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Twelve-Step Parental Recovery

Advice to live and love by, and not just during summer vacation: The first step is to admit to having been a truly crappy mom

Everything I know about parenting I learned by being a crappy mother. There is no excuse for how bad of a mother I was when my first daughter was teeny. Truly, I sucked. The knowledge that I sucked is the driving force behind everything I do as a mother today. Looking back, I think a lot of it had to do with my ambitious expectations of a holistic natural birth, dreamy blissful hours of rocking my plump baby, gazing into one another’s same-but-different eyes, losing all the weight instantly, casually whipping out a milk-laden…. You get the drift.

Instead of this super awesome pastoral experience, my 36 hour labor stopped being natural at hour 31 when I was threatened with forceps and vaccum and c-section (oh my!) if I didn’t progress FAST. Opting to try Pitocin first, things started moving but then after two hours of pushing we were gridlocked. Again under threat of all manner of medieval ‘intervention’, I got that baby out only to promptly fall unconscious. I fell and I couldn’t get up, couldn’t hold my perfect baby, couldn’t nurse and couldn’t even smile at my husband who was shell-shocked and still suffers flashbacks. Things didn’t get easier from there.

She didn’t nurse, she lost weight and when a nurse told me that she would call social services and have my baby removed from my care and put on a feeding tube, we went straight to the pharmacy. My baby was formula fed. Everywhere I went people commented on how scrawny she was, everywhere I looked women were carelessly nursing their babies. I was a total failure. I was still 200 lbs. and in a sick way I subconsciously held my baby responsible. It has taken years to admit that I resented my child, but there it is. That resentment colored my parenting dark shades of hurt and anger. I was tough on her, overly strict and inflexible. I expected perfect behavior. I expected unconditional obedience. I was a mess.

My mother and husband stood by, unable to intervene, afraid of my wrath. Looking back I’m pretty sure I lost my damn mind in that delivery room. By the time my eldest was two, I had another baby. I was in a hurry to give it another try, hoping for a better outcome. The birth was a dream, she nursed instantly, I only gained 25 lbs compared to the 60 lbs I gained my first pregnancy. “She’s the pretty one,” I thought to myself.  As they grew I remained tough and overbearing with my eldest, forgiving and kind with her sister.

As my firstborn got older, she got more difficult. She got bossy. She hit her little sister, a lot. “Why is she so bad?”  I would ask exasperated.  The bigger they got, the greater the disparity in their personalities and in my treatment of them. I was not the parent I wanted to be. We were not having fun. Something needed to give, and that something was me. I needed to give warmth, and care, and understanding. I needed to listen, and play, and be silly. So I started to try. And I signed up for parenting classes. And I listened to my mother, my husband and a friend who I admire.

Photo credit: Dalia Finkelstein Photograpy
Photo credit: Dalia Finkelstein Photograpy

Eventually we added a third pirate-princess-monster-fairy to our brood. It has taken years of practice, but I am not the same mother I was. I think that I have gotten better, and I hope to get better still. Along the way I have learned a lot, read a lot and learned to listen to the other people in my life who love my kids (almost) as much as I do. I am in no way a perfect mother, and I am still pretty tough, but my home has become a much happier place since I started letting my girls tattoo themselves with Crayolas and take bubble baths in the backyard baby pool. I have built a relationship with my eldest daughter. It didn’t come naturally at first, but now it does. We are besties; we braid each other’s hair and play tag, she tells me about her first-grade social angst and I commiserate with first-grade horror stories of my own. She is beautiful, mature and funny. She is smart, kind and the best big sister. I’m just grateful to be her Mommy.

aviva binoculars

This is the time of year when parenting our children becomes kind of strained. It’s hot, they’re home, we’re still working and there are 54 days to go. It’s a lethal mix that could kill the good karma in even the most kumbaya of households. So here’s a Twelve-Step Parental Recovery Program based on what I’ve learned over the past five years of crappy mom sobriety. It’s specific to younger kids… teens are a whole other sack of cats:

  1. Kids need structure. They need to know what to expect, or else they kind of bounce around looking for the walls. There is comfort in boundaries. Boundaries for kids are rules and schedules. I follow my parenting coach’s advice and try to never have more than three rules. Make ‘em count, they are the only punishable offences. For everything else there are sticker charts.
  2. Kids need positive attention otherwise they’ll get any attention they can find. The more they hear “that’s amazing, sweetheart” the less I have to say “why are you stabbing your sister with a toothbrush?!”  This goes for food as well. If I get worked up when they refuse to eat, then they will continue manipulating meal times to get attention. The old adage is true (except in special medical circumstances): “When they’re hungry they’ll eat.”
  3. Try to think positive thoughts about your kids. I have tried to stop complaining about them and started saying wonderful things about them. I choose to see the best in them hoping that it will eclipse the bad. I may sound boastful, but it’s all true.
  4. Don’t nitpick. “Sit still” “Chew with your mouth closed” “Say please” “Say sorry” “Don’t say that” “That tapping is driving me crazy”… pick one, leave out the rest. This one is super hard for me. Muzzling my inner critic takes a huge amount of effort, and I don’t always succeed, but it makes a noticeable difference when I grit my teeth and shut up.
  5. My kids need alone time with me. Each of them. One on one. Undivided attention. Every day. And they each need something different.
  6. Kids make a mess and siblings fight. Get over it. This is another one that I am constantly struggling with, but I’m getting better. Instead of chasing my kids around with a dustpan and a wet wipe, I generally make it until they’re in bed before cleaning up. Instead of blaming myself for my children hating each other, I chalk it up to character building.
  7. Teaching is more efficient than punishing. Instead of: “What possessed you to poop in the sink! Now go to your room!” I try instead: “We can get really sick from those germs, so that’s why we only poop in the toilet and we always wash our hands.”
  8. Don’t set yourself up to fail. This one is HUGE. I can’t blame my kids for playing Frisbee with my MacBook after leaving it on the table and letting them watch TSN Ultimate Frisbee. If I put an “OK?” at the end of a request, I must be prepared to have them decide that it is optional. Making small technical changes can make a world of difference.
  9. From many sources smarter than I: If you are trying to raise religious children, two things will ruin your hard work. Hypocrisy and coercion. Let them do the best they can without criticizing, and practice what you preach.
  10. Show respect for teachers, waitresses and your spouse. They learn from us, they speak how we speak, they act how we act. If you are a rude jerk, don’t be shocked if your kid tells you to shut your face… they probably got the expression locally. For example, after being cut off after preschool pick-up I muttered “idiot” under my breath. Later that day I called my seven year old a brat. Ever since that fateful day my five year old calls everyone, and I mean everyone, “idio- brat”. Not nice.
  11. Don’t lie to kids. Talk about feelings. Answer their questions. Listen to them with an open mind and an open heart.  This open-heart-mind communication will come in useful when they are offered LSD in the park and need advice.
  12. Finally, show them love. Children are like delicate flowers, they grow towards the gentle caress of sunlight. Try to keep them warm.

lia flower

Every day throws new hurdles in front of my ongoing journey to not being a crappy mother. I constantly question myself. I constantly seek advice. My mommy-cap is the most important of the many hats that I wear. I love my kids and I don’t want to ruin them. So I hug them and control my tone of voice, I make Saturday night glow stick dance parties in my yard and let them help me bake bread. It’s a struggle, but I am in recovery so I just try to take it one day at a time. My name is Corinne, and I am trying to be a good mother.

About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.
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