Tonight, about an hour after I told my husband all the reasons I felt like a shitty mother, I checked Facebook and saw that a friend of mine posted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt that said, “World’s Okayest Dad.” I laughed. Something about it broke my tension: being proud of one’s mediocrity, singing the praises of one’s absolute okayness. Okay, as in average, but okay also as in just fine. I need one of those shirts. “World’s Okayest Mom.” I feel like that’s about the highest accolades I deserve lately anyway.
This morning, Fiona’s two-year-old sister was shoveling yogurt into her mouth, so Fiona wanted to shovel yogurt into her mouth. (“Yogurt. Want,” she said on her talker.) I cringed. We were running late. To help Fiona feed herself yogurt, I need to hunch over her highchair, hold her hand, which is holding a spoon, help her dip the spoon into the yogurt, and help guide the spoon into her mouth. It’s a messy, time-consuming process, and most of the yogurt ends up in places other than inside her mouth. And within a half-minute, she’s sporting a white goatee like some kind of hipster Santa in miniature. Here’s a minor version:It was no different this morning. After a few spoonfuls, her chin and upper lip were dripping in white goop, triple the amount of the above picture. So I did what I’ve often done as a mother who has fed her kids: I wiped globs of yogurt off her chin and cheeks with the spoon.
But then I noticed that every other time I helped Fiona guide the yogurt-covered spoon to her mouth, she kept her mouth closed and smeared the spoon all over her lips, thus reinforcing the hipster Santa goatee I’d attempted to undue.
“Open your mouth,” I said, annoyed, because we didn’t have time for this impromptu feeding therapy session.
When she continued to close her mouth at the spoon, I thought she was either being difficult or absent-minded. “Open your mouth, Fiona!” I said in a tight voice, checking the clock over my shoulder, doing the mental math of how we’d get out the door in time.
It eventually dawned on me: She was mimicking my face-cleaning method. She thought wiping a spoon all over her yogurt-smeared face was part of the self-feeding process.
If I were a real feeding therapist, I probably would have foreseen this one. Fiona’s occupational therapist, as far as I know, does not wipe Fiona’s face off with a spoon in between bites. But I am not a real feeding therapist. I’m just a mom who’s had a thousand crash courses on I think six different kinds of therapy, feeding being only one.
My revelation didn’t increase my patience. Hunched over, my back was getting sore. My hands were getting sticky and tired from guiding this fine motor work. My kid’s face and hands and bib were soaked in yogurt, and I was frustrated and short with Fiona because we had somewhere to be in thirty minutes, and I hadn’t washed my face or brushed my teeth, and Fiona’s sister was still in her pajamas. And instead of tending to any of this, I was being a therapist to my kid.
More than I realize, I’m a therapist to my kid. So is my husband. “Fix your legs,” we say every twenty seconds, because every twenty seconds Fiona sits in a W-shape, knees bent and legs splayed out, which I’m told by therapists is like the partially hydrogenated oil of sitting positions—in other words, really bad for you. So in the middle of my husband and my conversations, or in the middle of one of us cooking dinner or reading Once Upon a Potty aloud, or in the middle of absolutely anything, someone calls out, “Fix your legs, Fi.” And she usually complies. She takes one leg and brings it forward, then bends it the other way. Ten seconds later, she shifts and ends up in the same W-position. Fix your legs, Fi.
And then there’s the talker. To teach Fiona how to use her talker, I need to constantly model it. “There’s no school tomorrow,” I told Fiona the other day during lunch, and then I realized I should really be using her talker, that not using her talker is the equivalent of not using a language she can actually speak. And so I put down my fork and leaned across the table and craned my neck around to get a view of the talker’s screen, which was positioned for her easy access, and I hunted for the right words. Slowly, I pecked: “There. No. School. Tomorrow.” Then I resumed eating… until I thought of something else to say to her, and something else, and something else. When my brain was fried from hunting for words and my back ached from contorting my body, I just quit modeling altogether.
Truth be told, friends, I am a shitty speech therapist. I mean, if you paid me to teach your kid to use your talker, you would not be getting your money’s worth. You’d want someone with a graduate degree, someone who’s trained with professionals, someone who’s done more than read a bunch of articles on http://praacticalaac.org.
Likewise, I am a shitty physical therapist. I’m supposed to help Fiona get into standing position with minimal intervention, but I often lack the energy. I just grab her under the arms and lift her up to her feet. This is bad. This won’t help her body learn to get up off the floor on her own, which she currently can’t do, and which she needs constant practice to learn how to do.
I’m also a shitty feeding therapist. See above mistake with spoon-wiping method.
And all of this sometimes makes me feel like a shitty mother, especially lately, when my brain feels fried from the constant therapeutic attention and my patience is worn so thin there are holes. For an overachiever like me, parenting Fiona is a humbling experience. I fail. I fail all the time.
My husband, who’s an Episcopal priest, just returned from a week-long intensive retreat, where participants awoke at three AM and meditated, prayed, and chanted for thirteen hours a day. They slept a maximum of five hours each night. As a former monk, this is his kind of thing. He says there’s no such thing as succeeding in a training period so intense. Everyone at some point will fail.
Here’s Justin on the subject: “One of the wisdoms of this kind of intensive retreat is that no one succeeds. There’s no time and energy for performing something well. Or perfectly. There can be no performance because your life is just too humbled by the sheer difficulty. You just have to bring so much of your focus and your attention to the practice itself. In order to just even get through any of it. To actually pray it, I mean, you’re constantly trying at a hundred percent, and your hundred percent is constantly failing.”
As I sat on the couch and transcribed his explanation, I nodded in understanding. I heard in his words my life as Fiona’s mother. I am indeed humbled by the sheer difficulty. There is no chance for me to be anywhere near perfect. It’s simply too hard. And there is no energy for performance. At the library, Fiona shouts because she wants something I haven’t given her, and when I give it to her—a marker—she needs my help to get the cap off, so she shouts some more, and once I get the cap off, she holds it a second and then drops it on the carpet and cries out, pointing at another marker she wants, and I scramble to get the dropped marker before it stains the carpet while also making sure she doesn’t fall off the chair she’s sitting on. I’m also simultaneously checking that her sister is okay and trying to hold a conversation with another mother. Add the talker to her mix, as I consider how I might model what Fiona could say in moments like these, and nothing about my mothering looks pretty. My hands are too full. I’m too frazzled and haggard and sweaty. If ever I wanted to perform, to play the good and successful Mom, I can’t. Forget the Mommy Wars; I don’t even have the energy to show up for my uniform. Instead, I’m stripped down, made raw, forced to cast out any of my own bullshit and admit: I will constantly try at a hundred percent, and I will constantly fail.
I asked Justin how a person who gives a hundred percent at his retreat can still fail.
“Because you’re trying as hard as you can to stay awake and pray at three in the morning or at two in the afternoon, but you’re dozing, at least the first couple days…. But you just keep on doing it, and it builds up…. At the end, you find out, [the practice] is not about succeeding at all. Your prayer is at a much deeper level than anything else you thought was success. You didn’t even know it.”
My love is at a much deeper level than anything else I thought was success. Over and over, I’ve learned and relearned this about Fiona: the point is not about success. She might never be able to feed herself yogurt alone. Likewise, she might never be able to fully express herself with her talker. I will try with all my might to enable her to do so, and I very well could fail. I’ll never be able to do all the therapies with her all the time. I’ll crash. I’ll doze. I’ll go numb some days and stare out the window as she cries out for me. Her needs will push me to the edge and over, again and again, and I’ll take a break and then climb back up. There is no way to be perfect here. I need to remember this.
In the meantime, I need to get me a “World’s Okayest Mom” T-shirt.