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Why hearing ‘you’ll be a great mom’ scares me

It’s a flattering compliment, but what if people who say I’ll be good at parenthood are wrong?

A few weeks ago, during a family vacation, I was sitting on the living room floor, one 4-year-old cousin nestled in my lap, another 4-year-old cousin huddled next to us, hunched over my iPhone watching an AsapSCIENCE YouTube video about whether we should eat bugs (it sounds gross but is actually fascinating). We got to the end of the short, kid-friendly video and each cousin clamored to pick the next one. “You can pick one, then you can pick one, then no more until tomorrow,” I told them.

“You’re going to be a great mom,” my uncle said from across the room.

I was flattered, but almost immediately on the heels of my flush of pride, his words filled me with an opposite emotion — fear. What if it wasn’t true? What if I was only good at paying attention to kids in short bursts of time, knowing full well that any truly tough decisions would be for someone else to make? I may know about Babymouse, Melissa and Doug and how to shake my long hair in a baby’s face to make her giggle, but I also know that parenting has far less to do with what products you buy and far more to do with what you can offer your child by way of example.

My dream is that the heart of being a “good mom” is found in a quote from Toni Morrison that blogger Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery posted recently on Facebook: “What every child wants to know is, ‘do your eyes light up when I walk in the room?'” At the very least, I am confident I can handle that. It’s everything else I’m not sure about.

Though I’ve wanted to be a mom since I turned 30, over eight years ago, competing with that desire is a deep-seated fear that if I get my most treasured wish, I will find that I don’t take to it the way I’ve always hoped I would. I worry I won’t know how to respond when my child asks me hard questions, or how to cope if I have a panic attack with a little person relying on me looking on, wondering what to do when her parent loses it before her eyes. Mainly, though, I worry that I’ll be “bad” at being a mom, that I’ll fail my child in ways that they won’t be able to recover from. Even as I type that, I’m fully aware that our notions of what being a good mother means are rife with stereotypes, and that there are many ways to be good at parenting as there are parents. That doesn’t stop me from worrying (so maybe I’ve got the Jewish mother part down pat already).

I wonder, will I be the kind of mom who tries to micromanage her kids’ food intake, or one who’s much more laissez-faire? Will I be so entranced by the fact that even preverbal children are fascinated by technology that I’ll hand over my iPhone any time it’s requested, as I couldn’t help doing with my adorable 1-year-old cousin on that same vacation? His face would light up when he spotted my shiny leopard print phone case, and when he asked for music I’d stop what I was doing, select an iTunes station, hand over the phone and watch him dance around while occasionally swiping away. I used it again as a baby distraction tool when I had an unexpected visitor and his son, who was more interested in teething with it than tunes. I knew it was probably filthy but I let him gnaw away for a few seconds rather than hear him scream in protest.

I don’t believe passively wanting to be a mom for the last eight years but doing nothing to actually set that in motion means I’ll be any better equipped than someone who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. When I hang out with kids, I feel like I am constantly on my toes, scrambling to figure out the best action in that moment. A week with four cousins found me questioning my word choices and decision making at every turn. Should I have let a 4-year-old bolting up in bed with a nightmare at 3 a.m. wake his parents? Was it OK to let the 1-year-old plop his bare bottom in the sand and happily dig around? Should I have interrupted painting time to go check out a forklift? I imagine that actual parents face umpteen questions like these every day.

There’s a part of me that still thinks the moment you become a mom you’re imbued with a magical kind of knowledge that gives you the right answer to situations like these, like a parenting cheat sheet downloads into your brain as soon as you hold your child. Logically, I’m aware that parents question themselves all the time, or else there wouldn’t be books like Sh*tty Mom and I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids, but from the outside there’s still a seductive power they seem to possess.

Maybe they just fake certainty so well that any ambivalence is only visible to other parents. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti argues that women take on way too much guilt around being “bad” at mothering, when we don’t need to. At The Guardian, she recently wrote, “Accepting that I’ve been a pretty fantastic mom has been revelatory.” Here here (even in advance and with all my doubts, I feel confident about cheering her sentiment on). Maybe looking down upon our parenting skills is just another way women don’t own our power, similar to how we don’t ask for raises in the same pro-active way men do. It feels more natural to assume we don’t really know what we’re doing rather than taking it for granted that we do.

All I know is that as I begin the process of trying to get pregnant, I hope to acquire the kind of proud self-assurance that will let me learn from my decisions, and use my successes and failures to learn how to do better. Until then, though, whether I’ll be a good mom is irrelevant in the abstract. I’ll never know until I actually try it for myself.

More parenting essays

Mom confesses: I’ve never liked my child
Your birth should not make you feel like a failure
It’s time to stop shaming moms who don’t breastfeed

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