Confessions of a Two-Faced Parent


3 & 1/2 year old Cullen


As one of my sons happily stalks and then attacks an antique lamp, I find myself saying, “No, no, Cullen, we don’t hit glass objects with our plastic golf clubs.”

This isn’t my normal response to destructive behavior. Wresting the golf club from his hands, yelling “Stop it!” and threatening him with bodily harm … that is how I would normally respond. But normal responses are hard to come by when you imagine that every move you make is being scrutinized.

I know I sound paranoid, but I always get this way when my mother-in-law is around. Why does she have this effect on me? I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with the fact that she practically singlehandedly (her husband was a much-absent Navy pilot) raised 10 bright, happy and amazingly accomplished children, while I seem to be floundering with just three.

While I’m desperately trying to practice the I’m-never-rattled school of motherhood around her, my eldest son becomes a monster. He takes full advantage, acting out in ways he’s never dared to before. Cullen becomes a wild animal, sensing weakness in his prey. When he finds the blind side, that’s when he attacks.

Don’t misunderstand, he’s often quite a good boy, a little charmer, in fact. But he’s also not dumb. My indecisiveness allows him a lot more leeway in terms of bad behavior. Punishment is much slower in coming, and not as severe.

I’m not alone in being transformed into mush under someone’s watchful gaze. Most mothers, when pressed, will admit that they practice a kind of public and private motherhood. They’re decisive, firm and quick to handle the ever-changing needs of their children. But put these women under less optimal conditions when their kids are misbehaving — in a crowded supermarket, at a childless friend’s home, or during a get-together with in-laws, and watch what happens. These women are often transformed into hesitant, ineffectual vacillators.

It’s not like mothers are always cracking up under pressure. It’s just certain situations that repress our real responses. I know with me, this usually happens when I want someone to think I’m a perfect mother. Perfect mothers never raise their voices, resort to threats, or lose their tempers. They also have complete control of their children. I want to be one of them. I want people to see that I can really handle my children in all situations.

Everyone hopes they’re doing right by their kids. Most mothers are always reading and trying to gain a better understanding of their children, and the way they should be treated. Books don’t prepare you for everything though. I’m afraid no matter how much reading I do, I’m never going to be 10 steps ahead of my kids, and able to head off transgressions before they even occur. But I don’t want others to know I don’t have a game plan until action is underway.

I don’t just want people to think I’m a good mother, I truly want to be a good mother. Unfortunately, motherhood is a really tough occupation because it’s so subjective; it’s mostly made up of judgment calls. That’s why moms are so vulnerable to the “backseat drivers” of parenthood. And there are plenty of those around. They’re quick to tell you you’re wrong, and how they would handle the situation.

Motherhood really demands that you do a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. After all, kids don’t even know how they’re going to react until they’re reacting. How can we be expected to anticipate their every move? Each child and every situation requires a new evaluation. How can anyone, no matter how many kids they have, know your children better than you do?

Energized by this knowledge, I’m prepared for battle. Cullen again takes aim at the lamp, but this time I’m ready. I grab the golf club and put it on a high shelf amidst howls of protest.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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