Photo Credit: Courtesy Felicity Huffman
In her exclusive blog for the iVillage blog series CelebVillage, actress and mom Felicity Huffman writes about her path to figuring out what it means to be a "good mother" to daughters Sophia, 11, and Georgia, 9 -- and how she's learned to trust herself along the way.
I often feel I am drowning in motherhood. It was really bad when my girls were younger, but it still exists now: When I am home I want to be away. When I am away I want to be home. I am no longer the person I was before having children, but not quite comfortable with whom I have become. I feel like I live in two different worlds and the oxygen supply in both is only sustainable for about four hours and then my system starts to stress and suffocate.
Before I became one, I had a very specific idea of what kind of mother I was going to be. I was going to put my daughter in a tiny little ski suit with tiny goggles and go out for a day on the slopes, just me and my cool baby. I was going to ride horses across the African veld with my daughter contentedly snuggled in her Baby Bjorn. I was going to be hands off and relaxed, creating a self-sufficient, easygoing child whom everyone wanted to be around. Everyone would be in awe at my easygoing mothering style. Narcissistic much?
Here is what actually happened: I was an anxious mother. I walked into my babies’ room many times a night, compulsively trying to figure out if it was too hot or too cold. I compiled all sorts of arcane equipment to make homemade rice milk because I decided that the rice milk from Whole Foods wasn’t pure enough! My daughters hated the taste and I couldn’t blame them. I made sure their diapers were organic, compostable and made of corn or something; in a pinch we could have eaten them for dinner.
I took baby classes, attended lectures and listened to CDs on parenting. But my motivation was all wrong. My intent was not to learn and improve but to get it perfect so I wouldn’t inflict damage on my children. My motivation was fear. In all the books and classes the advice was to: “Listen to yourself” because you know what’s best for your child and family. My inner voice was telling me to “put the kid in a soundproof closet and go to bed.” Or “I’m tired of pretending to be an imaginary munchkin named Poobah; I think I’ll blow my brains out instead.” So no, I was pretty sure whatever I had to say was the last thing I should listen to.
My mission statement became a question of “What would a good mother do?” So I did it all correctly, I did it by the book and became the teachers’ star pupil. I became as zealous as a new convert. But I had no internal compass, just a lot of directions. I was impersonating what I thought a good mother was: hours of pretend, enriching experiences, always being there 100 percent, my needs last!
I kept getting great advice and directions, but I only became more and more lost. When I was at home, I was holding my breath trying to be what I wasn’t. When I was away the guilt choked me, until heart pounding, I raced home to be with my children. Then the cycle would start all over again. I couldn’t tell where I, Felicity, was on the map of parenting. In trying to pretend I was something I was not, I lost my voice. I lost myself.
One Saturday, when my girls were about three and four, we were pulling out of the driveway on our way to the Natural History Museum. I had worked a long week, lots of 15 hour days and finally gotten to sleep by 1 a.m., and then woke up at 6 a.m. with the kids. I then packed an absurdly large healthy snack and we were now heading off on an all-day outing which I was determined to make fun and enriching. Bill, my husband, waved happily as we backed out. “Wait!,” one of my daughters yelled. “Why is Papa not coming?” I told her Papa had been working hard (true) and was staying home because Papa needed some Papa time (also true). “Huh,” she said “Papa gets Papa time and we get The Grump”. WHAT?! The Grump! After all my effort and exhaustion and sacrificing, she wasn’t going to remember the museum or the snack or the wonderful adventure. She was just going to remember that she was on an outing with “The Grump.” Something snapped and I knew what I was doing wasn’t working.
I called one of my sisters that night sobbing so hard I could barely talk. “What’s the matter with me? What have I done wrong? Why can’t I be a good mother?” My sister, one of the wisest people I know, gave me the straight scoop. Any damage I would inflict by trying to be a “good mother” far, far outweighed any damage I would do by just being myself. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I promise,” she said. “Just try it for a week and tell me how it goes.” I tried it for a week; it was a relief, but frightening, like walking out on the ice, constantly expecting it to break beneath you.
As the years have gone by, finding my voice has been a slow process, but now I am the first person I consult instead of the last, although I do ask a lot of people for advice. Maybe good mothers can pretend to be Poobah for two hours and go on endless trips to museums and parks. But I can read out loud for hours, I can build forts all afternoon, I can really listen when things go wrong and I am great when the flu hits. I now try and accept my limits. I am a nightmare after 5 p.m., so instead of muscling through the evening, my husband has taken over nighttime parenting, and it works great! Everyone is much happier. I have a voice (small but true) that I rely on and it even gives me great advice sometimes.
So, what would a “good mother” do? I’m not sure I know. But I can tell you what I would do.
Follow Felicity Huffman on Twitter at @FelicityHuffman and check out her official Facebook page. And her new site for women and moms, WhatTheFlicka.com, is coming soon! Click here to read more exclusive posts in the CelebVillage series.