to be completely there for my two sons (14 and 10). We would cut back on takeaway and have more home-cooked meals with a green vegetable other than guacamole. I would make it on time to all their travel sports. I could be class mum!
You're probably already laughing at my naivete. But I imagined that in the baseball game of parenting, everyone else was batting 1,000 and I was scraping by at .150. I know I'm a loving mum, don't get me wrong. And I realise other people are human too. But I was so wrapped up in my guilt that I kept forgetting that no parent is there for every.single.thing. Okay, that one mum is, but she clearly has boundary issues.
Still, I felt like a bad mum almost every day. If I took one train later than usual at night-bad mum! If I was dashing out the door to catch my morning train as my younger son, Gus, was trying to slowwwly tell me something-bad mum! If I made it to Henry's baseball game just as the teams were lining up to say, "good game, good game"-bad mum! Instead of thinking: I cranked through work to leave early for my two-train, hour-and-a-half commute home, I thought, I blew it again.
Then, post-layoff, a funny thing happened. I got to Henry's travel baseball game on time. I parked my spectator chair, ready to chat. The game started. Where were the other parents? Slowly, a couple trickled in. Some had dropped their kids (and their chairs) off early and took off for a few innings. By the 5th inning (out of a 7-inning game), there was a throng of us. But right when the game started? Nope, me and two other parents.
Back when I would rush to arrive late, I saw a crowd and concluded that everyone else had been there for the whole game. But this is the reality: Most parents, working or stay-at-home, are fighting a similar battle. They're skipping out of somewhere else and running over, rushing from dropping another kid off or driving a parent to the doctor, getting there when they can. Batting .300, because in parenting, as in baseball, missing 7 out of 10 times means you're doing pretty great.
I started seeing a fuller picture off the field, too. "I'm skipping the parent coffee," a friend confided on the first day of primary school. "I can't take the pressure to sign up for this committee and that." She went on to tell me that in the part of Europe where she had lived, parents were expected to not communicate with the school at all. I felt immensely grateful for this information, tucking it away in the dark web of my brain to replay when I was back at work and torturing myself. Another friend informed me that she skipped middle-school back to school. It wasn't convenient and she was there last year for her older son, so she didn't go. Just like that.
I didn't go to the coffee either. I could tell you that I'm parenting like a European, but honestly, I don't like meetings. You know what, it may be healthier for our children to have some space. Isn't the goal of this parenting thing to raise kids who feel secure when we're there on the sidelines-and secure when we can't be?
As for dinner hour, pizza is still in the rotation (some weeks, ahem, more than once). I did work haricot verts onto our plates but do you think my kids ate them? And my house doesn't look like I imagined it would if only I were at home with time to declutter. Though I have attacked old mail like nobody's business. I have easily sorted out nine months' worth.
That said, I believe guilt sometimes serves a purpose. It can be your conscience's way of telling you something needs to budge. Maybe mine was yelling, "Hey lady you need a shorter commute!" But I suspect it is simply this: We feel guilty as working mums because we are put in a no-win situation. Too many companies and too many managers still hold it against us if we openly parent. It's like: "Take a morning off but don't tell me it's because you're going to another Christmas concert at school." (Two kids = two concerts-oh, never mind.) So we slip in and slip out of our two worlds, moving in our own Pigpen-like smog of anxiety, terrified that our secret life of parenting will be exposed.
Guilt is a funny thing. We apply it inconsistently, without much logic. Years ago, when my children were very young, I was beating myself up for even considering leaving a job that let me work at home, for an in-office position that piqued my interest and paid more. A great mentor and friend said, "Don't ever feel guilty for providing for your family."
Providing, I see now, could be making money, or driving kids to 17 different activities. It's the stuff that takes you away from being this mythical, Pinterest-perfect Super Mum and makes you an actual, real-world super mum.
I leave you with that, and I leave myself with that too.
Lombardi is a writer/editor and the co-author of "What the Yuck?! The Freaky & Fabulous Truth About Your Body." You can find her on twitter @lisaclombardi.
The Washington Post