Keeping Perspective | Ways to Find Success as a Stay-at-Home Mom
As a follow up to our post about work-life balance for working moms, this week we focus on the other unsung hero in our world of mamas: the stay-at-home mom. We look to our very first guest writer, Shannon Astheimer, to rain down the knowledge on how to remind yourself you’re doing a good job staying home with your kids, when most of the time you feel the exact opposite.
Shannon and her husband live outside of Philadelphia with their two kids—F (3 going on 27) and R (1)—and their 23-toed cat, Sam. She throws a mean dance party and is trying to delay getting a dog. She misses the Midwest, where she grew up, and spends much time over the summer searching for a great county fair.
I had an angel come into my life yesterday at Target. My three-year-old daughter—who was sitting in the large part of the cart—stood up and refused to sit back down. So, I stopped the cart and told her I wasn’t going to move until she sat back down. We waited. And waited.
A woman walked past, and my daughter—as she does—started up a conversation with her. After they chatted for a few minutes, she still refused to sit. I told my daughter every few minutes that we were stuck until she sat down and that I hoped I would remember all of the fun things we were supposed to get by the time she sat. Finally, she sat and we were able to get on with the hunt for paper towels and cat litter. I saw the woman as we moved, and she gave me a thumbs-up and a big smile. I smiled back because I was relieved that I didn’t have to cause a scene and be that mom in the middle of the seltzer water aisle.
A few minutes later, in a completely different part of the store, the same woman suddenly came tearing around the corner of the aisle saying she had been looking for me. I, of course, assumed my son had thrown something out of the cart or that my daughter had given her my wallet. She told me she just had to come and find me to tell me how great of a job I had done and that she was so proud of me. It took everything I had not to start sobbing with gratitude.
Her praise was effusive; she gave me a play by play of how well I handled it and how she could tell I was an amazing mom with really special kids. She opened up her new box of granola bars and gave me one. She told my kids that sometimes moms need special treats, too, and that I had earned it by being such a good mom. At this point, my insides were shaking with tears but my outsides were beaming with smiles and thank yous. The rest of the day I felt like I could tackle any mom challenge because this stranger had taken a moment of her day to give me feedback on something I worry endlessly about.
Before she came over, I didn’t feel like I had done a good job. I felt like I had done a bad job by raising a daughter who stood in her cart and refused to listen. I spent the whole time she stood there thinking of how I was going to reinforce good listening skills and talking myself through the frustration of my own inner temper tantrum. I found my mind filled with thoughts of, “Why isn’t this working?!”
But seeing the interchange through the eyes of a stranger made me feel like Super Mom and reminded me that this is, in fact, working. My daughter does test every boundary in her world, but she usually does settle on the right side of it when I am patient and she is guided. I would be lying if I said I always had the patience I had yesterday or that the constant battling doesn’t fray my nerves into making me think I’m perhaps approaching it all wrong.
Back in my employed days, I was able to see my successes and failures very clearly. I did high-level strategic work that impacted tens of thousands of people. I ran national programs and managed teams that ran national programs. I was often respected and people sought out my expertise. I felt qualified. On challenging days—of which there were many—I at least didn’t feel like I had shown up for the wrong job. I was able to finish a project and see that it had gone well before I moved on to finish the next project. At the same time, I was able to easily see when I wasn’t good and when I failed miserably. If I looked at my process or how things went wrong, I was usually able to identify the problem. Or, I was able to meet with a team of people to problem solve and come up with a constructive way to move forward.
These days the successes are sometimes not as evident during the temper tantrums and—as much as I have tried to teach her—my three year old just can’t get the hang of spreadsheets. Sometimes I think things are working and that I’m raising good human beings, and then my daughter slaps me across the face out of nowhere. I wonder why my son throws things when he gets frustrated and—because he isn’t using actual words yet—he just stares at me when I ask him why.
Because that’s the rub with spending all day with your kids: They very rarely give you feedback on you how you’re doing. And I constantly think I’m doing it badly. Or not enough. Or too much. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are pretty special and amazing and I am so lucky that I get to spend my weeks going on field trips and teaching them how fun science is with our kitchen counter science experiments. I would never change my choice to stay home and see the evolution of my two little monkeys. But it is so very easy to get bogged down by the constant learning curve of this wonderful job that I often forget to see the forest for the trees. Or the trees for the forest.
Sometimes I do see when I perform my job badly. I have my own temper tantrums when no one is listening or when I can’t seem to get anything done or when I have repeated myself one too many times for any sane person. I don’t always show the good behavior I preach. Then I kick myself when I see that same bad behavior two months later and I remember where my kids saw it.
Because the lessons I teach don’t always sink in right away. If they do, I am not always able to see it. When my daughter hits her brother, it certainly doesn’t look like anything I’ve taught. Or, when my son lays on the floor having an epic tantrum because I didn’t open his cheese stick fast enough, I am positive I didn’t tell him that’s the best way to handle his frustration. Throughout the constant din of talking, almost talking, Pandora Raffi stations, questions, questions, questions, and soothing, it is my job to help my children navigate their new and exciting worlds. When the noise and cacophony is overwhelming to me, I cannot imagine what it looks like to people at knee height. But I lose sight of that sometimes and only know that it feels like I’ve lost control.
When I was working, I found that I do well with straight lines and lists. These days I am learning to do well with finger paints and safety scissors. When it feels like my crew and I have hitting a boiling point, we stay in our jams all day (this is perhaps my favorite part), read lots of books, play with all of the toys, and watch Singing in the Rain. My own stay-at-home mother taught me about these time outs, and I find them to be incredibly good at recentering everyone.
My sister, who also stays at home with her kids, told me when I was pregnant that kids teach you to slow down and enjoy smaller things. I remembered that this week when my son beamed with pride after I was finally able to translate one of his words. For months he has been saying it to me and I would try lots of options or just look and listen, trying so hard to hear what he was telling me. When I figured it out, he clapped his hands and smiled so wide I thought his little ears would wrinkle. To me, that word was one of a thousand noises I hear all day. To him, that word was a breakthrough in communicating with his surroundings.
I am learning to adjust my measurement of success, and yesterday was a reminder that I need to continue adjusting. I sometimes forget that they—and I—will have missteps. On days when my daughter constantly challenges everything I do and say, it doesn’t mean she is incapable of doing what I have told her a thousand times. On days when I am not my best self or when I am overwhelmed with feeling like I’m teaching them all the wrong things, I try to remember that it doesn’t mean I am a mom overrun with shortcomings or that I’m in the wrong job.
It is often difficult to see the success through all the missteps, though. There are days when it feels like one long string of failures and at the end of those days I often find myself staring at the ceiling in near darkness, waiting for my son to wake up, thinking that I’m just not cut out for this. Maybe this isn’t my job after all. I worry after the 26th time in a day that I have to remind my daughter to say “please” that she will never say it on her own. Or when I go soothe my son for the second time in the middle of the night I worry I am failing to teach him how to sleep without me and that I will never get a full night of sleep again.
But then I see my daughter sitting next to the boy in swim class who has spent two weeks screaming in fear of the water and she has him howling with laughter. For just a moment, he became okay with the water because she was able to make him smile. I see my son attempting to feed leaves to the frog he has just found and I know he is going to be a nature-loving sweet soul. I feel so incredibly lucky that I am able to stay home with my kids and see these moments. The sound of a good tickle monster fight beats any of my kick-ass spreadsheets.
What my angel at Target reminded me of through my tear-soaked granola bar is that I need to do a better job of looking past the exhaustion, repetition, and isolation of this amazing job to see that these moments do happen every day if I look for them. It is up to me to recognize the magnitude of those moments, and I thank my angels along the way who help me to see them.