When I first started out on my parenting adventure, insecurity and fear of judgment threatened to overwhelm me. At times, my fears of what others would think of my parenting outweighed how I felt about my abilities and dampened the enjoyment of being a mother.
I was careful to display an outward image of perfect parenting: clean, organized house, respectful kids who remained calm in public places, tiny adults who could display their learning when prompted.
I spent my days building up that image. I scrubbed dirty faces so that a clean child would be presented at all times, organized closets in order to make it appear my life was in order, and taught manners so my children wouldn’t embarrass me in public.
It could be said I spent more time perpetuating the illusion than I did actually enjoying my children.
One summer day, I took my kids to the Phoenix Zoo. A lion named Kitambi lives there and lies in the sun all day. He occasionally lifts his 300-pound body to switch positions, and his two-foot tail will swish and flick at a fly once and a while. But if you blink, you’ll miss it. Otherwise, he is motionless, unchanging.
Zoo-goers shout at him all day. Every. Single. Day. He might as well be dead for the reaction he shows them. Their words and taunts don’t initiate any response.
Why did I care so much what other people thought of me as mother? What instinct causes us to be so motivated by others’ views? Are we like lambs following the flock, no matter if a situation is not right or even dangerous for us?
Why couldn’t I be more like Kitambi, who couldn’t be bothered to give a fuck what other people shouted at him, who didn’t rise to their expectations of what he should be doing to please them?
After our visit to the zoo, I thought about Kitambi. I thought about what it might look like if I decided to go against the usual flock of sheep, fight my instincts to please others (who might never be capable of pleasing anyway). Wasn’t that the real problem? People pleasing is like trying to motivate Kitambi to stand on his hind legs like a circus lion – never gonna happen.
Here’s an example: My mother isn’t satisfied unless I am a successful working mother. My mother-in-law believes any mother who could leave her children to go to work is no mother at all. So who is right? Which ram do I follow? Or do I become my own animal and lay in the sun all day, flicking my tail at the irritants that might bug me?
I went back to the zoo. I expected Kitambi to be lying about in the sun, business as usual. A large crowd had gathered around his enclosure. He was standing tall, his russet mane radiant in the sunshine streaming through the cage, dappling his fur with both light and shadow. I watched for a moment and was pleasantly startled when Kitambi threw back his head and let out a roar.
My mother-in-law and I fought recently. She told me, “You don’t love your children. If you did, you couldn’t leave them at daycare all day while you go to work.”
I no longer give a fuck what others think of my parenting. I flick my middle finger at disapproval. I enjoy spending time with my children, not cultivating them.
So when my mother-in-law made her inane comments, I threw back my head and roared.