Saturday, November 7, 2015

Moms Don't Need the Gratitude Police

Everyone who is a mother has had this moment. Probably a lot of them.

Worn out with an endlessly fussy baby, non-stop toddler tantrums, grade-school homework revolt, or a morose and defiant teen, a mom vents to friends and family, or posts something to the modern-day confessional, Facebook.

Almost without fail at least one other mom, and often an entire guilt-inducing chorus of them, will make a comment that is some variation of this:

"Oh, you should cherish every day with your child, because eventually all those precious moments will be gone and you'll regret it. Count your blessings. You should be grateful!"

Honestly? Stop. No. Don't say this to other moms.

I've never been a huge fan of those who insist that a properly thankful attitude is the solution to every problem--or as I call them, the Gratitude Police-- but lately I've been more bothered by them than usual. Maybe because I know a lot of young moms right now and I feel protectively big-sisterish. Maybe because as the years have gone by (I've been a mom almost 21 years), the Gratitude Police keep showing up, and I'm tired of grimacing through their advice.

I've decided that "you should be grateful" isn't all that helpful. I think in a lot of cases it's not well-meant-- it's a form of passive aggression. In quite a few cases I think it does real harm.

In the first place, I'm generally of the opinion that any sentence that starts "you should...." is not going to be well-received by a woman who's had dried spit-up in her hair for three days straight. Nor should it be.

To anyone who shared their fears, frustrations, irritation, exhaustion, and bewilderment about mothering a child, regardless of whether it was on a minor or monumental scale, "you should be grateful" plays like a one-sentence lecture. Because that's what it is. A lecture on how you should be quiet about your feelings, and how your attitude is all wrong.  I don't call that empathy; I call it an an emotional shut-down.

And who said anyone was ungrateful? What a way to leap to the worst possible assessment of someone's character. The large majority of the time, moms are letting go of some temporary frustration, not rueing the day their child was born. They're stating the hardly earth-shattering news that breast pumps and nights of lost sleep and sibling warfare and melted candy bars in hot mini-vans are all really crappy. Nobody should have to feel grateful for that shit. Ever. Believe it or not, it's absolutely possible to hate these things and still be grateful every moment that your kids exist. They're not mutually exclusive. Complaining in the moment doesn't negate your overall commitment to the people you brought into the world.

At its worst, "you-should-be-grateful" talk angers me because when we address someone else's discontent in such a casually dismissive fashion, we may not know what we don't know. We're telling a mother her feelings not only don't matter, that she should feel bad for having them? That's not a super-great message to send to the average woman who is momentarily struggling with some parenting challenge, or just needs to blow off some steam. But what if you're telling that to someone who is also battling severe anxiety? Post-partum depression? A physical health problem? Emotional abuse? What if what you see on the outside is just the tip of her very large and frightening iceberg? Do you want to take that chance?

Cut it the eff out, ladies. Seriously.

As an Official Older Mom Person, here's what I know from all of my two decades of experience:

Good, bad, or indifferent, these moments moms are having will pass regardless of how we feel about them. It's not like we get jelly beans in the Extra Time Jar for being properly grateful, whatever-the-baby-poop that even means. Nor do we get to return to yesteryear for being properly grateful. Either way, the calendar pages flip-- some days with a loving and wistful look over the shoulder, and sometimes with a "welp, we survived." We can be glad for both. Because they are both real life.

I had four absolutely adorable, funny, mostly-happy babies that I loved with every particle of my being. I did not, however, love every minute I spent with them. And that's okay. I can say honestly, years after the fact, that I still do not miss tantrums, dirty diapers, and sleep deprivation so profound and ongoing I had difficulty remembering the proper names of common household objects and my own husband. I don't. And no one can make me. It doesn't mean I loved my children any less, then or now.

I think it's okay to stand up for yourself, which I began to do when my youngest, the twins, were little. "Excuse me. I didn't say I was ungrateful. I said that I was at my wit's end because my child keeps throwing food on the floor. Do you have any useful suggestions?" Reframe the conversation away from shaming you. Because you do not need that garbage when you have a valid problem, and they should know better.

Gratitude can't be coerced out of you by someone else. Because that's not gratitude. That's guilt. Moms have enough of that to deal with as it is. We are made to feel bad because we breastfeed in public, or because we choose not to breastfeed at all; because we stay at home, or because we have a job; because we let our children walk to school unsupervised, or because we are helicopter parents. Society delivers us a lot of conflicting messages about motherhood except for one: mothers are expected to be damn near perfect. We're not. We're exactly the same person we were before we became mothers, only with less sleep and more laundry. There's no point in feeling ashamed of our humanity just because we produced some more of it. Do your best. Accept that some (many) days it won't be enough. Love them anyway. Love them ferociously. Forgive yourself. Forgive them too. Somewhere in the middle of all that, gratitude tends to take care of itself.

What if gratitude isn't taking care of itself? Ask for help from friends and family who don't discount your feelings. Tell your doctor and pediatrician. Be specific about what you need, and what you're worried about. There's a whole world-wide army of variously imperfect and yet awesomely capable and loving mothers out there who understand, whatever it is.

They are not the ones who will tell you to be grateful. They are the ones who will tell you to hang in there, and offer you the extra hand you need to do so. They are the fellow mothers you need in your life. They are the mothers you will be truly, truly grateful for. Without having to be told you should.