I made a great many resolutions when my children were born. Some were vague, if heartfelt: I'll take good care of you; I will keep you safe. Some were specific: I'll breastfeed you for at least six months; I'll never hit you. It was a momentous turning point, the birth of a child, filled with pain and emotion. It was a date to remember forever. And so, of course, it was a time for resolutions.
There seems to be some very basic primal need to mark important dates by making resolutions. I've been greeting the first day of this or the first day of that with a list of ways to better myself for as long as I can remember. Starting with the first day of the new semester, I will stop procrastinating. Starting with the first day of the new job, I will be organized. Starting on my birthday, I will answer all my e-mail promptly. Starting on virtually any landmark day you can think of (the Fourth of July, the day after Thanksgiving), I will exercise regularly and eat a much healthier diet.
And yes, I have accumulated quite a pile of failed and repeated resolutions (I have been resolving to stop procrastinating since high school, which means that I have now successfully put it off for decades). But I keep making them, and I wouldn't want to give up the practice. It suggests that change for the better really is possible and that today could be the first day of a new, improved me. Or maybe tomorrow.
But having a child was different. Becoming someone's mother meant that my role in the world had changed—I wasn't just the same old me trying to be a new, improved version. I was a mother, really and truly and forever, and the question was, what kind of person, what kind of mother, would be reflected in my child's eyes?
Trying to do better
You understand, of course, what a terrible irony this is: There I was, making resolutions about trying to live my life in a better, saner, healthier way at the same moment that my infant was plunging me into the hormonally inflected chaos that is life with a new baby. I am not sure it was really the moment for good resolutions.
I wanted an orderly home, for one. It felt all wrong to me to see a baby living like a graduate student. You know, parents sleeping on a futon that gets folded up into a couch in the morning, books spilling out of the cinder-blocks-and-board bookcases. Of course, when my first baby was born, my husband and I were graduate students. But I wanted desperately to outgrow my habits, my apartment and my budget—and until I could, I wanted to keep what we did have perfectly tended. Instead, the mess got worse and worse, as the baby paraphernalia mixed in with our books and our piles of papers. We're not graduate students anymore, and we have real bookcases now, but my domesticity is no more orderly than it ever was.
My attempts to eat more healthfully haven't fared much better. And, unfortunately, this is a resolution that only gets more complicated and competitive as time goes on. Somewhere, there is the mother who has looked at another mother's playground snacks and said something spiteful about their glycemic index. (Shame on you, and may your child be the one caught sneaking Mallomars into the sugar-free preschool!)
But we all know, don't we, that if we want our children to grow up enjoying healthy food, we need to enjoy it ourselves. It's from watching Mom and Dad eagerly munching on broccoli that children get the idea that vegetables are yummy. No fair dishing out the all-organic, chemical-free pureed fruits and then calling out for a pepperoni pizza as soon as the nursery light is off.
I have made this we-will-all-eat-healthy-food resolution so many times that I may be in the running for a lifetime nonachievement award. And still, something in me wants to say that as of the first of the month, it's going to be all farmers-market produce and whole-grain goodness here—and the terrible thing is, some little part of me believes it.
Even more important, I want my children to think I'm good. And not just a good mother, but that I'm honest and honorable and that the world is better off for my being in it. So I do the usual things—if someone gives me too much change, I return the extra money. I give more to charity than I used to, and I talk with my three kids about where I want my money to go, and why.
It's easy to laugh at parents who suddenly acquire new virtues as their children grow: the people who never particularly cared about the homeless before, for example, but are now busy doing parent-child food drives. Or how about all those nonreligious parents who find themselves joining up because the child should be raised with Sunday school or Hebrew school? It's easy to giggle, easy to warn that children are disconcertingly good at seeing right through their parents; you have to do the thing sincerely, or you might as well not bother.
But most of those parents are doing the thing sincerely. You generally don't put yourself and your child through some charitable paces in order to win cosmic-parent brownie points; you do it because you are quite genuinely interested in becoming that more involved, more charitable person yourself—and bringing your child along with you. And it's not just that you want your child to admire you—there's something about motherhood that brings out the desire to actually be admirable.
See, I used to think that the moral here was that I tried to be a better person when my children were born but that I'm still the same old less-than-perfect me. This is true, in a way, but it's not the whole truth: Having children and being their mother has changed who I really am.
Maybe I first handed back the extra change to set a good example, but eventually I realized that I don't want to be the kind of person who takes advantage of someone's mistake. I don't give to charity just so I can tell my children that I give money, though I'm not above pointing out charitable morals. But the truth is, most of the time when I give to charity, I'm thinking about other mothers and their children, about people who are sick or in danger or scared, and I'm identifying in a direct and personal way that comes out of my experience as a mother. I feel more in common with people in very different circumstances, and I feel more obliged to try to help.
It was probably foolish to try to change myself by the force of resolution, however sincere the impulse. On the other hand, the experience of child rearing has brought a powerful day-by-day desire to do right by my children and also to help shape the world into a good place for them to live their lives. I didn't succeed in making myself over for their sakes, but perhaps they made me over a little bit for all our sakes. That may be, in the end, a better story and a more hopeful result.
Oh, and if you hear the doorbell, it's probably my pepperoni pizza. If you wouldn't mind clearing some of those piles of papers off the dining room table, we'll even have a place to set it down—just don't trip over all the books on the floor. And starting tomorrow, I'm going to get all those papers sorted and filed, and I'm donating a couple hundred of those overflow books to some deserving charity.
That way, when tomorrow night's supper is ready, we'll have a place to serve the tofu burgers, the steamed broccoli and the whole-grain pilaf. Meanwhile, has anyone seen the Mallomars?
Perri Klass, M.D., is a pediatrician and the author of several books, including Treatment Kind and Fair: Letters to a Young Doctor.