Every couple keeps score, whether they admit it or not—especially if they have kids. One episode of How I Met Your Mother shows Lily and Marshall with a whiteboard above their bed, where they’re keeping a tally of how many times each of them has gotten up at night with their newborn son. While it seems preposterous, that scoreboard resonates with me deeply. It’s not that I want to “win,” to be the better parent or the more loved parent. It’s more that I need to know I’m doing enough.
I admit it—thus far, I’ve seen myself as the long-suffering winner. Here I am, pumping breast milk with one hand and grading papers with the other. Reading up on Jack’s development. Researching which medications are safe. Making his doctor’s appointments. Buying his pajamas and socks and age-appropriate books and unbreakable bowls and temperature-sensitive spoons. Planning meals. Vacuuming. Cleaning the litter box (again).
Feeling guilty whenever I want, or need, to do something for myself, like sleep.
The truth is, if I backed off and let my husband do more, he would. It might not get done right away or exactly the way I’d do it, but it would get done. Looking back on all the times I glared at my husband while scooping clumps of cat pee, I have to wonder if the anger I felt toward him was really anger toward myself, for always feeling guilty. Why should I constantly feel guilty? My husband takes great care of our son, but he doesn’t feel like a bad parent when he needs to let Jack play by himself in order to get things done. I do. Even though I don’t expect my husband to be able to—or really any other mom to be able to—I somehow think I should be able to do it all.
And that mindset hurts everyone.
Case in point: I’m getting over the flu. Yesterday was a half-day for students, and when I woke up I felt terrible. As sometimes happens when I’ve been sick, cold sores had erupted all over the inside of my mouth. My glands and ears and throat hurt and I was so, so tired. I stuck out the morning and then made a last-minute decision to take the afternoon off, since I could work on grades from home anyway. But I felt guilty asking my husband to pick up Jack, since I knew he had business at the bank to tend to on the way home. He’d have to get Jack out of his car seat and lug him in there. What would a good wife and mom do? I asked myself. A good wife and mom would swing by and surprise Jack with an early pickup, and take him out to lunch, and then spend the rainy afternoon napping with him.
Jack and I had a wonderful lunch together (until he threw his plastic cup full of water over a partition and soaked the floor). Full of quesadilla, he dozed off on the way home. Then we almost had a wonderful nap—until, five minutes after being laid in his bed, he sat bolt upright and decided he wasn’t tired. I then spent the next two hours getting out of my own bed and putting him back into his bed. At one point I even locked him in his room. I started getting angry. Why hadn’t I just left him at preschool so he could nap (or not nap) there? Why had I let guilt prevent me from driving home and spending the afternoon alone?
When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I resigned myself to cleaning the kitchen, because a contractor was coming to talk with us about replacing our fence. Stupid fence, I muttered to myself as I swept the floor. I’m so sick of hearing about this fence. Who cares about the damned fence. It’s broken in a couple of places, but it’s not that big of a deal. By this point Jack had asked for his shoes and coat, and it was nice out, so I let him go outside. I could hear him squealing as he and the dog frolicked around the yard.
After I finished vacuuming up the cat litter that was in our kitchen, because cat litter is the bane of my existence, I realized I didn’t hear Jack’s voice anymore, so I went outside and called for him.
Nothing. Not up in the playhouse. Not over in the garden.
He’d recently learned how to open the gate, so I checked to make sure the trash cans were still barricading it. Then I ran inside and started yelling for him, in case he’d slipped in without my notice while I’d been vacuuming.
I started to sob hysterically. I ran out to the garage. Two things happened simultaneously: One, I noticed that the larger, drive-through gate in our fence was open. Apparently, the latch no longer worked and the wind had blown it open. Two, my husband was driving up the driveway with Jack on his lap.
I burst into fresh sobs and went back inside, crying as I finished scrubbing the floor. I’d tried to do it all, and I’d failed at what was most important.
While my husband was at the bank withdrawing a deposit on a safer fence and setting up a college savings fund for our son, I was letting him run around alone in the street.
Clearly, I lost this round.