On one weekday morning a few weeks back, Maybelle and I did what's typical for us. I gave her some alone time to wake up. We had breakfast together — you don't even want to know what she eats. On our dry-erase board, I wrote her a description of her upcoming day with her help: "Good morning! Today is Wednesday. I am going to school. We will make Valentines." And then, amid this bit of downtime together, I looked at my watch and realized that the moment had passed. A mad dash to get cleaned up and dressed ensued. But we did it. I did it.
I almost always feel guilty that I'm failing as a mother. On one level, I know I'm being ridiculous since my daughter Maybelle is healthy and happy and all that good stuff. Which is why that voice of doubt is often very small and not particularly compelling. I have other voices, though, voices that are snarky or that express shock when I'm not pushing Maybelle to learn, to grow, to become the successful young woman I know she will one day be. They aren't rational, but they're effective because I inevitably listen to them and I do my best to achieve their scolding goals.
Still, I feel as if I'm not doing enough for my daughter. "God," I'll think, "she spends the day at school, 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., and by the time we get home, we're both exhausted. By 6:30, she's out. So I've got to work with her as soon as she gets home. Creativity! Reading! Singing songs!"
Too often, we take it easy when we get home. I take it easy. "She can watch TV, just tonight," I say. "Tomorrow, we'll do phonics. Tomorrow, we'll make a necklace. Tomorrow, we'll learn to spell."
Of course, I almost never do any of that stuff during the week. And with good reason, Monday through Friday, we're just worn out. She and I are both drifting, lucky just to be awake.
Weekends offer another kind of drifting. We have leisurely mornings where we wander in and out of each other's space. She hangs out with her iPad. She takes all her pom-poms — all 12 of them — onto the front porch. Then she'll decide to take them to the "trampoline," my bed. Then she and the 12 will go upstairs for some jumping. During those moments, I think, it's time to be a decent mother. It's time to quit playing. It's time to work, regardless of whether or not we're having fun.
To make matters worse, over the last few weeks, I've joined Maybelle on the porch or on the trampoline, and half the time Maybelle's just happy to be with me, but the other half of the time she says, "Bye bye, Mama," and opens the front door, urging me to head back into the house. "Inside. Thank you!" She closes it firmly behind me. I can't help but think that I've failed as a mother again.
However, last week a friend whose kids are older told me something I needed to hear. "You know," she said, "Maybelle's six. Six-year-olds are supposed to be wanting some alone time. They're supposed to be starting to have a life that's not governed by their mother at every second." She paused. "I think it's appropriate. She's doing what she's supposed to be doing. So your guilt really isn't appropriate at all."
I've written about motherhood several times, and this isn't the last you'll hear from me. Having just one kid, I find that I often don't even know what I might expect. My friends and I often have the same scornful voices, and it's our job to assure each other that this voice doesn't know what it's talking about. That reassurance is temporary, but it does help me find time to breathe.
Alison Piepmeier is the director of the College of Charleston's Women's and Gender Studies program.