My 2 year old daughter recently started a mommy and me ballet class, and in many ways, it’s more of a 40 minute test of mommy’s patience than it is a learning experience for toddlers. Our first class consisted of my daughter crying, asking to be held, burying her face in my lap, and begging to go home. When she wasn’t doing that, she laid herself out on the floor and basically cleaned the dance floor with her brand new, pale pink leotard and tutu. I’ll just say that it’s not pink anymore. :-/ For 40 long minutes, it’s pretty much chaos as these beautiful little babies in their adorable outfits run amuck, pick their noses, scream, twirl around in circles until they fall down, and randomly burst into tears while moms sweat, urge, beg and plead for their daughters to listen to the instructor, all the while flailing our arms and kicking our legs in the air in a desperate attempt to get our daughters to do the same thing.
The second class was better. Penny only asked to go home about 7 times. And as we danced and twirled and pointed our toes, I noticed that a friend of mine was having a difficult time with her daughter. All dressed up and as pretty as a picture, she stood in the corner and screamed, her cute little face all scrunched up and red from the exertion, while I’m sure her mom (if she’s anything like me!) tried reasoning, begging, pleading and bribing her daughter to stop crying and get back out on the dance floor. Eventually, my friend gave up and left class with her crying daughter in tow. She flashed a quick smile, and before I could say or do anything, she was out the door.
I’ve seen that smile so many times as friends rush out of playdates or parties or meals with unhappy toddlers tucked under their arms. A smile mixed with an apology, masking embarrassment, hoping that no one can tell that mommy just wants to sit on the floor and cry herself. I’ve been there too–more times than I’d like to remember. Mothers empathize. Yet, so often, when life with young children gets difficult, we’re quick to run, to hide the temper tantrums behind closed doors and brush our own frustrations under the rug–at least in public. We isolate ourselves so that we can deal with our lives and our children on our own, and aside from the occasional rants on Facebook, which often elicit an onslaught of varied and often unrealistic suggestions on what to do, we remain quiet about the challenges we face as mothers. Collectively, we praise the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but when times get tough, we build walls around ourselves and deal with our children’s bad days and temper tantrums on our own.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why can’t we ask for “help” from friends and fellow moms? For me and my Type-A personality, it’s a constant struggle. Despite wanting to jump up and help when my friends need a hand, I have so much trouble ASKING for help from others. And more often than not, I stop myself from helping friends because I wonder if they’ll think I’m overstepping boundaries. But really… What’s wrong with a friend jumping in and helping to calm down an angry/sad/frustrated child when mom’s ready to pull her hair out? Is it wrong of moms to take a breather? Isn’t it better to deal with difficult situations when we’ve had a moment to catch our breath rather than when we’re feeling so frazzled that you can’t believe “this is me”? Sometimes, I see friends’ kids doing things that I’ve been through with my own children, and from my experience, I think I can help diffuse a situation. But is it okay for me to step in? Would my friends disapprove of how I handle a situation? Would she be upset that I stepped into her territory? We’ve gotten so caught up with the “right” and “wrong” ways to parent that we forget that there are a million different ways to do so. As mothers, we worry about everything, including whether or not other people think that we’re doing “it” right as if there’s a “right” way to be a mother. There isn’t. And if we mistakenly show people our children on a bad day, throwing a tantrum and all, we worry that people will think we’re bad mothers. We’re not.
Culturally, we’re taught to be independent. We praise the idea of making our own way and solving our own problems (often for good reason). And the old adage–that which does not kill us only makes us stronger (also a great life lesson)–supports the idea that it’s necessary for us to struggle, to fight our way through life, through motherhood. But along the way, we lose sight of the fact that everything doesn’t need to be a struggle. We don’t have to fight our way to the top of this great mountain known as Being a Mom. There’s no trophy if you “win.”
When my twin boys were 18 months old, my husband went to Afghanistan for 4 months. A VERY LONG 4 months, and during that time, I realized that there was–at least for me–a big difference between ASKING FOR help and ACCEPTING help. Maybe because I looked so desperate and because my friends and neighbors felt pity on me (haha!), people just stepped up to help. I didn’t have to ask them. When I took my boys over to a friend’s house for a BBQ, people swooped in and took them off my hands, played with them, fed them, stopped them from burning themselves on the hot grill, and even scolded them when they did things they shouldn’t do. And despite missing my husband and wanting him home with us, I actually cherished this time that the boys had where truly, the community was invested in their well-being and growth as little human beings. They were loved and cared for and taught by all the adults around them.
Not long after my husband returned from Afghanistan, we–very reluctantly–had to say goodbye to our friends and neighbors and move to another state. And not too long after, we moved again to Korea. We’ve lived here now for over a year and a half, and we’ve made some amazing friends, many of them other moms with children my kids’ ages. We have playdates together, share meals together, explore Seoul together. And every now and again, the moms get together without our masses of children to enjoy a meal without having to tend to a crying child or in my case–wipe a child’s butt because my kids always seem to have to go poo during mealtimes… :-/ As we’ve grown closer, we’ve learned more about each other’s parenting styles, come to adore each other’s children, vacationed together and even scheduled playdates for our husbands with the hopes that they’ll like each other as much as we like each other. I can honestly say that the friendships I’ve made here are some of the biggest reasons why my family’s time here in Korea–away from all the things familiar to us–has been worth it. Yet, so many of us, despite how close we’ve become, maintain our iron grip on our independence from each other when it comes to raising our children.
Maybe it’s time to let go? Maybe, we can allow our friends to enrich the lives of our children the way they have enriched our own. The friends who I hold near and dear to my heart make me laugh, give me insight and advice, are people I can count on. And I know that if I let them in, they would bring all those wonderful qualities I love about them into my children’s lives. So next time my arms are full and I’m trying to wrangle my 2-year old while one of my 5 year olds has a meltdown over a broken toy or being told he can’t eat a donut for lunch, I will welcome my friends to talk him off the ledge, to share their compassion, their insights as mothers, and their friendship with my child. If your friend stops your toddler from running out into a parking lot, it says nothing about any motherly shortcomings. It simply says that more sets of eyes are better than one when small children are around. That your friends care for the safety and well-being of your child. And if you’re struggling with your kids and your friend reaches out and offers to help, breathe a sigh of relief, welcome the chance to step away, and accept it. She offers, not out of judgement, but out of love and compassion for you and your children. And in the process, your children will see with their own eyes and experience with their own hearts the importance of friendship.
Photo credit: Marisa Johnson Art and Photography