Since my son Zander was born 11 years ago, I've talked to countless moms about the myriad ways kids have altered our lives. Most of the time, we agree, motherhood is pretty wonderful -- yet, truth be told, taking care of kids can get even the best of us down. What the experts don't tell you, and what other moms are sometimes loath to admit, is that there are a few dirty little secrets involved in child rearing. In the interest of full disclosure, I've listed some of the very dirtiest -- and how to come clean with them so that they lose their power.
If you have more than one child, you'll probably have a favorite.
"I'm blown away by how adorable one of my kids is these days," I recently confessed to my friends Jenn and Kate. They smiled -- they're both moms of two -- so I went for broke. "The other one, however, is a total pain," I said. "Everything he does drives me nuts, and I can't wait to get away from him."
From the looks of horror on their faces, you'd think I'd just copped to infanticide. Jenn and Kate swore up and down that they loved their kids equally, and that even if one did happen to be a tiny bit cuter or more endearing once in a while, they'd never let their preferences show. Sure, they remembered how the first kid suddenly seemed gigantic and uncouth when they brought home the newborn sibling, and they even recalled the flashes of protective rage they'd felt when Thing One "accidentally" hugged Thing Two a little too hard, or worse. But this was normal -- all the books said so. Feeling a preference once the helpless-infant stage had passed? That seemed taboo.
Coming clean. Imagine you have two husbands. One sits in his underpants all day, scratching himself and drinking beer in front of the television. The other one brings you flowers, tells you you're beautiful and fascinating, and hangs on your every word. Which one would you want to sleep with?
Okay, it's not a perfect analogy, but you get my point. "I think it's crazy when moms don't admit they have favorites," says Beth Resweber, a mom of four who lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. "But it changes. At any given time, one of your kids is going to be stuck in some behavioral rut. My most colicky baby, who cried nonstop and needed tons more attention, now sets his own alarm, gets ready, and does homework more efficiently than anyone else. In the end, it all evens out."
Remember, family dynamics are meant to be plastic, and acknowledging that sometimes you simply mesh better with one kid than another can help you understand and tolerate the times your kids' own allegiances shift. "In any case, feeling fonder of one kid is always temporary," Resweber says. "My love for all of them is bottomless." And the silver lining? Going through a rough patch when you're not in sync with one of them can make the inevitable reunion with that child that much sweeter.
Raising kids gets much easier physically as they get older...but much harder mentally.
When my kids were tiny, there were times when all I wanted was enough space to take a shower, enough peace to eat a meal without interruption, and enough energy to make it through the day. But I took solace from friends with older kids (and from the soothing words of books and magazines), all of whom assured me I'd eventually make it out alive.
Imagine my chagrin when I found out that for every reason it's easier to parent a sixth-grader than an infant, there's an equal and opposite reason it's more difficult. Staggering around on three hours of sleep was hard, but at least I didn't have to think too much. Talking Zander down off a homework ledge (when I barely remember algebra), trying to figure out a tactful way to cope with an overbearing teacher, offering advice that isn't hopelessly lame when confronted with some social conundrum like not being invited to the cool kid's birthday party -- I'll take caring for a baby any day. And I'm not alone.
Coming clean. "My biggest mental challenge with my five-year-old is that I need to be more creative with everything," says Nikki Brooks, a mom of two who lives in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "When Kiersten was a baby and didn't want to do something, we were able to get her to do it anyway -- she didn't have the ability to negotiate! Now she stands her ground and has a few of her own beliefs, and it's a challenge to find a way to guide her in the right direction without smothering her independence." And now that Kiersten is in school -- riding the bus and spending most of her day with people her mom doesn't know -- Brooks has found that she's had to give up some control. "But when I see how happy she is getting off the bus, I know it's worth it," she says.
Taking care of kids actually isn't that hard. But it can make everything else in life nearly impossible.
I've never had a real job. Yes, I've written articles and taught a few classes since Zander was born, but I've never had what one could call a career. So I can only speak for myself when I say the following: While I wouldn't have wanted to spend the past 11 years doing anything besides raising my two sons, it hasn't exactly felt as if I were running the World Bank. I mean, how demanding is it to read Frog and Toad for the umpteenth time, or to push somebody over and over on the swing? In my experience, caring for my kids has turned out to be something I can do with plenty of time left to goof around in a low-grade way -- in other words, it's a slacker paradise. As Dave Barry once quipped, taking care of children is laughably easy, provided you don't try to do anything else. (That's why I give kudos to moms who work -- at home or outside of it.)
Dave Barry is, as usual, exactly on target. "When you're doing the laundry, your kid will always find some little game that fascinates him," says Julia Steury, Minneapolis mom to Patrick, 5, and 8-month-old twins Caroline and Edward. However, the minute you're seduced by his self-sufficiency and sneak off, he'll burst into flames of burning, immediate need.
Coming clean. "I used to get frustrated," Steury says. "Then I realized I absolutely had to compartmentalize my time." So if your kid is napping, or mesmerized by a DVD, seize the moment aggressively, says Steury, who blogs in her free time. Whenever you can, don't waste valuable solo time on chores or errands. In my house, naps and the post-bedtime hours are chore-free zones: I write, read, or just catch up on e-mails.
Once I embrace my inner Dave Barry, and stop expecting to accomplish things when my kids are lurking, needily, in the background, I'm much happier. You can also split the difference, says Steury. "When Patrick is doing a craft at the kitchen table, for instance, and I know he'll need me every two seconds, I unload the dishwasher. Patrick doesn't need my full attention, but neither does the dishwasher, so things get done and everyone's happy."
Your child might not turn out the way you want her to.
"My dirty little secret is that I expected my daughter to be just like me," confesses Sarah, who doesn't want to reveal her last name or where she's from. "I did well in school, I was athletic, and I always stayed thin. My daughter, who's eight, is just the opposite -- she hates school, hates sports, and is a bit heavy."
Babies are all possibility. Older kids, on the other hand, can be rude, uncooperative, bratty, self- involved...the list goes on and on. When your child stands up and toddles away from you, she turns into a person, and people can be complicated and upsetting.
Whether it's a secret hope that our child will excel at gymnastics, or simply a fond desire that she'll love the same things we enjoyed at her age, we often assume our kids will mimic our values, our desires, our talents. After the initial surprise -- where did she come from? -- darker feelings can follow. "I secretly think, 'Why couldn't she be more like I was at her age?' And then I feel so guilty," says Sarah.
Coming clean. "I have to remind myself that I love my daughter first and foremost, and that she is who she is -- she's not a reflection of me," says Sarah. Venting to a selective audience also helps. Though she never confesses her negative feelings about her daughter to her husband or other family members, "I'm lucky to have two very close friends whom I can talk to about everything, and they're great. I even saw a therapist about it, and she said something that shocked me -- that it's okay to hate your kids sometimes so long as you always love them."
Sarah says she felt much better after her therapist gave her "permission to feel the way I was feeling." While she's had to accept that her daughter will never be, say, a star soccer player, "she's a whiz at computers." When she shows her daughter she's proud of her -- and rewards her for progress in school instead of holding her to unrealistic standards -- "our relationship improves, and I feel much better."
We don't choose our kids -- they are who they are. Coming to terms with this really does make us not only better parents but better people as well.
Fernanda Moore, a frequent contributor to Parenting, has also written for New York magazine.