Keeping Score (And Losing)

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 only thing missing from this picture are two demanding, judgmental, constantly vomiting cats and a quicksand-like pit of cat litter. (
The only thing missing from this picture are two demanding, judgmental, constantly vomiting cats and a quicksand-like pit of cat litter. (

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.

Utterly quiet.

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.

7 thoughts on “Keeping Score (And Losing)

  1. ❤ Not a parent yet but I empathize with the teacher guilt of forcing yourself to go to school despite feeling ill! I also had a toddler escape while I was babysitting & changing his sister's diaper. Luckily his cousins were across the street and saw him before he got to the busy highway!

    Hang in there and try not to beat yourself up too much!

  2. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear about your day! (First, why do we always get sick on a day off?) Thank goodness little Jack was safe and sound with his daddy while you were running around worried crazy and beating yourself with your worst-mother-of-the-year whip. Give yourself a little break and remember how much your family needs you. 🙂

  3. I can guarantee you this will not be your last day like this. Not helpful comment, eh? But it is meant to be. The score keeping goes down when you accept that it is okay for things not to be perfect, Little Miss Perfect. 🙂 I finally have reached that point in my life where I am okay with less than perfect…most of the time, and damn it is liberating! Because as you pointed out, our needs to be perfect often cause a bit of disaster. Do what you can to let go of the expectations you put on yourself, they don’t do anyone any good and only cause harm to you. Remember, a happy mom is a good mom. xo

  4. I think that just the fact that you think so much about doing a good job as a mom makes you a great mom. As a teacher, you know that there are so many students out there with parents who barely seem to think at all about what their children are doing at any given moment of the day (“He/She is old enough to do homework/get food/get to activities by themselves!”). Just having an internal conversation with yourself about your son’s needs and development puts you ages ahead of the majority of parents in this country. And as for the incident with your son, do not forget that your brain was sleep deprived and addled with illness; you were not functioning as your true self, thus you cannot hold yourself to the same standards you would had you not been sick. In the words of an old friend of mine, ask yourself: what can you learn from this situation that you could not have learned any other way?

  5. This is a link to a recently posted Tedtalk about parenting, trying too hard, the guilt, and perhaps…just perhaps, accepting reality.
    My kids are a little bit older. They are both in middle school. They and I managed to survive the experience, thus far, mostly unscathed. This included divorce, moves, remarriage, and my being sandwiched with one severely ill parent, and one deceased.

    This is definitely worth the 18 minute time investment.

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