Today's cover story in the LA Times Book Review asks the question "What do mothers want?" and answers it in an extended review of eight new books on motherhood, including Caitlin Flanagan's To Hell With All That and Leslie Morgan Steiner's Mommy Wars. Perfect timing for me, as I'm working on the "Fearless in Parenting" chapter of my book.
If there's one area where fear is a rational first response to things, it's parenting. It's part of the job description. Fear for your child's health. Fear for your health (how long can you go without sleep?). Fear that you'll screw your kid up. And with good reason. It's easy to do (screw your kid up, that is). Take a look at poor Britney Spears. She's learning the hard way that being a pop superstar is a whole lot easier than being a good parent. First it was the no-car-seat caper, now it's the high-chair tumble. Since Baby Sean is okay, feel free to supply your own "Oops... I Did It Again" punchline.
As our President might say: Parenting is hard! And it looks, at least, as if in this case, George Bush is on top of things. Now if he could just be as wise about dealing with Iraq, Iran, Rummy, the deficit, Plamegate, rebuilding the Gulf Coast, et al... we might be on to something.
Here are a few excerpts from my take on becoming a fearless parent. Once again, please send me your stories of fear and fearlessness or of your journey from one to the other. And please let me know if I can use them in the book.
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There's no love more intense than the love we have for our children. And wherever you find intense love, you're sure to find intense fear lurking right underneath the surface. After all, the prime prerequisite for fear is concern. And the ease with which love can flip right over into fear has not exactly made parenting any easier in the modern era. The urge to protect our offspring is primal. And in an age of kidnappings, AIDS, drugs, school violence, hyper-sexuality, not to mention terrorism and the bird flu, all of our traditional fears about our children's safety and well-being are multiplied and magnified. This isn't an unreasonable response to the world, but there is no faster way to make the joy of parenting and hence the quality of our parenting plummet -- than by going overboard with over-protection, fears, and worries.
Yet as women are increasingly juggling motherhood with careers, they're compounding their feelings of guilt with soul-destroying fears about abandoning their children into the hands of strangers -- baby sitters, day-care providers and teachers.
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I'm now convinced that if you're a working mother, when they take the baby out, they put the guilt in. And they both start growing from there. Instead of diminishing as our children grow older, the fear that we're never good enough, that we're never doing enough, only becomes more intense.
On top of it we're at a cultural moment when there is more sympathy for the juggling act of the engaged father (look at that guy with his briefcase and his Baby Bjorn -- what a mensch!) than the working mother. We fear that even asking for any adjustments to be made for working women will somehow threaten our hard-fought economic advancements and relegate us back to the "Mommy Track."
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I cannot blind myself to the difference it makes in my children's lives -- made extremely obvious by the difference in their smiles -- when I choose not just quality but uninterrupted quantity time with them (which, in reality, are pretty much the same thing). I'm more important than their peers, and I need to remain more important than their peers through their teenage years. All of which is to say that I can't remember a single day since I became a mother that I have been entirely guilt-free.
At the same time, I've become less afraid. Less afraid that I'm blowing it as a parent. Less afraid that I'm making the wrong choices. Less afraid that every little thing I'm doing wrong or failing to do is somehow causing permanent damage.
This greater peace came in part when I realized -- and accepted -- that I was never going to give up my work for full-time parenting, and in part when I stopped comparing myself with my own mother, the perfect full-time, nothing-else-matters mom. I now know that every day gives me many opportunities to make small choices that, cumulatively, will have a dramatic effect on my children's lives. It's these small, everyday decisions -- rather than some grand theoretical answers -- that will determine whether the balls that drop during our juggling act will be our children.
The good news is that becoming a mother is a great way to overcome other fears in our lives - to tap into hidden reserves of courage we never knew we had. "Being a mom," one of our HuffPost commenters wrote, "is probably the one thing that will make most women fearless. We would gladly step in front of a speeding train, a bullet, a raging mad dog, whatever it was that was threatening our child(ren)."
If courage is the knowledge of what is not to be feared, there is nothing like becoming a mother to help us prioritize and recognize how unreal many of our fears are compared to what really matters.