Why is it Easier to be Kinder to Another Person’s Child?
When I was 12 years old, I began babysitting for families in my neighborhood. The first family I worked for had SIX children, ages 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. I was paid $.50 per child, per hour (a decent amount of money to a preteen in the early 90’s), and often had all six children on my own. Now that I’m an adult and a mother, I look back on that situation and think, “What the heck were those parents thinking?!” I was TWELVE. But, as it was pointed out to me many times over the early years in my career in childcare, I was a natural. Word traveled quickly, and by high school I began babysitting regularly and was paid extremely well.
Over the past 23 years, there is one sentence that I have heard repeatedly: “You’re going to be such a good mom!” I’ve heard it from families I’ve worked for, my own family and friends, activities instructors at the places I’d take my nanny kids, and from my NK’s teachers. Often, I’d hear it from random strangers in restaurants, after informing them that the wonderfully behaved children I was dining with were not, in fact, my children. “I’m just the nanny,” I’d say, sheepishly. “Well, you’re going to be such a good mom!” they’d gush. I’d thank them and think to myself, “YES. I am going to be a GREAT mom.”
Fast forward to 2009: My nanny friend Carrie’s baby boy is about 14 months old. He’s beginning to show his “feisty” side, and she is talking to our nanny playgroup about how difficult it’s been on her. She is the first in our group to have a child of her own. “You guys, it is SO different being a mom than being a nanny! I thought I would be prepared…but I’m struggling. I feel like I’m failing a lot of the time, and I hate that I don’t have the patience I had as a nanny. I’m SO tired, all the time, and it makes functioning as a mom really hard. I can’t even take a shower every day because there’s NO time!” As she poured her mama-heart out to us, I sympathized as best as I could. In my head however, I was thinking, “That stinks that she’s having a hard time, but that’s not how it’ll be when I have my own! I’ll be different. I’ll be the BEST mom. How hard can it be to shower every day?”
September 2014: My baby boy is two months old. I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. My eyeballs hurt. I average a shower every 3-4 days. I have a pillow/blanket cocoon built on the couch. I live in pajamas. I reheat the same cup of coffee several times a day, and there are entire days when I forget to eat food. One afternoon, I answered the door for the UPS man with a boob still hanging out of my nursing bra. My son hasn’t slept longer than two hours in a row since his first day Earthside, and I had no idea it was possible to be this exhausted. There are nights where all I can do is cry because I am JUST. SO. TIRED. I have moments where I consider attempting to return him to the hospital.
September 2015: My son is 14 months old. Like my friend Carrie’s boy, he is starting to show his feisty side. He’s already verbal and mobile, and his favorite word is “NO,”- said forcefully and definitively. He still wakes up every 2-3 hours at night, and I am still not used to being sleep deprived (is it possible to get “used to” this unique form of torture?). I am back to work now, and I bring him with me to nanny for “S”, who is 3 months younger and the easiest baby I have ever cared for. She makes my child look like a tiny, drunk, semi-verbal Tasmanian Devil. It’s tough not to compare them, and then sit up at night wondering what I did wrong. Did I ruin my only child? All I can see is the stubbornness. The never-ending energy. The defiance. The “bad.” Sometimes I yell so much out of frustration that my voice is hoarse at the end of the day, and I fear that I am failing him as a mother. I’m convinced he’d be better off with someone (anyone) else.
September 2016: It took my sweet boy 26 months to figure out how to sleep through the night. He may not wake every two hours any more, but he still wakes at 5:30am EVERY MORNING. My body was not made for 5:30am wake-ups. My brain doesn’t begin to function until at least 8am. We’ve been pretty good up until now with keeping him away from screens, but it’s so easy to stumble out to the couch, put Little Einsteins on Netflix, hand him a cup of cereal, and bury myself in the couch pillows to sleep another hour. He is fully verbal now, knows what he wants, and is very good at getting it through a combination of “pretty pleases,” whining, and tantrums. He gets away with things that I would never, in 1,000,000 years allow my nanny kids to get away with. Snacks before dinner? Yup. Occasionally not brushing his teeth before bed? Uh-huh. A second popsicle? “Did you want red or orange, sweetheart?” I just don’t have the patience to argue with him every second of every day. There are days when all I can do is count the minutes until bedtime.
As a nanny, I had unlimited patience. Why is it different now that I’m a mom? And then I realized, back when I was “just a nanny,” I only had to be patient up until a certain time (usually 6pm). After that, I got to go home. To my own house. Where there wasn’t a tiny person constantly asking me for things, or yelling at me about socks, or waking me up at 2am to remind me that I said he could have a lollipop later and that, “It’s later now, Mama.” When you’re a mom, you’re a mom 24-7. You don’t get to clock out at the end of the day. You are always “on,” and it’s exhausting.
As a nanny, I can’t lose my temper, raise my voice, or generally “act out” in any way. I have to use my higher-level thinking and reasoning skills to come up with better (gentler) ways of dealing with frustrating situations. At home though, I’m free to act however I want; no one is monitoring me. I can throw adult-sized tantrums when things don’t go my way, argue with a tiny human who doesn’t have a fully-functioning prefrontal cortex (because that always goes well), and spend way too much time on things that don’t matter nearly as much as my child does. I can also let the laundry and dishes pile up, stay inside all day, and generally do the minimum amount of adulting necessary to get through the day until my husband comes home. I didn’t think it would be this way. I didn’t think I would be so overwhelmed, so…mean. When my son says, “Please stop yelling at me, Mama,” it breaks my heart into a million pieces.
Why is it easier to be kinder to another person’s child than your own?
My son will turn 3 this July, and I worry every single day that I am failing him as a mother. He has this amazing spirit that I try so hard to preserve. He is kind, gentle, compassionate and wicked smart, and he makes friends wherever he goes. People have been drawn to him since the day he was born. I want him to grow up to be the kind of person that loves life, cherishes his family, and sees the good in everyone. I worry every day that I’m not a good enough mom, that he deserves better. What I tend to forget, though, is that the very fact that I worry is what should remind me that I AM a good mom. I love my son fiercely and I do the best I can, every day, and that’s really all we can do as parents. We can give our children our best effort. They are nothing if not forgiving, and each new day is another chance to be a little kinder, a little gentler, and a little BETTER.