Ruby has been displaying a bit of a competitive streak lately. Every day, after telling me what color she got on at school (purple is best, but green is still good; she is sad if she gets anything but purple) she tells me how many stickers she has in comparison to another girl.
“Don’t worry about her, Ruby; worry about yourself,” I say every day. “Just do your own best work.”
And yet I can’t say she doesn’t come by this honestly.
I was so high-strung and competitive as a child that my mom stopped even relying on that old “do your own best work” chestnut and started encouraging me, once in awhile, to slack off. “Sometimes you can just do an average job on a project,” she would tell me while I sat cross-legged on the floor at 2 a.m. surrounded by stencils and markers and card stock. But I never went along with her advice.
In high school, we had to collect 25 bugs and label them for a biology project. It was an open secret that everyone bought their bugs rather than catching them – to the point that the one kid whose project displayed a variety of squashed bugs and bugs with missing legs titled his project “This Project Looks Ugly Because I Actually Caught My Bugs Instead of Buying Them at Barber Laboratories.” I confess that I went along with the crowd and bought bugs (please, Dr. Gubala, if you’re reading this, don’t retroactively fail me), but I felt so guilty about it that I spent the entire weekend before the project was due covering a wooden plank with Easter grass and making a papier mâché “rock” that could be lifted up to reveal the bugs underneath. I got an A, sure, but so did the kids who just correctly labeled the bugs on some poster board.
It’s interesting to me that the more challenging something is to me, the more competitive I become. For instance, biology was definitely not my best subject, and so I felt compelled to go all-out. In college, I never got overly competitive in journalism classes, but the one time I didn’t set the curve on an economics test, I was devastated.
This probably explains, at least partly, why I see parenting as a competitive sport. Of all the things I am insecure about, being a mom is probably at the top of the list. Yeah, I think I’m a good mother, but the stakes are so high, and I could always be better. I lose my temper. I’m inconsistent. I’m a lousy disciplinarian. I negotiate when I should put my foot down. I let Ruby eat Lunchables. Overall, she’s a great kid, but every so often, when she has a public meltdown, I feel certain that absolutely everyone around me is judging me as a mother and finding me extremely wanting.
All of which is to say that I was not originally planning to send anything special to Ruby’s school for Halloween. I had just baked brownies for the open house, followed by two batches of “witch’s hat” cupcakes (Martha Stewart’s are a lot cuter than mine, but whatever; I’ve never gone to prison) for the Halloween party on Friday night, and I was really feeling just about done with making stuff. Besides, I knew the kids would get more than enough candy that night. And yet when the other moms started talking about the treat bags they would be sending to Ruby’s class, my competitive spirit flared. A logical person would have said, “OK, if other moms are sending treats, that is even less reason for you to do it.” But I said, “Oh, God, if I don’t make something – something good, something cute – it might seem like I am a bad mother!”
Thank God for Pinterest: I was able to quickly find a cute and fairly easy idea for little s’mores treat bags with graham crackers, marshmallow ghost Peeps and miniature Hershey’s bars, and I (of course) decided to go that one extra step by making orange card stock tags that said, “S’more the merrier!”
They were cute. Ruby had fun helping me. I hope the kids in her class liked them. But good grief, why did I feel the need to do that? I edit three magazines. I have a 5-month-old. Who on earth would judge me for not making elaborate Halloween treat bags, and why would I care about the opinion of anyone who did?
And even though I commented dryly to my husband that I had considered changing the wording on the tags to “I must love my kid s’more than you love yours,” it’s not like I actually think Ruby bases her sense of how much I love her by my ability to put cute things into cello bags. And it’s certainly not like I judge other parents who didn’t send treats any more than I judged the kids who put their bugs on plain poster board way back in 10th grade. In fact, I know Ruby took home several treat bags, but I couldn’t tell you who sent them. If their kid isn’t hurting my kid at school, I am not judging their parenting. And even if their kid is hurting my kid at school, I am willing to hear their side of the story before I judge their parenting. But I still can’t help but feel like there must be a way to win at motherhood and that I have to find it.
I think, honestly, more than anything, I want to be the person who actually collected his own bugs and displayed them in all their imperfection. I want to be that honest. I want to be that secure. Instead, I’m up at 11 p.m. tying pumpkin ribbons and trying to convince myself that this is proof that I am a good mom. Maybe that’s it: The actual proof of how successful you’ve been as a parent is so remote that it’s hard to contemplate. Will I know I was successful when they go off to college? Will I know it when they get their first real jobs? Will it be when I watch them parent their own kids? How will I ever know if I’ve done a good job? It’s much easier to tie the perfect jaunty bow on a craft project and call it a victory.
I was struck, too, by the number of similar craft projects and festive baked goods that I saw on Facebook the next day from all of my mom friends. It’s like it’s not enough to do it for your kid; you have to make sure everyone else sees it, too. And I, of course, am guiltier of this than anyone.
It almost reminds me of the old saying that women don’t dress up for men; they dress up for other women – because it’s all women posting these photos, and it’s all women “liking” them. And like I said, I think that’s definitely what I am doing – making sure everyone looks at my mothering when it’s all prettied up in a bag from the craft store and hoping like crazy that no one sees the ugly moments.
In the end, maybe that is my own personal best, the best I can hope for. I don’t want to be an average mom any more than I want Ruby or Georgia to be average kids. I want them to excel at things they are passionate about. But I also want them to be secure enough in who they are that they don’t base their worth on Facebook “likes.” I don’t want them to be competitive with other people so much as I want them to be competitive with themselves, always trying to reach a new personal best. Well, no, maybe not always. Because my mom, as usual, was right: Sometimes, in some cases, for some things, it really is OK to just be average.