Frenchitude Lesson #24: Parenting is Not A Competitive Sport

Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is easy. Yesterday, it had me in tears.

I guess I should back up a little.

Charlotte and Camille are home from school on vacation this week. I had promised them I would do Shrinky-Dink jewellery crafts that I (short-sightedly) brought home for them from Paris. I entertained a halcyon image of the four of us spending a nice, crafty, female bonding day together. I was a great mother; it was going to be perfect.

First wrinkle in the plan – Clem woke up yesterday morning piercing two molars. From the moment she entered consciousness, she expressed her rage at the universe by opening every cupboard in the house and emptying its contents on the floor. Repeatedly. She did this while screaming like a banshee. Whenever she felt that my attention was being diverted from her existential angst, she would storm over to where I was trying to cut out coloured Shrinky-Dinks and take a big chomp out of my leg.

As the morning wore on, and I struggled to thread little Shrinky-Dinks onto stretchy elastic cords while Clem took chunks out of my kneecaps, I began to mentally beat myself up.

Why can’t you ever seem to get a handle on this parenting thing? A nasty voice in my head demanded. Why is a day with my three girls making me feel woozy with anxiety and dread? Why does the idea of getting lunch on the table feel as exhausting and impossible as running a marathon? Why is everyone better at this than me?

And then came the kicker: What is wrong with me that I can’s get this right?

One of my closest friends here has a baby of the same age as Clem, and just like me she has days where she feels like she is going off the deep end. However, on such days she doesn’t seem to have to contend with feeling like a “failure”, unlike yours truly.

I know this, because I’ve straight out asked her.

“I just don’t see parenting that way,” she said. “There are days when you are exhausted and horrible and everything seems to be out of control and it’s really, really hard, but that’s just normal.”

“But doesn’t that make you feel like a failure?” I ask.

“It makes me feel tired and frustrated and annoyed, but non, not like a failure.”

“Why?”

“Because parenting isn’t a competition.”

Huh. Tell that to the voice in my head.

Just as I put Clem down for her nap (needed by Her Grumpiness, but MUCH more needed by me) and sat down with my beloved cup of after-lunch coffee, Franck got home from Beaune.

He had been working on the cellar so needed to clean his tools. This involved turning on and off the outside faucet which, unbeknown to him, made huge clunking sounds in the nether regions of the house. Clem woke up screaming, and I, I am not proud to say, went absolutely ballistic on my husband.

Even as I was freaking out on Franck, my internal monologue became a two-part harmony. Not only did I accuse myself of being a failure as a mother, but also a failure as a wife.

Why was just getting through a day so hard? Something was clearly wrong with me. Everyone else was a more successful parent / spouse / person than me. And this was not my first child, but my third child – I couldn’t get away with the “novice” excuse anymore.

Clem never did go back to sleep, but I eventually calmed down into silent misery and martyrdom once again. Franck tried to take on the brave task of asking me what the real problem was.

“I just feel like I’m doing it all wrong!” I yelled.

“Doing what wrong?”

“Parenting.”

“There’s no right way to do parenting,” Franck said, exasperated. “For God’s Sake, we all just do what we can.”

“Doing what I can obviously isn’t good enough.”

“Laura,” he said. “Parenting is not a performance activity.”

Thank God for that. If it was I don’t think I would have even earned a “Participation” ribbon yesterday.

The evening culminated in an exhausted me giving Clem a bath. After changing her into her pyjamas – a contact sport these days, as she’s really not into clothes – I was holding her in the hallway, yelling something at Franck as I simultaneously slammed the girls’ bedroom door shut (I spend about 2 hours every day simply shutting doors so that Clem doesn’t find things to choke on / cut herself / destroy in the bedrooms and bathroom).

There was a a sickening crunch, followed by an unearthly wail. My stomach heaved.

Without me noticing Clem had stuck one of her little fingers into the door jam, and I had slammed the door shut on it.

Clem screamed in agony. I burst into tears.

Franck had to whisk her off to emergency in Beaune to have X-rays and make sure the little finger wasn’t broken.

I served the two big girls soup, ignoring their complaints as every thought in my head was pretty much drowned out by the mocking chorus of failure.

God knows where I picked up the bizarre notion that one can succeed or fail at parenting, especially at parenting babies and toddlers. However, I happen to know that I am not the only Canadian woman to have internalized, and then to have been beaten down by, the concept. I wonder if the question of how we perform in all aspects of our lives has permeated our psyches to such a degree that we just assume it applies to parenting.

One thing I concluded for certain yesterday was that judging parenting in terms of performance DOES NOT HELP ONE BIT. In fact, I’m quite certain it could drive a person insane.

Unfortunately those little voices are tenacious buggers, and hard to silence. However, by the time Franck finally got home from the hospital with Clem I had at least resolved to begin working on a more French, non-performance approach to parenting.

Clem was smiling happily, after having been stuffed with “ah-toes” and chocolate in the ER waiting room by Franck, and proudly waved around her heavily bandaged finger.

I had survived the day. From a French parenting perspective, that was just about all I could ask of days such as yesterday. Temporarily free of my internal judge, I felt instantly better about my kids and myself.

Clem was so cute that I went to get the camera to take a photo of her and her bandage. It was a good thing I had adopted Frenchitude by then, because by the time I found it and came back to take the picture, the bandage had disappeared.

Clem had eaten it.