In search of lost competence, part 2

A Mother's Day flower -- they must think I'm doing something right

I have a mom friend, a former computer science professor (actually she did more than that but I don’t get it). As we suffered through rocky times with our kindergarteners, she noted that a bitter part of motherhood is the loss of competence.

She probably meant “perceived competence”, but that’s not what she said, and I think I can safely say for both of us, that is not how either of us felt.

Our children were healthy, growing and full of, ahem…”life”, but we felt we barely had a grip on anything, day after day after day. And I, at least, was whipping myself inside for it, desperately nervous about damaging my girls’ little lives.

I still worry about that. However,  I can also see more clearly what the kids bring to this party as individuals. How, even when I do parent excellently, their own personalities add to the mix in ways that I can’t control.

I’ve also realized I like my kids and can see they’re turning out ok, probably even more than ok. As I relax about my role in who they are becoming, I can feel a thin stream of overall competence beginning to flow. Or perhaps it’s always been there, but I’m noticing it now. I’m getting interested in helping it grow into a river.

The way it went down for me was that once I became a parent, I went back a blank slate of competence — whatever I’d mastered as a single woman was largely irrelevant. Just like the jokes about how they let you out of the hospital with no operating instructions for your newborn, perhaps there is no way to learn to run a home besides….running a home.

So I carried this sense of incompetent laboriousness for a long, long time. Like the whirlpool I’d plunge into over entertaining, I could swim in a bath of panic, distress, and resentment over almost anything. Whatever I’d picked was not good enough. Wide open and thin-skinned, everyone else’s choices seemed better than mine. Seeing other people’s tasteful napkin choices, hand-knitted baby hats or clean kitchen counter — anything could open an internal valve of worry

But, maybe now it’s that the worry has exhausted itself – it’s hard to muster up the energy to worry about doing anything better.

Maybe it’s that the girls are older and I have more room to organize my mind.

Maybe it’s that life is too full – it seems like the minute the girls got more independent, I had more to deal with, first the renovation, and now, trying to restart a career.

As a result, I’ve pretty much given up on many things, for example, masterminding sisterly bonding. I’ve decided they do really well on the whole, then bicker like an old married couple. I allow myself barge in (rather than guide them skillfully and subtly) when it turns nasty or when I’m tired.

Enticing setting up of exciting craft activities is off my plate. They know where the paints are, and by golly, they seem to find them without me!

This approach, I’m finding, frees up energy to actually do it better. My house is somewhat more organized than it was. I do more in a day, my exercise routine happens more often and I actually have set up a craft project or two.

Most interestingly, I can just feel little decisions that stymied me falling into place faster: “The blueberries tonight, not the raspberries, yes to cream, no to ice cream.” Done, no matter who’s whining next to me. The bigger ones are getting easier too. My inner dictator has taken hold: “Yes, go back to work. Yes, make this call now. No, that can be put off until next month and you may NOT think about it until then.”

Thank goodness, thank goodness, thank goodness. I don’t know if I could have kept going the way it was. Maybe that’s what has made the difference.

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4 Responses to In search of lost competence, part 2

  1. I think your absolutely right. It can seem difficult to allow them the space to guide their own projects and chores but the self-confidence it builds for them must be at times extraordinary. I find myself purposely trying to stop giving instructions (how many times do they really need to hear how to clean the toilet) and letting them figure it out. Yes, the towel won’t be folded exactly how I fold them but by god they took the laundry off the line and it got folded while I had one less thing to do! Nice post!

  2. growingmygirls says:

    Thanks Michael — you’re right. Watching the girls load the dishwasher is either a sketch, if I’m in a good mood, or a nailbiter, if I’m tired. Either way, after dinner has gotten a whole lot nicer. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. JK says:

    Dear Friend, Although I am not a parent, many of your ideas in this post have meaning for me, as they often do. This comment: ” I don’t know if I could have kept going the way it was. Maybe that’s what has made the difference.” is exactly what happened with me many years ago in Astoria. And here I am now in a totally different place — and not just geographically. And this observation: “Most interestingly, I can just feel little decisions that stymied me falling into place faster: “The blueberries tonight, not the raspberries, yes to cream, no to ice cream.” Done, no matter who’s whining next to me. The bigger ones are getting easier too. My inner dictator has taken hold: “Yes, go back to work. Yes, make this call now. No, that can be put off until next month and you may NOT think about it until then.” is something I’ve only just begun to do. For me it’s: just do or finish this now (ie: grade the essays now, just go ahead and try to form this professional group and see what happens, etc) so it doesn’t hang over me or: don’t read and mark as unread this email to reply later, reply now, and it is also: I want to be still or read a novel or garden, so I do it. You are right, it does free up space and energy; it’s time for me to make better friends with my “inner dictator.” I suspect it is part of the reward of having crossed the 50 year mark.

  4. growingmygirls says:

    Thank you JK — I know your your peace is hard-won. I do think being over 50 may have something to do with it — again, maybe it’s just exhaustion, or having seen/lived enough life cycles to to really be willing to change. Thanks so much for reading 😉

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