| Words Unspoken |

Dear Neighbor

So began my journey of discovering just how high I rate on the parenting bar

Dear Neighbor,

This letter comes to express my gratitude to you for giving me a fresh perspective on parenting. I doubt I’d be where I am today without your expert advice.

Before I moved into my present house, I considered myself to be a fairly competent mother. Sometimes, on rare days of peace and tranquility, I even congratulated myself on being an outstanding mother.

Until you came along. After I moved, I quickly learned who the parenting authority on this block was.

“Your child is running down the block,” you informed me crisply one afternoon. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’s way too young to be left alone like that.”

“I… um… which child?” I asked, dropping my baby into his carriage, and getting ready to run.

“I don’t know which one,” you said disapprovingly. “That’s something you should know.”

So began my journey of discovering just how high I rate on the parenting bar. The rating isn’t in my favor. The truth is hard to bear.

Your advice is always said with much commiseration and pity. It must be hard for you to see a person being so reckless with her kids.

You can never figure out which parenting method I’m using. The truth is, I, too, am mystified. I’ve done my fair share of taking parenting classes and attending parenting lectures. Yet when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of daily routine, it’s almost impossible for me to implement the instructions I was taught.

The 1-2-3 method sounded so glorious and child-friendly on the phone, yet in real life, my kids don’t react the way they’re supposed to. I feel like a lone actress acting her part, while my kids totally disregard their lines and ad-lib new ones.

My audience (you) isn’t too impressed when that happens. Instead of encores, I see your reproachful glances. You wonder out loud what’s wrong with today’s mothers.

I want to protest, “It’s not my fault! I said the right lines, they made up new ones!”

One memorable incident stands out in my mind. I was loading my kids into the car, and saw you coming down the street. I was actually pleased to see you coming. I thought this time, for once, you’ll approve.

I’d carried out all the safety rules and regulations, plus some. I was feeling rather smug at my patience and competence. The two younger kids were safely strapped into their car seats, and my two older ones were sitting serenely with their seat belts fastened. I’d given all the kids a nosh to keep them calm, and my baby was contentedly drinking his bottle. It was a picture-perfect moment.

I waited to hear your praise. It never came.

“Rule number one when traveling with young kids is never to give them nosh so early on,” you gravely informed me.

“Rule number two: You must never allow the baby to drink a bottle on her own.

“Rule number three: Your kids should never sit so close together, they’ll fight the entire way.”

I don’t remember what the next few rules were, although I’m sure they were very crucial and fundamental.

I’m equally sure you’ll remind me again next time.

This incident sticks in my mind because that was the day I realized I can never get it right. No matter how much I try, I can never be the Perfect Mother.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter of gratitude. You can’t imagine how liberating my life has become. I stopped aspiring for the title of Perfect Mother, and allow myself to be content with what I am. I no longer cringe when you inform me of my shortcomings. I have surrendered to the reality that I’m just not cut out to be Mom of the Year.

My kids do not go to school bearing homemade smoothies and peppers cut up in the shape of a smiley. They go with peanut butter stains on their clothing and store-bought cookies in their pockets. They do not wear matching outfits every day, one set per season is more than enough.

My kids are very talented and express their creativity in rather unconventional methods. They know how to escape my notice and run down the block when I’m distracted, and how to best dribble ice cream on the floor so it covers the maximum surface area possible. They use play dough to decorate my steps, and are filled with glee when their shoe bottoms get covered with it.

They use shaving cream to add pattern to the floor, and black pens to outline their fingerprints on the wall for posterity.

They help me out with chores by washing the dishes with an entire bottle of soap, and then they make bubbles with the remaining water. They think cheese was created so they can crumble it into teeny little pieces and use it to create a picture on the kitchen table. They use grapes for sensory purposes.

Before I decided to drop out of the race, I tried to change them.

I made charts for good behavior and bought motivational prizes. I tried to channel their enthusiasm into constructive learning habits, but alas, it was not meant to be.

These days, thanks to you, I’m a new person. I sit outside with my kids, ambition-free. I note your disbelief at my ignorance. I try to be polite when you tactfully prod me to be a superior mother. But I must tell you that you’re wasting your time. I’ve officially left the race. I am no longer struggling to achieve the highest grade in parenting.

Back in the day, you had to just take one hard look at my kids, and I’d jump into action. I’d rush to stop their fights, and try to pretend I had it all together. It never worked. By the time I had finished settling the matter of whose turn it was to hold the doll, my kids had found something new to quarrel about.

These days, unless a kid’s safety is at stake, I allow them to fight and shriek to their hearts’ content. I just sit there with my ice coffee and relax. In the grand scheme of life, this fight will teach them to negotiate better. Even if it doesn’t, at least they’re not whining that they’re bored.

I know you don’t approve of my new laid-back parenting method. I know this because you tell it to me, every day. You try to explain to me the diverse methods I can use to get them to stop fighting and start sharing like siblings are supposed to do. You have advice on how to calm my fussy baby, which involves stuff such as going off my ice coffee and chocolate diet.

You inform me of the importance of leading by example when I try to persuade my kids to eat supper. When your kids were younger, you never had to bribe them with promises of good night stories. You just ate the chicken bottom with brown rice and they dutifully followed suit. Your kids would sit on the couch and read educational books every night. My kids prefer ripping them.

I once tried following your advice of never repeating myself twice, but the attempt failed miserably. They did not listen to me the first time and I did not repeat myself. The end result was a house that almost went up in flames, and a dejected mother who wondered what was wrong with her kids.

You may be wondering why I’m writing to you just now. Coronavirus has changed our world in many different ways. For me, it meant my kids were home all day, 24/7, without a minute’s break.

If I’d been the Struggling Mother that I was before I met you, I wouldn’t have survived this period. I would have been busy creating schedules and lessons and, knowing my kids, the attempt would have backfired terribly.

Thankfully, you set me straight a year ago. Nowadays, I let my kids draw masterpieces on the walls, and hide in my bedroom when they raid the nosh closet. In fact, I even hand them items from the house with orders to reconstruct them. My kids had the time of their life, and I hope they’ll look back one day with fond memories of this experience.

As a token of my gratitude, I’ll now share with you some of my feedback: I do not want to hear from you how to be an outstanding mother. I’m content to be what I am. If it’s hard for you to watch me surrender like this, please remember that these are my kids and my life choices.

With thanks for your understanding,

Your Neighbor

(the one who allows her kids to run around with mismatched outfits and torn pants)

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 711)

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