My sister once referred to parenting as a daily science experiment. I am terrible at science. I think that equates to further confirmation that I am a terrible parent.
If you had asked me six years ago, I would have expressed some confidence that I would make a decent mother. I was the clucking hen personified. I already had firm views on schedules (institute them), discipline (consistently) and strollers (should not cost more than a motorized vehicle). As long as my child napped well and understood the phrase “watch your attitude,” I thought I’d have my bases covered.
Then I took my months-old daughter to Central Park on a summer day and watched her develop a heat rash, which I interpreted as her forehead’s way of telling me that I was killing her.
Then I took her to parks with sandboxes so I could playfully contain her while I responded to emails on my Blackberry.
Then I had a son who knows that sometimes I can’t pick him up from day care because I “go to a MEE-ting.”
It was not until I became a parent that I understood how many ways there are to fail as a parent. It was not until I became a parent that I understood there is no one right answer to parenting. It was not until I became a parent that I understood that parenting, much like every science class I ever sat through, is really hard.
There is a special set of challenges for mothers who also work outside the home, but they are not greater or lesser than those challenges a stay-at-home mother faces. They’re just different, in the same way there are different challenges for women who become mothers in their 20s and those who do in their 40s.
Oceans of ink have been spilled taking sides in the stay-at-home versus working mother debate. I find the debate itself misguided. Fighting for a prize that doesn’t exist is a waste of energy. We’re all tired enough already.
Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow took it one step further, drawing lines among which working mothers had it tougher. According to her, working mothers with “regular jobs” have it easier than actresses who go on set “for two weeks.” I am an even lesser fan of her soap box.
One aspect of my dislike is the tone-deafness ringing in her comment. Paltrow’s oldest child was born in 2004. Since then, her busiest year as an actress summoned to movie sets included three feature films. Most years, she clocks in at one. Her net worth is somewhere in the dozens of millions of dollars. I RSVP’d “no” to her pity party, and impulsively settled into my righteous indignation. How could that woman think the luxuries of her life do not compensate for the difficulties of a foreign hair-and-makeup station?
My routine, which she pretends to envy, depends upon me making every waking moment count, from school-lunch packing to conference-call leading to laundry folding. She can order out, hire out, call out, and work out with no thought to expense; I worry if I buy my coffee from Starbucks more than twice a week. Still think it’s all sunshine and Mary Poppins over here, Paltrow?
But then my purer distaste sets in. Paltrow’s statement evidences no understanding of, much less empathy for, us working mothers with “regular jobs.” What’s more, it exposes her as endorsing the idea that motherhood is some competition to crown the greatest martyr.
And so I take my hands off my hips, and I stop looking for a choir to preach to. I will not judge Paltrow by her insensitive comment. I will not use her to try to make myself look more heroic. Beyond the impulse I initially succumbed to, I will not take the bait she cast.
Instead, I will extend to her the courtesy she didn’t extend to all the regular working moms. I will look at her not as someone deserving my snark, but as someone deserving my compassion. I know Paltrow is just trying to do her best, while making mistakes along the way.
Just like me.