This originally appeared on Salon. Republished here with permission.
Posting our fifth mother-daughter-hangout selfie from the Science Museum isn’t an act of competitive warfare or proof that I think I’m winning at parenting. It’s because I need there to be a record.
I’m the parent whose baby’s photos you’re blocking on Facebook. I don’t blame you—I get it. I’ve been a model of oversharenting since my daughter’s birth. Alongside your cube mate’s weekly Instagram salads and the fanatics pushing Farmville 2 like it’s the next Google, my updates-from-the-parenting-field have probably put me in the running for your top-five most annoying Facebook friends. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my entire feed now links directly to the hilarious anti-oversharenting mecca that is STFU Parents.
I won’t pretend that parenting isn’t its own type of competition in the way that everything is a competition, a measuring, even if it is not that thing for me, specifically. I do understand that those early milestones are mostly meaningless, that awesome comes in all different packages, that babies aren’t, in fact, born as truly blank slates upon which our every victory or failure is reflected—did we breast-feed, did we swaddle, did we make them cry it out, did we read enough or sing enough or offer enough vegetables?
I’m not here for the mommy wars. I’m not judging you for putting your career on hold indefinitely or for enrolling your kid in full-time daycare at 12 weeks; I have no snarky “advice” to impart if you opted for formula because you couldn’t or just didn’t feel like breast-feeding; I’m not knocking your sleep-method strategies; I don’t give a shit about how much weight you’ve been able to lose or if this is the fourth night in a row you’ve been too exhausted to heat up anything for dinner other than microwavable mac-and-cheese. The haters can hate on, but I’m loving Kim in this baby-walking blazer as long as she’s happy and doing her thing.
Momastery.com’s Glennon Doyle Melton is doing us a favor when she pushes back against the carpe diem approach to parenting, because being a parent is, of course, hard as fuck. At my house, raising a toddler even with a supportive community of family and friends and an awesome, dedicated partner mostly looks like this: Moments of buoyant joy that lift me up from the otherwise near-constant feeling that I’m bailing water out of the bottom of a small boat by the pail-ful, only hours or minutes away from being engulfed in a dark ocean.
But even on the days when my daughter is winning at Reasons My Kid Is Crying (this week: because we didn’t mind-read quickly enough that she wanted one of the chips her dad was eating; that when we gave her said chip, she didn’t want to chew it; that when we told her she could spit it out, that exact chip was the one she wanted after all); even on the days when I’ve been up since 5 a.m. to work or write for a few hours before my daughter wakes for the day, at which point I begin a very long game of trying to distract her from dumping every open cup of water on the floor while she stares dead at me and tells me, “Do. Not. Do. That”; even on the days when by the time my partner gets home all I want is to hide in the bathroom for 15 minutes with a cocktail and whimper, even then, still, I’d trade it for nothing.
In his piece for the Atlantic on experiencing the virtual parenting community after his son’s birth, Nathan Swartzendruber comments on the advice he was given to “Write things down as they happen, because you won’t remember them later”:
We remembered that advice, too, when we decided what not to write down, what pictures not to take. Selective memory wasn’t a filter I expected to use. I thought I would want to remember everything. Capture everything…I thought we’d be deciding between Instagram or Flickr, but instead of shooting with #nofilter, we were deciding some days to take no photographs at all.
It’s none of my business what Swartzendruber and his wife want to highlight from those earliest and most difficult months of parenting. “Those stories burned me more,” he writes of well-meaning fellow parents across social media who commented with advice about his son’s sleep issues without quite getting it. If you’re “on the Appalachian Trail” of sleep struggles, Swartzendruber quips, “you don’t ask advice from day-hikers.”
And to a degree, that’s certainly true. Regardless of the community space we inhabit, it’s important to acknowledge that no matter how supposedly universal some tenets of raising children appear, parenting for Gwyneth Paltrow will never be hard in the way it is for Shanesha Taylor. The familiar fear that clutches at us when, say, our babies are sick can’t be exactly the same when for some people that fear is also accompanied by a lack of transportation to an urgent care center, by the knowledge that medical intervention without health insurance can mean devastating debt, by an inability to find a way to stretch the few dollars in a bank account to cover both medicine and milk and still leave enough for catching the bus back home.
Still, when I choose to share in the public forum of social media that my 2-year-old has farted on the way to the grocery store and then said from her carseat behind us, “Oh god. Oh god damn it,” it isn’t an act of mothering one-upmanship—it’s genuinely one of the most hilarious things I’ve heard all week. Posting our fifth mother-daughter-hangout selfie from the Science Museum isn’t an act of competitive warfare or proof that I think I’m winning at parenting. (Does that even exist?) It’s because I need there to be a record, proof existing beyond the baby books we’ve made or the private stories I’ve shared with our extended family, the thinnest string unwound almost to breaking, a trail to follow even after the kite has disappeared and tangled somewhere overhead, now unreachable.
I was 11 when my mother died of cancer. Nine when she was diagnosed. The things about her I can recall in the years before that are reduced to a few gathered sentences, blades of grass plucked from the yard and already drying brown, curled with the effort of that brief sustaining. It’s not enough for my daughter to hear it from me, no matter how many private letters I write and file away, no matter how many what-if scenarios I agonize over with my partner. I need for every person she meets who once knew me to be certain when they tell her, Your momma loved you, and she sang it from the fucking rooftops.
Our moments together aren’t perfect. There are plenty of days when I’m not as patient as I want to be, when I cut corners, when I don’t keep my exhaustion hidden, or when my daughter really aces pushing all of my buttons simultaneously, hellbent on medaling in the Parental Destructing Olympics. But I don’t want to forget those days either; I don’t want them erased from the story.
No one is a worse or less loving parent if this isn’t their approach, if they want to protect their child’s identity, if they value her autonomy, or if they’d simply prefer to create a less baby-picture-saturated newsfeed for their friends.
In her year and a half of illness, even in those final months once the doctors stopped using words like remission, when there was a shift from how to treat to how to manage, my mother did not sit down and write my sisters or me a letter. She did not weakly call my dad to her bedside and instruct with whispered insistence that there were things he needed to be sure to pass along, that we needed to know how much we were adored by her. She only assumed that he would do it. And he did.
But it wasn’t the same. As an adult with a child of my own, I can only guess that my mother didn’t think to do these things because she couldn’t have imagined what motherlessness would be like for us, how wide that void could really stretch, the way grief would open within us until it dropped off like a canyon, how long we would mourn her, or how deeply. We each communicate love in our own ways, in whatever ways we know how, and we have to hope this is enough, that we’re doing it right.
This is the way I’ve come to know how: By making sure there will always be stories to tell my daughter. Photographs and memories of our shared days written and detailed in my own voice. The good and the bad, the hardest hours that end in her tears or mine and the happiest ones that light my way like she is the path I’ve waited my whole life to follow. I hope my sweet daughter is an old woman herself when we have to say goodbye, that the richness of our years together provides her with more proof of my love than any single person could ever hope to remember. But if that isn’t how I get to leave her, I can at least try to prepare what she’ll be left with after I’m gone.
Kirsten Clodfelter is a freelance writer living in the Midwest and a contributing editor at As It Ought to Be. Her work can be found at the Good Men Project and in the Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, and storySouth, among others. Find her on Twitter, where she swears she talks about more than just her kid, @MommaOfMimo.