Please say it’s not just me!

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

I don’t get weepy at much. My friend, Mary Straton Smith, knows that military homecoming videos can bring me to my knees and uses this to derail my day by tagging me in the tear-jerkiest of tear-jerkers that she comes across on social media—but I don’t cry at my kids’ performances or first or last days of school. I adore the sweet cards they make for my birthday and the pictures they draw of us together where I appear 10 feet tall.

My cousin, Carrie Calhoon, is a clinical social worker who uses art in her work with kids and adults in hospital settings. She told me that often what kids draw as oversized shows the importance of that person or thing in their lives. So, I love knowing that it’s not just that their sense of scale is off, but that I fill that big of a space in their worlds. I save far too many of those pieces of art; but they don’t make me cry.

Several times a week, a thought skids across my brain that I’m not ‘soaking my kids up’ enough. Which is actually a phrase I don’t completely comprehend—I’m drenched in them, so saturated that sometimes I’m drowning. Does that mean I need to be a bigger sponge? If so, how does one do that? But I worry that I’m not ‘reveling’ in them enough. Maybe that’s why I don’t get torn up about the first this and the last that. Maybe I’m not paying close enough attention, and maybe if I were, then I would have more emotional responses to show for it?

For example, I adore time alone, but it is hard to come by with kids. When I do get to be by myself—I don’t spend that time wishing my kids were with me. I mean, that would defeat the purpose. But then I feel guilty that I didn’t miss them so badly that it kept me from enjoying my time away. How messed up is that?

One slight variation to this would be when two of my kids were at camp. Eagerly awaiting letters from camp, I stalked the mailbox and the mail carrier with unnerving focus. One day, I didn’t get anything in my mailbox. Nothing. I knew this had to be a mistake because it was a Wednesday and my Northside Sun comes every Wednesday—without fail. I flagged the mail carrier down and tried to explain that it wasn’t that my kids hadn’t sent me a letter, surely they had by now, it was that my mail for the day was clearly missing since I didn’t get my copy of the Northside Sun. She handled the slightly unhinged mother accosting her in the middle of the street quite well and did some checking, but with no success. Naturally, I went to the post office next. First, I called the Sun to make sure my subscription hadn’t expired since my entire theory that my whole day’s worth of mail was MIA hinged on the fact that my paper didn’t come. Turns out—when you write a weekly column for the Sun, you get a copy every week. Who knew? Jimmye forgot to mention that perk when we spoke about starting this column. This piece of evidence glued my Missing Mail Theory together nicely and I headed straight to the U.S.P.S. They didn’t have any mail for me and unless my kids had put a tracking number on the letters that they might have written me—they couldn’t help me.

The moral of this story is that if you worry you’re a heartless robot for not missing your kids when you’re getting to spend rare time alone or on an adult trip—ship them off to camp for a couple weeks and stay home doing regular life without them and without so much as a post-it note’s worth of info coming from camp. You’ll miss them then. And still, I worry that my lack of weeping and gnashing of teeth are signs that I’m not showing them I love them enough. Or maybe that I’m not showing them well enough.

I know how much I love my kids; that is not my worry. But I worry that the things that make me feel loved are not the things my kids need to receive to feel loved; and it’s human nature to give and show love in the ways that you receive it best. I’ve mentioned the Enneagram before; it’s a personality typing system that works off the basis of what motivates each of us. It’s not about how we behave, but how we perceive the world. How we choose to respond to those different perceptions are choices we each make.

I attended a seminar on the Enneagram taught by Joey Stabile this past winter and we share the same number on the Enneagram, the same type. That only means that we have similar motivations for what drives us and similar perceptions of the world. She said something that haunts me as a parent. All of us good Southerners are familiar with The Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Joey said something to the effect of, ‘You know, I’ve been treating people the way I want to be treated all my life—and it’s not working out that well.’

Our Enneagram number is eight; it goes by several names such as the Challenger or the Protector. Eights on the Enneagram don’t do inauthenticity; we aren’t interested in gilding the lily. We don’t need flattery and find false flattery insulting to our intelligence. We are blunt and forthright and you never doubt where you stand with us. I have no problem telling you that you are important to me and that I love you but I’m not going to do a verbal backbend to make sure you really believe me. You should just believe me because Eight’s don’t say things they don’t mean, even if we often say things that we mean but probably shouldn’t have said. These traits don’t lend themselves to tending the delicate psyche of a small child. If I treated my children the way I want to be treated—they’d break. But I can try and make them feel the way I want to feel: loved, respected, heard, safe, valued. It’s just—the methods of communicating those feelings to me are probably not the best methods for my kids.

In a recent article, I talked about how moms are so often asked to be things they weren’t made to be; like cauliflower we are expected to serve in roles we are not naturally inclined towards. I have spent an inordinate amount of energy the last 10 years faking emotions I don’t feel, or swallowing back bile to cultivate over-the-top reactions of joy and bliss to things that really only caused a mild feeling of warmth in my heart. I know that’s basically a tenet of good parenting; we all have to give our children overblown reactions of pride and joy over things they’ve said and done that warrant positive reinforcement—but I’m pretty sure I have to fake it more than your average bear.

And if you know me well as a parent, you’d probably still describe me as someone who ‘isn’t real bubbly or ooey-gooey.’ I feel like I’m expending massive amounts of my life force to be ooey-gooey for my kids as needed, and still—all of my mom friends would describe me as ‘not one to get real emotional about stuff.’

So, you see my concern. If I treated my kids the way I want to be treated and showed them love in the ways that I feel most loved—they would probably grow up thinking their mother was a soulless straight-talker who never told them their art was good. If I gave them love like I want to receive it, then they would get donations to local organizations promoting social justice and better birth outcomes in Mississippi for their birthdays, uninterrupted time alone in their rooms would be given as rewards instead of punishment, and they would learn that being asked to handle something for me is the highest level of trust I can exhibit since Eight’s don’t trust others easily and asking for help is as deep a level of vulnerability as I can go.

Instead, I’m trying to give them what I think they need—which, maddeningly enough, is different for each of them. But I’m pretty sure it should include pretending that watching the dance they made up or viewing the picture they drew is the absolute peak of my day and that their hard work on it is astounding and impressive. If I feel like I’m giving all I’ve got to give my kids the bubbly they need and not a soul who observes me with my kids on a regular basis would call me bubbly or overly-emotive—then are my kids actually getting enough of that from me?

I mean—do other mothers actually find watching their kids perform their Tots Basketball routine or ‘The Cookie Monster Says’ cheer or lines for their class play to be the most captivating thing they’ve seen all week? Sure, they’re cute and it’s encouraging to see them exploring their own interests; and they deserve to have the work they’ve put into learning something be acknowledged. We should definitely be encouraging their interest in hobbies and self-expression—but we’re all faking the level of enthusiasm, right? Nobody out there really feels moved to a standing ovation for a living room performance of ‘The Cookie Monster Says’—right? I do these things; I give the excited responses of ‘Wow! I can tell you’ve really worked hard on that!’ and the beaming smiles and clapping—but I should be up for a Tony nomination for my portrayal of ‘Mother Blown Away by Child’s Bigger than Normal Cannonball Splash at the Pool.’

Please tell me we’re all faking it a little—otherwise forget I said anything, and have you seen my daughter’s incredible donkey kick skills? We are just so proud of her! She’s been working on it so hard at Mommy and Me gym class and man—I just LOVE watching her practice her form 400 times a day, it’s just the best!

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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