Many people use the time of Lent to give things up, things upon which they are unhealthily dependent, as a way of investigating the hold those things have over them. This year, some friends gave up drinking to investigate how reliant they are on beer as a social lubricant; others gave up not drinking, to investigate the ways they might be holding back from social situations. People give up social media, or even all electronic devices altogether, and kids often give up chocolate, or a particular game or toy.
Me, I'm not giving up any of those things. I might need these props to help me challenge the one thing I am trying to tackle head-on, with, it must be said, no expectation of success. But perhaps there is dignity in the attempt!
This Lent, I'm trying to give up Mrs Perfect. She's not easy to give up; in fact, I've been trying to silence her for years. But in these next few weeks I am putting some serious energy into naming and shaming her.
She's the sanctimonious voice that whispers, 'A real mother wouldn't have done that', or 'If you were a better person, then....'. She's the one who tells me a hundred times a day, in a hundred different ways, that I'm not good enough, never have been, never will be. And it's more than time that she went to hell.
These are some of the things she says, and which I struggle to deny:
You're not a naturally maternal type. It's true that I'm no earth mother goddess. I don't breastfeed my kids past six months, I don't make my own yoghurt, I don't bother with a highly charged tantric sexual practice with my husband, I don't home birth, I don't knit, and I use the public education system. Worse, I'm shy around strange kids, I'm scared of kids in groups, and it takes me time to get to know them.
But what exactly is a 'naturally maternal type'? I have given birth to three children, with very little intervention. I have raised them as best I can in a relatively clean and loving home. I have cared for five other little kids while their mothers went back to work; and I am about to be trusted with a sixth. I spend hours every week with kids – kids in the classroom, kids in the schoolyard, kids in the playground – and the ones I know smile when they see me and tell me their stories. Their friends come over and introduce themselves and have a conversation too.
Mrs Perfect, I don't know what you're talking about. You're a silly old bitch.
If you're not going to be an earth mother goddess, you could at least work. By that, she means I should be back in paid employment and building a career. Her comment stings, because at one level I think I want a career, and yet my actions show me I don't. If I pause for a moment and reflect, it's clear why not. On the one hand, I can't stand to leave my pre-school kids in childcare, or even for very many hours at a time, with anyone except my husband; and on the other, I had perhaps fifteen jobs before having kids, and I pretty much hated every single one of them. Sitting at a desk and doing repetitive tasks in an air conditioned office turns me toxic. I hate phones, I hate politics, I hate work clothes, I hate commuting... enough said.
On a bad day at home with kids, a grindingly repetitive task can make me cry. But at home at least I can weep with frustration and let those healing tears do their job; at work, the emotion turns inward and sour. So no, Mrs Perfect, I won't go back to crappy paid employment unless I absolutely have to. In any case, what, exactly, is work? I run a household, garden, cook and clean, I read with kids and I write. Couldn't that be enough?
But if you were really serious about writing, you'd have written a book by now. Perhaps, I say, but I haven't. I've slowly written the equivalent of a book, but instead of having generated a great burden of hope, a mass of paper which bounces from rejection to rejection, I've put things up on the blog and had some fun with it.
That writing is pointless, says Mrs P about a thousand times a day.
I certainly have times when I can only see the flaws, hate what I write, and despise myself for having written it. Habits of self-loathing runs deep. But I write in faith, which is not a feeling but an attitude. With that attitude, I write the best I can about what is most pressing at that moment, then set the words free. It doesn't matter how I feel about myself that day. Someone somewhere may find my words useful; and I write in faith that they will.
That's all very well, but you're terribly lazy. Well yes, that may be true. For example, my father is picking up the older girls from school and staying for dinner. I'm not planning much, just half a quiche leftover from last night and a couple of salads. I will fret about this decision all day, and feel guilty that I'm not cooking up a storm; but the food is there, and it is very good, and in any case I'll probably bake something for afternoon tea.
Apart from failing to cook a three course dinner, the floor needs a mop, the toilet a scrub, and here I am writing. Perhaps I am lazy, but the writing exhausts me – and yet, for all its exhausting pointlessness, it feels too necessary to ignore it and scrub the toilet instead. When I'm finished writing, I'll sit in a chair for ten minutes before the after school onslaught begins. Better a dirty floor than to make myself so tired that I scream the kids to bed.
Speaking of that laziness, you're still carrying the baby weight. Well, it bugs me too, but it's time to get over it. I've had three kids; I'm hardly going to look like I'm eighteen. Anyway, when I was eighteen I was miserable and fat. I don't have a nanny or a personal trainer and, like so many adults who spend their lives hanging around little kids, I keep getting sick. Every time I get into an exercise routine, I catch another cold or bout of gastro, and that's it for a couple of weeks. You may remember, Mrs P, that I was up until one last night hacking away with my latest chesty cough?
Anyway, I suspect my kids think my soft breasts and tummy make for nicer cuddles. So there, Mrs P, you scrawny old prune.
Observation: Every morning and afternoon, my two year old runs into the schoolyard and throws her arms around first one mother, then another, then perhaps a child she is particularly fond of. A wildly confident passionately loving child like this does not come out of a terrible home.
Conclusion: My parenting is good enough. There is always room for improvement, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to that sly voice which tells me every hour of every day that everything I do is flawed.
Conclusion: Mrs Perfect can go to hell.