It was generally an innocent query: “What do you do?” some mommy would ask me when I arrived late for playgroup with my three children, blaming “work” for our tardiness.
How I dreaded that inevitable question. I always responded with a vague “I work from home,” hoping my interrogator would leave it at that. But there were those who pressed: “Doing what?” I once considered announcing that I was a dominatrix, hoping that would at least produce a stunned silence. But I doubted anyone would buy it. It was clear I couldn’t even shame my children into obedience.
On a good day, if my children were playing nicely, I might ‘fess up that I actually worked as an editor at a parenting magazine. I would allow myself a humble pause, anticipating the admiration and respect such a position warranted. However, those days were rare. Far more frequently, when my children were behaving like felons-in-training rather than future Ivy League class presidents, I would mumble something inaudible.
“What’s that?” they would ask.
“I work at a magazine,” I would say, as if I had a mouthful of marbles.
“Really? Which one?” the nosiest mommies pressed on.
I would blurt it out, with an apologetic smile that said, as you can see, they’ll hire anyone. The curiosity in their eyes would be replaced by confusion as they grappled with the realization that they — so obviously the better parent — had been taking advice from … me. I knew it was ludicrous; I so clearly didn’t have a clue.
“I consult the parenting experts, of course,” I would add lamely. But the jig was up, and I imagined these parents making mental notes to go home, cancel their subscriptions, and start relying on their own common sense. I would skulk home in shame, exposed as a bigger fraud than Bernie Madoff.
No one was more surprised than I to be editing a parenting magazine. I didn’t even have children when I started, and, frankly, no plans for them. I had taken the job as an entry-level editorial assistant straight out of university. A shake-up or two later, I found myself as editor, still child-less. I liked kids well enough, but didn’t the world have enough of them?
Not long after I’d moved to a lower rung at a larger parenting magazine, I had a child. I could blame my biological clock, society’s expectations of a 30-something, recently married woman, or the growing belief that I would be an awesome mother. After all, I reasoned in the way that only childless people can: I kind of knew it all, especially thanks to my career.
But reality was all too eager to correct my assumptions. With the fill-in chart I’d clipped from my parenting magazine, I tried to schedule my daughter’s breastfeeding. She didn’t give a damn for my chart and screamed for milk whenever she felt like it. I used that same clip-out to wipe my tears as she clamped down on my cracked nipples for what must have been the 113th time in a day.
My child was the consummate cat-napper, sleeping only long enough to lull me into the misconception that I might actually get something done while she dozed: a load of laundry, a sinkful of dishes, a bowel movement. “Hit the Snooze on Sleep Problems,” read the headline of one magazine article, filled with ideas on how to ensure a good night’s sleep. I read it eagerly, praying that deliverance from exhaustion was only a few paragraphs away. My daughter, however, had her own ideas about sleep — and they didn’t involve scheduled naps. Nor did she believe in letting me indulge in “me time,” which another article suggested as an antidote for parenting stress. Instead, she screamed. Constantly. And nowhere could I find an article that reflected my experience. Magazines were quick to offer solutions, none of which seemed to actually work.
My own position at the magazine made me realize how much advice we were peddling that simply didn’t work for some mothers. I also realized that no one seemed to be articulating my personal experience: motherhood was really, REALLY hard.
In other words, I was a mess. My breasts sprouted like a garden fountain if any infant within a 10-mile radius merely smacked their lips. I slept a grand total of six-and-a-half minutes during the first year of my daughter’s life.
There were moments — long moments — when I hated motherhood.
The mommies at my playgroup, who somehow managed to look like they’d slept, showered, and brushed and flossed their teeth; who produced children that stopped when their parents told them no,’ smiled for the camera, and ate from all four food groups, simply made my own failings more acute.
On the other hand, I reasoned, such dreamy children couldn’t just be a myth, so I thought I’d try again. High on hormones and optimism, I produced number two, who — though he slept more and screamed less than his sister — also made it clear that the rules, if there were any, didn’t apply to him.
So by the time number three came along (whoops!) and I was juggling working from home with a blessedly easy-going infant and a couple of young hooligans, not even I believed the stuff in my magazine any more. I deduced that articles promising to abolish sibling rivalry, tame toddler tantrums, and resolve sleep issues must surely have been written by people without children.
Finally allowing myself to admit how difficult this parenting thing was, I began to commission articles that sounded more like “Breastfeeding Is Really F@!*ing Hard” and “How to Fake That Your Child Is Toilet Trained for Preschool.”
Now a mom to three, I had enough confidence to tell our readers how I really felt. My monthly editor’s note, which had formerly been more fiction than fact, became a diary in which I relayed the truth of my experience. I penned an editorial after one of my kids had screamed at me that I was the worst mother in the world. I didn’t have the answers, I’d write between the lines. Hell, I couldn’t even hear the questions anymore over the sound of my children arguing. But instead of cries for my resignation for exposing myself as a blatant non-expert, we received letters and e-mails essentially saying, “Hallelujah.”
I’d managed to articulate motherhood’s dirty little secret: it’s a thankless job. It dawned on me slowly that these other mommies — well, most of them anyway — were muddling along, just like I was.
By the time my youngest was three, I decided to quit my job at the magazine and move on to other pursuits. I still freelance occasionally for it, though I’ll never write anything that purports to have the be-all, end-all answer.
I occasionally miss the sense of achievement that accompanies the role of “expert,” even if everyone I knew could see it was a ruse. These days, no one expects me to know anything except what time dinner will be or where they left their permission slip. Sometimes not even that — and that’s the job description I prefer.