I looked over at Tommy as he ate breakfast yesterday and realized that he looked just like an advertisement for bad parenting. He was shirtless, watching a Captain Underpants movie on an iPad and eating Eggo waffles that he was liberally dipping in syrup. He wasn’t even using a fork.
I thought about taking a photo of him and texting a few friends with the headline, “mother of the year!”
Of course, that text would have been seeping in irony. No way have I been mother of the year at any point during this pandemic. My kids have eaten more sugar than ever and they are in front of screens way too much (and not just for school.) I’m letting them go to bed more than an hour past their usual bedtime and I’m giving into whining much more than usual. One of them climbs into my bed in the middle of the night at least once a week, and I just move over and say, “come on in.”
It’s not stellar parenting. I’m ignoring them in order to teach or write, sure, but a lot of the time I’m letting things slide because I just cannot do anything more as a parent.
I’m tapped out.
The thing is, this isn’t the first time I’ve been exhausted by parenting. In many ways, becoming a widow with young children was great preparation for parenting through a pandemic. I’m not saying I recommend widowhood. But since it’s been my experience, it’s interesting to reflect on how I’ve grown (if that’s even the right word) as a parent over the past two and a half years.
Immediately after Shawn’s death, I didn’t care much about perfect parenting. My family and friends stepped in and helped me, and my kids seemed to be well-fed and generally stable. But once I woke up and started to really parent them, I quickly realized there was a lot I was going to have to let go. Without a partner, everything was falling on me, which made daily life really hard. I just had to survive, which meant that things like cloth diapers and non-processed foods were obviously out the window. But it also meant that I couldn’t do a lot of basic parenting things, like bathing every kid every night and feeding them vegetables every day. That rule about no screen time on school nights? Out the window. My ability to hold firm when someone whined for another cookie? Gone. My temper? Way up. Sometimes I’d listen to myself yelling up the stairs for my kids in the morning and think, “God, Marjorie, you are a terrible parent.”
Let me be clear about this: no one else ever said this to me. Of course they didn’t. That would be rude.
But I knew I was failing, or at least it felt that way. I had withdrawn my kids from most extracurricular activities. I’d given up on potty-training Tommy. I never cooked at home and I was letting my big kids ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, even though I knew they were too young for that.
At the time, I felt slightly bad about my parenting. I worried about it some. But honestly, in that first year, I didn’t worry too much. I was mostly consumed with survival, and that made me really hone in on the things that were truly important:
That was it. Yes, I was failing if I compared myself to my non-widowed friends. But I knew that wasn’t fair. I couldn’t parent like I once had, no matter how hard I tried.
“I’m doing the best I can,” I’d say over and over to myself and anyone who would listen. I said it so much that when I was frustrated, sometimes Claire would turn to me and say, “I know you’re doing the best you can.” (She still does this sometimes, reminding me that it’s my go-to phrase when I am overwhelmed. I know that she’s parroting it back to me in those moments.)
Somehow, after about two years, I got into a rhythm where my kids weren’t always watching television while eating Pop Tarts. I wasn’t the parent that I had been before, but I was doing an okay job, I thought.
And then, the pandemic.
It was like starting over at square one. Looking at Tommy yesterday as he ate his Eggo waffles was a reminder of what my parenting had looked like two years prior. It had looked like survival parenting.
In fact, right now I think there’s a lot of survival parenting that we’re all doing. Of course, some people are doing it more than others. Some people are single parenting or managing with very few financial resources or also caring for ill or elderly family members. Some people are really doing survival parenting.
But even for those who are “just” parenting through a pandemic, this shit is hard.
So I’m here to tell you: the kids will be okay. So what if they watch a ton of television or binge out on video games, even if it’s for six months? So what if they eat all sorts of things that come from the freezer, instead of the garden? So what if they only have socks with holes and their hair looks terrible every day?
In my book, as long as they remain safe and feel loved, we’re winning as parents. We need to grade ourselves on a damn curve at this point, and the curve looks like this: does everyone laugh, at least sometimes? Do your kids hug you when they need it, or maybe when you do? Have you managed to keep them fed enough so they don’t have scurvy?
I mean, for real. Maybe in another time and place, your parenting standards would be higher. But we are not in that time and place. We are here, in a global pandemic, mostly locked down at home. If you feel like a super mediocre parent, please remind yourself about the circumstances you face. And then lower the bar.
Because here’s my opinion, based not on parenting books or in-depth research, but on a lived experience of widowhood: if your kids feel safe and loved, you are winning at parenting right now.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.