Inside the house of the model parent

"You're such an amazing mother! Your kids are so lucky!"

I couldn't believe my ears. And then I felt awful inside. Not only am I a bad parent, I'm a liar. Either that or I'm only "inspirational" because I'm legally blind but not a real "good mother."

That's how it feels when people tell me I'm a wonderful mother because I know what it really looks like at our house. I do something--one little thing--well and people are so impressed. But I know how much hair pulling, screaming and yelling, fighting with my husband and so forth it took to get that one thing done. And I know about the piles of laundry, the dirty dishes and the cobwebs that have fossil layers.

The parenting feat that attracted this latest gush of praise was the time I managed to put together a cooperative reward chart for the family that ended in homemade pizza. Not exactly super mom. More like lesson one from a parenting book. 

But I also know that looking from the outside it might well look pretty impressive. Things like that look impressive to me when other people do them. So, I'm going to let you peek inside this particular "model parent" moment.

Here's how it REALLY happened.

Problem 1: My husband and I are really out of shape. This is primarily caused by stress, jobs, kids, the demands of society, our kids' school and so forth. He has high blood pressure and I'm developing joint problems. 

Problem 2: We want our kids to learn responsibility. Our kids want to have animals but take no responsibility for them. The parents are tired of doing all the work and the remembering.

Solution: I made a chart that looks like a board game. At the start of it there were four stick figures. That's us. At the end, there was a crude picture of a pizza in a square pan (i.e. homemade, not going out). In between, there were about thirty little colored squares. The deal was that every time my seven-year-old daughter fed the cat in the morning without being reminded our little family star moved forward one place, every time my five-year-old son fed the ducks in the afternoon with only one reminder the star moved another place and every time a parent did an agreed-upon daily workout it moved forward. That's a total of four possible moves per day. 

It took us well over two weeks. Not a perfect score by a long shot. Mama and Papa got less than seven hours of sleep a night, any night they got up early to exercise. There was cat food all over the back veranda at least six times. Everyone forgot the ducks at least two nights, but they did live. They just ate the cabbages instead of getting fed, so the cabbage from the garden is full of holes.

But we got there.

The day of the pizza arrived. It started with a fight between Mama and Papa about who had to go to the store to buy the salami Papa had forgotten to buy because Mama had forgotten his second reminder. The fight lasted 45 minutes and was loud and stressful. I cried in front of the kids again.

Then in order to fit making homemade pizza into the preparations for lunch, cooking for the week ahead and the harvest feast with friends planned for Sunday, I was chained to the kitchen stove for the entire Saturday. This, of course, made me a bit grumpy. I mostly spent the morning, trying to cook and clean while telling the kids to go outside and generally not doing quality time.

The kids hit and kicked each other, got time-out, ran away from time-out, got a reasoning talk about conflict resolution, unwillingly role-played talking out their needs, banged on the piano, hung onto my legs, got into the pantry and tried to eat cookies right before lunch while knocking two glass spice jars off the shelf, got sent outside again... and again.

Photo by Ember Farnam

Photo by Ember Farnam

I hoped to make the pizza with the children, but the seven-year-old was invited to a birthday party that afternoon. So, I planned to do it with just the five-year-old. But then the five-year-old collapsed on the floor screaming and crying for no discernible reason, while I was finishing up the dough. Trying to be a good mother, I put the dough aside, washed my hands and carried him upstairs, kicking and screaming.

We settled down in his bed to read three story books and by the end of the reading he was drifting off to sleep. He doesn't usually sleep in the afternoon but I was rejoicing inside. This would avoid the inevitable meltdown when the seven-year-old departed with Papa for the birthday party while he was left at home with me.

I returned to the pizza making.

The seven-year-old party goer went outside and started to screech with feigned glee directly under the window of the sleeping five-year-old. 

Mama came unglued. 

I force-marched the seven-year-old into the play room and ordered her to lay down on the couch and sleep, or else. I wasn't going to threaten to not let her go to the birthday party because 1. that would be punishing me as I was hugely looking forward to some peace and 2. this was the first non-parent initiated birthday party invitation she'd ever gotten and I never got even one such in my childhood, so going to the party was just law. 

The five-year-old woke up and came downstairs crying after only sleeping for five minutes, because he had been woken up. I put him back in bed.

And went back to rolling out the pizza.

The seven-year-old came out of the playroom. I made angry silent motions at her with a raised fist and she went back in and shut the door... hard.

The five-year-old came down the stairs shrieking that his sister gets to play and go to a party and it isn't fair. Then he ran into the stair railing from sheer exhaustion and bruised his knee.

I washed the flour off my hands again and took him back upstairs again. He continued to shriek. I put him in bed and left with him still shrieking. 

The seven-year-old ran out of the playroom and made it outside before I could do anything. The five-year-old continued to shriek. I got the dough rolled out and started to cut up things to go on it. 

After listening to shrieking from upstairs for ten minutes, I went upstairs and yelled at the five year old. Then I was consumed with guilt because yelling doesn't help and even so he was being punished for what--essentially--the seven-year-old had done. I let him come downstairs and be tired. 

The seven-year-old went to the birthday party, the five-year-old's neighbor friend showed up in time to cut the resulting tantrum short. I went to the store and got the salami. I finished the pizza. I had no bonding moment making pizza with my children. The kitchen was an utter disaster with dishes and half-eaten lunches piled on every available surface and flour in small drifts on the floor.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

But the pizza was hot out of the oven when the seven-year-old returned home from the short afternoon party. There's that perfect parenting moment you were envisioning when I first mentioned the chart and the pizza. 

But it only lasted about ten seconds, barely long enough for me to take the potholders off my hands. Then the five-year-old came running in reporting that some neighbors were having an outdoor yard party and they said he could have a hot dog. He no longer wanted pizza.

Papa came up with the idea that we would take one pan of pizza to the neighbors and the kids could share it there with the neighbor kids. So, I took the pizza over to the neighbors with the kids.

The two moms organizing the party gave me grim, unfriendly looks when we approached. Then they told me this was their party and they hadn't really wanted a bunch of people, regardless of offering my son a hot dog. I offered to take my kids home. They feigned indifference. I started herding my kids out of their yard despite the beginnings of a double tantrum. But one of the moms questioned why I was making the kids leave as if she hadn't just shamed me for coming and the other gave my kids juice. I couldn't very well spill the juice, wrestle two screaming children out of there over the host's protests (feigned or not) and carry the giant pan of pizza at the same time, so I left both pizza and children and went home.

I ate the other pizza alone with my husband and thought grim thoughts about perfect parenting.

That, my friends, is the true story of my super mom moment. For me, the lesson is to be careful what I assume about the parenting of others. Perhaps the little yard party put on by my grumpy neighbors was the fruit of hours of frustration and frantic juggling too. That might explain a few things.