Originally appeared on Mamamia.com. Republished here with permission.
My wheels fell off this week. Nothing serious and yet still, I lost it. The wobbles began when I noticed I was feeling stressed, overwhelmed and guilty guilty guilty. Such a helpful emotion, guilt. You try to shake off its oppressive stench, but it dulls your senses and makes it hard to plot your way toward the exit. Guilt is always the ﬁrst sign I’m not coping. The second is when I start having conversations like this:
Me: “I don’t think I’m coping.”
Husband: [nodding while quickly arranging his face into an expression of neutral empathy]
Me: “You’re nodding! What? Don’t you think I’m coping?”
Him: “You said you’re not coping.”
Me: “But is it that obvious? Am I a hopeless mother? How long have you thought that I’m hopeless and not coping?”
There are no winners in this kind of conversation. Just recriminations I ﬂing about with gay abandon, mostly at myself but heck, get out of the way or you might become collateral damage.
The trigger for my lost wheels was the realization that I work full-time but have part-time childcare. Well, duh. Work has increased dramatically this past year and yet I haven’t made changes at home. So suddenly I’m drowning, not waving, and absolutely not coping. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to afford more help so I should stop my indulgent whining and just dial-an-angel or something, right? Wrong. Because this:
Me: “My wheels are falling off.”
Girlfriend: “Babe, you need more help.”
Me: “But I want to be at home one day a week and pick up the kids from school. Except I can’t do everything.”
Her: “Of course you can’t, you goose! Get help!”
Me: “But I want to be the person who can cope.”
Her: “Do you realize how bonkers that sounds? Shut up.”
Bonkers, yes. If a girlfriend told me she felt guilty about getting help, I’d smack her upside her head. I think help is awesome—as much as you can, whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional. EVERYONE, GET ALL OF THE HELP.
So why this block when it comes to my own life? Possibly, it’s The Good Mother Belief, the ingrained idea that a “good” mother is always with her child. Obviously, because I work, I can’t be. And I wrestle with that sometimes. Especially when I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know whose needs to prioritize. The kids? Which one? Husband? Friends? Parents? Employees? This column? My website?
The question I’m most often asked is “How do you do it all?” and I’m always quick to reply: “I don’t.” I don’t do it all and I certainly don’t do it all well. Corners are always cut—sometimes brutally. People are always disappointed.
My kids’ disappointment is the hardest to swallow, even though logically I know that a degree of it is vital in building their resilience. But I sting with shame and regret whenever I disappoint someone and I’ll go to stupid lengths to avoid it.
This often causes more problems. Like this week when I distractedly agreed to make my son a banana smoothie for breakfast even though we were crazy late. My husband was baffled. “Just say no. Cereal or toast, the end.” He’s right. I do it because of the guilt, trying to compensate for all my real or imagined sins.
My life can look pretty glossy from the outside. And yes, I’m lucky and grateful for everything I have. But that’s very different from perfect.
The media—particularly magazines—have always exploited the female fascination with the perfect. Perfect wardrobe, perfect skin, perfect meals, perfect body, perfect children, perfect relationship…it’s all bollocks. Nobody looks like that. Nobody lives like that. Nobody loves like that. We’re all ﬂawed and life is messy and I think that’s inﬁnitely more interesting even if it’s harder to convey in a quote or a photo.
The problem is when we unconsciously calibrate ourselves against this false idea of perfection, something women do a lot (me too) and it makes us feel inadequate. That’s why I think it’s a community service when we’re honest about our mistakes, our insecurities, our falling-off-wheels and our crazy.
In public, there aren’t many opportunities to show shades of grey. The nuances of a busy life lived imperfectly can be too subtle. When time is short and attention spans shorter, people prefer a simpler narrative. Hero or villain. Legend or failure. Inspiration or disgrace. But we’re all so much more complex than those labels allow.
Being authentic is the opposite of Smoasting: Social Media Boasting. Among all the glamorous, witty updates in my Facebook stream, a friend recently wrote something that made me laugh: “I’ve just ﬂicked through some gorgeous holiday snaps of Facebook friends in Bali and Tuscany and New York and Rome and in the spirit of ‘keeping it real’ on Facebook I just wanted share that I am about to take the three kids to the orthodontist and then go to the supermarket.”
Back at my house, keeping it real means trying to get a family of ﬁve out the door by 8am with bonus points awarded (to me) if nobody is crying or shouting as it slams behind us. Bonus points are elusive.
Mia Freedman is the editor and publisher of Mamamia.com.au, the website she founded in 2007 when she left traditional media and didn’t quite know what else to do next. You can follow Mia on twitter @miafreedman.