I saw a lamb born today. We attended the annual lambing at a nearby farm, packed with families of both the human and animal variety. I knew this particular ewe was in active labor, so I waited and watched as the farmer, a graying woman, checked progress. The ewe was panting and making some noise, but not a whole lot. She kept lying down and getting back up. She nibbled hay. She pooped. When the farmer inserted a surgical-gloved hand and then walked away and got on her cell phone, I knew it was time. She grabbed a bucket and towel, walked back through the sea of ewes like Moses parting the Red Sea, and grabbed hold of one white leg that had begun to emerge. It couldn’t have been ten seconds before the farmer had the whole slimy thing out. Smick. Smack. Done. The simplicity touched a nerve in me.
Now, it’s not that I had difficult birthing experiences. On the contrary, I found both of mine to be everything childbirth’s cracked up to be: like turning myself inside out and looking into the face of God. But the attention we give to birthing and parenthood is so different from what I saw among those animals today. The other ewes just chewed their hay, didn’t even come over to sniff or look at the new lamb. I’m pretty sure not a one of them raised an eyebrow over her own babies and whispered to a fellow new mom, “She has no idea what she’s in for now.” I think a part of me envied how much the other ewes didn’t give a crap.
Don’t tell me I’m the only mom who often gauges herself against other moms. (Did you do natural childbirth? You think you had a fast labor! How many episiotomy stitches did YOU have? How long did YOU breastfeed? When did YOU do potty-training? Ring any bells?) For me, comparisons about birthing and feeding have never been uncomfortable conversation. No, my problem is with discipline. It’s the area of parenting I find most challenging and, therefore, the area where I’m most vulnerable to comparing myself with others.
My stomping grounds don’t help. I live in a very liberal town, and I’m more of an all-over-the-board kind of woman, conservative in as many ways as I’m not. Against a backdrop of radically free-spirited parents, I sometimes feel like crazy, tightwad mom. I don’t know what motherhood looks like in other communities. Here, there are a lot of baby-wearing, extended breastfeeding, non-religious homeschooling, cloth-diapering, attachment parenting, and natural parenting sorts about town. (I have been some of these things some of the time, but never all of these things all of the time.) More than once, I’ve had someone applaud my public nursing by detailing the tragedy of formula-feeding. Countless mothers have encouraged me to have my child’s earache/colic/anxiety/whatever treated by a craniosacral therapist. Dreads on kids are not quite out of the ordinary. Toddler-size political garb is run-of-the-mill. It’s a town full of festival-loving kinda folk, people who wear a lot of hemp and snack on cukes with the skins still on them. I like the wild rainbow of people here, but they make me feel like such a cold thunderhead sometimes.
Let me refer to a most recent example, a specimen pair I noticed today at the farm: Toddler was sprawled on the ground, hollering like the kid we all used to swear we’d never have back before we had kids. Mama was kneeling with an empty Ergo scrunched around her back, smiling beatifically at her spirited savage.
“Mooshy,” the mama soothed. “We have walnuts and raisins in the car, Mooshy. Walnuts and raisins!” More yelling than crying, the child did not relent. In fact, she started kicking. The mother continued in sweet honey tones, rubbing a hand over the tops of grass blades: “We’ll have lots and lots of raisins, Mooshy! Lots!”
I don’t think it was the promise of sad homemade trail mix that tamed the beast, but the kid did finally get up. Dried grass stuck in her rat’s nest and to her unisex organic-fiber pants, she started stomping off alongside her mom. Which is when I realized this kid wasn’t being coaxed away from the farm all that time; she was being coaxed toward it. Coaxed! To see little baby farm animals! To touch soft new bunnies and hold yellow baby chicks! To sit with a small lamb in her lap! Howling, she stomped into the barn. I didn’t get it at all.
“You’re doing a great job, honey!” said Mooshy’s mom.
Really? I thought. On what planet?
Where I live, there’s a lot of this kind of gentle, gentle parenting. I get that it’s what works for some families, for who they are. It’s just not who I am, and its prevalance here makes me feel a little bad for my daughter. I mean, really, when she sees kids getting congratulated and rewarded out of tantrums, how can she not think me a bit of a monster? “Mom,” she said to me last week during one of her teary moments, “I feel like everyone else is important, like they ‘re all princesses or princes, and I’m not.”
No kidding. How could I argue with that, since I always mean what I say when I say it’s time to go, while many of her friends’ moms cajole them with sing-song warnings of five more minutes, then okay another three minutes, and okay five more minutes, and finally how would you like to stop and get a muffin on the way home? How can I argue with her when I tell her she’s got her own legs, use them, while she sees other kids being lifted onto their parents’ strong hips and being told, yes, yes, honey, I’ll carry this beautiful artwork you made for me out of Q-tips and Elmer’s glue. How can I argue with her when she’s known me to threaten to confiscate her bike for a week if she won’t explain to me why her friend left their play date with hurt feelings, as opposed to lifting her up in my arms and offering to let her sleep in my bed, like so many moms I know would do?
I am not one of those soft, calm, tirelessly patient, endlessly understanding moms I see. I’m just not built that way. It’s not what makes sense in my order of things. I’m a little strict, a little tough-love, a little demanding, and a lot guilt-stricken about following my head when my heart just wants to relax, give the kid a break, she’s only five…only seven…then only thirteen. Then what? I’m doing what I think I ought to do, just like the next mom. If only I could do it like that ewe, not giving a crap what any other mom thinks, knowing no other mom thinks much about what I’m doing at all.