Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in my local column, Mothering Honestly, in Sarasota’s Mommy Magazine. I’ve published it here to share with my blog readers.
After eagerly waiting for nearly a year, I finally made my first confession just before Easter. (My super cool lapsed Catholic fam never forced me to complete the sacraments as a child, so I’ve been going through the process as an adult.)
As a few of my readers already know, these days it’s entirely optional to kneel behind the screen in the confessional or chapel (depending on the parish). I chose to do so simply because I will always choose whichever option makes me feel the most dramatic and fancy.
The priest and I spent much of the time laughing together, and he patiently endured the four letter word that I let slip as I tried to recount one of my many, colorful sins. I even tried to confess to some things that weren’t actual sins: we could see each other perfectly through the woven white silk that hung between us, and he waved off several of the strange things I listed with what can only be described as a holy eyeroll. In the end, I was given a task: to go for a 15 minute walk outside, completely alone and in silence, “Don’t even pray,” he said firmly. I was just to listen to God. I was also strongly encouraged to set an appointment to come in to work through what I was feeling.
When I reflected back on the experience, it was pretty clear to me that the issues I discussed with him were all connected. The mistakes I brought to confession, such as losing my temper too quickly with my children, happened whenever I allowed big feelings to boil over. Feelings aren’t wrong, of course. But it’s not good to let big feelings like anger, frustration, and resentment brew without examination. Lately, I noice myself feeling irritated and frustrated at least half of the time.
And here’s why: I find the climate in which I am currently parenting to be icy and unwelcoming.
Earlier in that same week, I was confronted by a stranger at the library who disapproved of a choice that I made as a mother. This isn’t the first time I’ve been publicly reprimanded by some random oddball, but it was absolutely one of the worst, as this scene went down in a silent library and involved her shaking her finger in my face. People stared. In the end, one brave, cargo shorts-wearing dude stood up for me, and if I ever see him again, I’ll buy him a pie. During the library attack I kept my composure, said my piece with all the grace that I could muster, then held my head as high as any queen as I exited the building. Once I was safe within the bosom of my trusty 17 year-old maroon minivan, I cried like a baby.
As I stated above, this isn’t my first rodeo. I have a whole handful of tales similar to this one, in which I am caring for my tiny children to the very best of my ability, and a villain pops into the frame and yells some things at me about how I should be doing a much better job. In these moments, I’m never ignoring the needs of my girls, nor would I ever abuse them, endanger them or call them names. I’m not drunk or disheveled. I’m not even staring at my phone absentmindedly. To put it another way, I’m just a normal mom on a normal day. On some days, I’m even an awesome mom, with my own particular brand of awesomeness.
But even though I know myself to be more than a decent mother, I’ve still experienced public shaming, in various forms, too many times to count. It’s not always as brutal as the experience with the finger-wagging lady at the library. Sometimes it’s a glance, an unnecessarily comment, or an exaggerated sigh or huff from a shopper in the grocery store.
What’s going on here? Why is this a common occurrence? Maybe it’s because I’m a youngish mother and folks feel comfortable talking down to me. Or maybe I have a few too many kids, too close in age. Maybe it’s my messy bun or crappy van. Or maybe it’s because I live in a swanky retirement town, where many of my fellow villagers are clueless about the day-to-day care and feeding of small child children. Or maybe I’m caught in the midst of a cultural shift that’s taken us too far in the wrong direction.
Whatever the reason, I wish I could escape it. I wish I could wake up in the 1970s, with sweet feathered hair and high waisted jeans, and I could smoke a cigarette and drink a Tab and be like, “Kids, go play in the road!”
The other day I met my sister-in-law at a park so she could watch my kids, and she commented on the beautiful spread of snacks I had packed for them: goat cheese and seed crackers and berries and probably seaweed. I joked, “If I don’t feed these snacks to them, someone will call CPS on me.”
I thought back to going to the beach with my mother in the 90s, and all I could remember eating was a thermos of boiled hotdogs (no buns) and using the public water fountain. So I decided to ask my own mom about her childhood, and she sent me text after text rich with amazing stories of seventies-style parental neglect and childhood adventure.
My 1970s mothering fantasy became even more real, as I imagined myself telling all my kids to hop into a huge metal boat of a car, with a leather bench seat and no belts or harnesses or buckles. The girls roll around in the backseat as I head towards the to Rec center, where I intend to drop them off to play unsupervised. Are you over 4 years old? Get out and fend for yourself, kid. Walk home later. If you get thirsty, drink out of the neighbors hose or something. If you want seaweed, you’ll have to eat directly out of the Gulf. If you act up, someone will see you and scold you. And I’ll hear about it, one way or another, so just don’t do it. I’ll see you tonight when the street lights come on. Dinner will be hot and delicious since I will prepare it in peace.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession. I’ve created a fantasy life in which I am a 1970s mother who neglects her children most of the time and yet still receive lots of community support for doing so.”
“Again, Chelsea, this is fairly weird, but not an actual sin.”