“But do you ever miss a deadline?”
I’m standing with my children's babysitter in my home office, which is a space cluttered with stacks of paper, splays of magazines, books, record albums, office supplies I never use (such as a hole punch), my coffee cup and, as you do, my hairdryer. Oh, and there's an oil painting of a monkey smoking a cigarette on the wall.
Our babysitter has been with us for a couple of months, watching our three children several afternoons during the week. She’s amazing: pure energy and joy, with no qualms about taking the kids on spontaneous picnics or a movie on a rainy day, or engaging in water balloon fights on our balcony. She gets that more activity makes a day with kids easier, and she is not at all the sit-on-the-couch-flipping-a-magazine type of sitter.
Because she’s so good at her job, we actually haven’t spoken much. From the minute she walks in the door, the children are hers and I am dismissed. She takes charge. She always has activities and destinations in mind and never balks when a "playdate" joins the mix.
She makes decisions on her own, and I like that. I’ve had babysitters in the past who would text me over what I would consider small things: can the children go outside or is it too cold, they wanted to know. I’m not someone who needs to be involved in the minutiae.
With her, my kids came home once with no underwear on because they’d gone for an impromptu swim at an amusement park. I picked them up at a playground another time and realized my 2-year-old was not wearing a diaper—and hadn’t been all day. My sitter said my daughter decided she was ready, which turned out to be true.
I’ve been described by many as a “laid-back” mom, and I suppose that’s true. But there are times “laid back,” usually meant as a compliment, makes me feel like I just don’t know what I’m doing.
This kind of thing would upset some mothers. My sitter told me she has clients that prescribe exactly what their children must do, eat and wear, and just how long (or short) they are allowed be outside, so her job is mainly to follow the checklist. I imagine she enjoys the freedom of actually being in charge when she’s with my children. And I think it’s good for them to experience new things with a new style when they have a babysitter, rather than a fill-in me following orders. I trust her judgment.
But when I see her seemingly having everything so under control—unshakable, appearing to genuinely enjoy every moment with my kids, so organized yet fun—I feel inept. I look at her operate with my children, and it’s exactly how I imagined I’d be when I was still rubbing my first baby bump and decorating the nursery.
In reality, I'm kind of the opposite.
I’ve been described by many as a “laid-back” mom, and I suppose that’s true. But there are times “laid back,” usually meant as a compliment, makes me feel like I just don’t know what I’m doing. Like I’m too lazy to have more structure. Like what kind of mother buys ice cream before noon or lets her 2-year-old pick out her own outfits. Like I’m not concerned enough to worry about all the terrible things that could result from the knee-jerk decisions I make daily.
I made a self-deprecating joke to this effect to my babysitter, and she told me I shouldn't be so hard on myself, that I need to be more self-compassionate and put less pressure on myself.
I never thought I was hard on myself. In fact, quite the opposite. I feel like my life's disorder is not due to my children but to all the other things I force into it—fitness classes, drumming lessons, a freelance journalism habit (squeezed into an already full work week), a social life.
You have to alter your habits and schedule and make room for new activities and responsibilities when you have children, but you cannot change your past, your character, your identity, the things you love and value.
It’s a lot, but it’s all my choice. And I wonder sometimes if I should ditch all that and focus on mothering, if we all wouldn’t enjoy the experience of my kids’ childhoods more if I just made myself theirs alone. Rather than being more self-compassionate, I often feel I should be less self-absorbed.
It’s a common instinct for new mothers to curate who they are, consciously or not, when their babies arrive. I have a friend who, even in her 40s, is still the punk rock girl I met in high school. She’s creative, original, youthful. Yet when she became pregnant, she went out and bought khakis because she thought that’s who she would have to be from then on. (She’s since tossed them out.)
You have to alter your habits and schedule and make room for new activities and responsibilities when you have children, but you cannot change your past, your character, your identity, the things you love and value. I have always been as I am. And motherhood did not transform me. Rather, now I’m just me being a mother. And I’ve got to trust that everything about me that has helped me succeed elsewhere will help me succeed in this. It means my kids will have known me as I really am, scatteredness and all.
It took my 24-year-old babysitter’s office analogy to make me see it:
“But do you ever miss a deadline?”
“Well then. Your chaos works for you," she said. "You shouldn’t try to change it.”