Recently, a complete stranger hugged me in the grocery store.
I had just finished having a stern conversation with my 3-year-old, whose perpetual capriciousness about her present state of being — she wanted in the shopping cart, then wanted out again, and she was loud about it — is a regular feature of my day. And it makes performing even simple errands a herculean feat.
While kneeling down with her to discuss my expectations for the remainder of our supermarket visit, my 2-year-old busied herself filling our cart with apples.
After our “discussion” was over, I returned the fruit to the stand and remember feeling overcome by a wave of vulnerability. So many parenting exercises, especially the unpleasant ones, are performed before an audience — in the produce section, on the playground, in the church pew.
Parenting can be a very public job. And everyone is a critic.
My exasperation and embarrassment must have been evident. When I turned around, a woman about my age was standing before me; there were two small children, about the ages of mine, in her cart. Before I could say a word she wrapped me in a bear hug. “You handled that with grace,” she said, “talking to your daughter like you did. You’re doing a great job. You got this.”
I was shocked and overcome by the unexpected validation.
Many of my mom friends, especially those who stay home full-time or work nontraditional jobs from home so they can remain with their children, have done so at great personal cost — to their careers, their finances, and sometimes their emotional health. Because, let’s face it, being a mom isn’t often gratifying.
Strange though it may sound to working moms, many moms who stay at home lament the structure of a conventional workplace — metrics to meet, regular performance evaluations, a boss who offers guidance, encouragement, constructive criticism instead of judgment.
In the workplace, when you tackle a huge project, there is sometimes a bonus; when you’re struggling with something, there is often a mentor to guide you through. Even extra hours spent completing work are their own reward when a goal is met.
In the absence of such resources and rewards, and in the frequent presence of so many people primed for judgment, it’s extremely hard as a mother to know how well you’re doing.
Countless tomes in the library and the bookstore that tell us if we’re struggling as parents, we’re not doing it right. They tell us based on science and research and expert advice that if we do “x” with our children “y” will result, and our kids will not only be well-behaved, but grow up to be smart and productive and happy.
If only it were that simple.
There is no dearth of articles that describe the challenges of full-time working moms and celebrate their victories. Their struggles are real; they deserve recognition and support.
But there is a unique set of challenges for mothers whose primary job is raising their kids, chief among them the ubiquitous uncertainty that we are any good at it.
Good parenting doesn’t necessarily result in happy kids; nor does it always result in well-behaved ones. And it seldom results in praise.
That’s OK. Still, it’s nice to get affirmation from time to time, if only to reassure us we are not failing.
Later that afternoon, my three-year-old commenced similar mischief in Target. I knelt down to talk with her, and seeming to remember our earlier incident, she replied, “I will do better, Momma.” I kissed her forehead and rose to my feet to find another woman standing there.
“You’re a good mom,” she smiled at me.
At least for one day I was completely certain that as a mom, I got this.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.