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5 Reasons Not to Feel Guilty

I'm an imperfect mother. Saying that feels revolutionary, somehow, although I have no trouble admitting I'm an imperfect wife or even an imperfect human being. But an imperfect mother -- who wouldn't be ashamed of herself?

Yet I'm about to confess the ways I fail to achieve perfection -- and I'm going to hold my head up the entire time.

I no longer feel guilty that...I bribe my kids
I don't remember who first told me that bribing your children is Bad, but I've since decided that person was insane.

Call it an incentive, or even a reward if it makes you feel any better, but bribery makes the world go round. If you study hard, you'll get to go to college. If you exercise, you'll get to eat dessert. If you use the potty, you'll get a sticker on your chart... The sooner kids grasp this basic concept, the happier their lives will be.

I've known bribery to work in all kinds of situations  -- from the chronic ("If you give up your pacifier, I'll buy you a new Hot Wheels") to the impulsive ("If you stop climbing out of the grocery cart, you can pick a candy bar from aisle six"). A good incentive can also be a spur to action ("If you get out of the tub right now, we'll read two stories instead of one").

Just take care not to aim too high ("If you never whine again...") or promise too much ("...then Mommy will buy you a pony").

Fernanda Moore has written for New York magazine and The New York Times Magazine.

From messiness to the cold shoulder...

I no longer feel guilty that...my house is a mess
There's dog hair all over the living room, the clean laundry has been lying around the bedroom for so long that it's starting to look like dirty laundry, and the dirty clothes, tired of being neglected, just picked themselves up and marched off to the laundry room in a huff.

I'm not exaggerating. (Except about the dirty clothes. No matter how long I let them lie on the floor, they never do anything useful with themselves.)

I won't lie and say that the house is a disaster because I firmly believe it's more important to spend time with my kids than to clean my kitchen. No, it's messy because I don't like being the Clean House Harpy -- yelling at my sons when they tromp through the hall with their muddy shoes on, worrying over every stray crumb, or getting mad each time I see 9-year-old Zander's collection of baseball cards spread out on the living room floor.

In particularly self-justifying moments, I decide my dirty house is a feminist manifesto. After all, I'm the mother of two boys; heaven forbid they grow up thinking that bathrooms clean themselves or spend their formative years lolling on the sofa while a female -- me! -- vacuums under their feet. Besides, I figure I'm doing my future daughters-in-law a giant favor by setting the cleanliness bar so low.

Eventually, when the disorder really gets to me, I take a deep breath and clean up. It's such a novel event that the kids are happy to help -- even Thaddy, my 2-year-old, gets into the spirit when we set a timer for 20 minutes and crank up the tunes.

I no longer feel guilty that...I ignore my kids
Go to the playground and you're bound to see them: the involved moms (and, on Saturdays, the involved dads). They keep up a steady stream of encouraging chatter while they follow their kids around, taking turns on the slide and providing sound effects ("Wheeeee!") for the swings.

Now look more closely and you'll see me. I'm in the corner with a magazine, glancing up every few minutes at Thaddy (singing as he dumps buckets of sand) and Zander (racing around on his bike). If anyone bites the dust or climbs up so far he can't get down, I'm there in a second. Otherwise, they're on their own.

I ignore my kids at home, too. I'll still read to them whenever they want, or hunt for the exact piece their current construction project requires. I'm happy to look when they yell, "Look, Mom! Mom! Mom! Look!" (Okay, sometimes they'll get, "I'm trying to drive the car," uttered through clenched teeth, but that's understandable.)

I know children sometimes require your total attention, but I also know that even a toddler is capable of spending a quiet 15 minutes lining cars up while his mother reads. In the big picture, my kids and I putter along in the same house, often in the same room, but for the most part they have their activities and I have mine.

...to TV watching and non-family dinners

I no longer feel guilty that...my kids watch videos
Okay, I do feel marginally guilty when my kids watch videos. I've seen the way their eyes glaze over and their little mouths fall open as they stare blankly at the screen. I've suffered the horrible tantrums they throw when the video ends and I refuse them another. But how can I live my life without videos? Consider the facts:

Thaddy never naps for more than an hour, and I'm at home with him all day, every day. So if I happen to feel like tending to basic personal hygiene or loading the dishwasher without someone taking all the silverware out and dumping it into the dog's water dish, how can I do it without videos?

Perhaps it would be better to say this -- I no longer feel guilty about videos as long as I remind myself that:

  • some days my kids don't watch any videos (and I don't shower...I'm not perfect, remember?)
  • some days they watch just a short one
  • rarely (and only as a huge treat) do they get to watch a feature-length movie
  • persistent whining means I pull the plug entirely for a while

And since we cancelled our cable months ago, my kids don't watch any TV, except for PBS, which means they never see ads for junk food or trashy toys or terrifying PG-13-rated movies. Actually, if you look at it that way, I should feel virtuous for pushing videos, right?

I no longer feel guilty that...we don't have family dinners
I'm fully aware that eating with your children -- as a family -- is supposed to be The Most Important Thing You Do Together.

In my house, here's what happens when we try to have meals together (and believe me, we've tried): First, my husband calls to say he'll be home late. Then the kids fall on the kitchen floor clutching their stomachs because they're so hungry they can't wait anymore. That's when I give them peanut butter sandwiches.

Then my husband arrives, and even if he'd prefer to unwind for a moment, we rush to the table because everyone is starving (well, I am). The kids, it turns out, aren't hungry any more and start spilling their milk and kicking each other and interrupting to complain that they already ate and why do they have to stay at the table? Finally, one of us snaps, sends the kids to watch a video (see #4), and as we're clearing the dishes, my husband and I wonder why on earth we can't manage happy family dinners like every other household in the world.

And here's what happens when we don't eat together: I sit and snack with the kids while they eat, then my husband (who's grabbed a late lunch on purpose) comes home. One of us manages bath time while the other cooks.

When the kids are down, we set the table for two. We light a candle. We open a bottle of wine. No one falls off his chair pretend-gagging at the smell of the mushroom risotto. No one interrupts or practices belching on demand. For me -- at home all day -- it's an oasis of adult conversation. And for my husband -- who often gets two cranky children flung at him the moment he gets home -- it's a chance to savor domestic peace. For both of us, it's paradise.

Inconvenient though it may be, I still believe enough in the concept to attempt family dinners on weekends and vacations and whenever we have the stamina. And as my kids grow up, I'm sure mealtimes will become easier. But by then I intend to have found at least two more reasons why I'm not a perfect mother -- and a whole host of reasons why that's just fine with me.

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