Parenting, when its a private affair, is intimate, personal, flawed and just so much easier. In public it becomes an exhausting performance art, parenting in a restaurant, or a waiting room, or in your own house when you have guests, when your parenting ‘skills’ are under the potential scrutiny of those you have invited to be there (or not). It’s exposing and feels a lot like being on a tightrope, where you could lose your balance at any minute.
On my own, I can experiment with parenting, make mistakes, royally screw up, be brave and fall on my parenting arse, over and over, some days. But in ‘public’ it’s a whole other affair. In public I feel compelled to be to be Good At It. IN CONTROL. To have my shit together. Which is frankly ridiculous when you have, in my case, three sets of infinitely complex and unpredictable variables ready to blow at any second. And they know or at least sense that you’re trying to put your best foot forward to the outside world, and frankly don’t give a monkeys about that because, quite rightly, they’ve got their own fish to fry, and unlike you, don’t waste their time giving much thought to how they’re being perceived.
Its the powerlessness that kills me. The triumph, the temporary relief when it’s going well, when the kids are the compliant creatures you long them to be when people are ‘watching’, when they are charming or cute, ask insightful questions, sit and draw quietly, allowing you some head space, or a chance to talk to other grown ups. Those moments happen. They do. But there’s no guarantees. And for every time I manage that, there are probably 15 others when the variables are too many, and it all kicks off – one of them is in a funk, and another one senses the weakness of a sibling and pounces. There’s a very loud howl of protest somewhere you’re not meant to howl in protest (and one of our kids is a very accomplished public howler). There are glances, conversations pause. And suddenly you’re on stage. The spotlight’s on you. And you feel them thinking ‘what’s she gonna do now?’. A bit like when my two ‘big’ kids were toddlers and the smaller one crashed a massive plastic playhouse into his sibling’s head HARD in a doctors waiting room. And the room went silent to watch what the harassed looking pregnant lady was going to do about that? (You get the picture). Or when my 3 year old is the only kid refusing to wear enough layers of clothing on a cold day to show the outside world that and I am a Good Mother. Or when you make a simple request and its met with a “NO” and a look of determination in the eyes of your child that you know may not end well for you.
And that moment is about as welcome as getting naked in public.
Because you are so on the spot in that moment, and while for those people in that waiting room (or wherever) this is just an interesting side show while they wait for their appointment, for me it’s when I am being observed doing the job that I care most about in the world, the job that I am most invested in, and reflects most deeply on who I am, and who I want to be. And suddenly there’s a lot to lose (my temper for one thing!). The pressure weighs heavy on me, time slows down, the eyes of strangers or guests weigh heavily on me, the tunnel vision sets in, the stress hormones hit the roof and with all that going on, I (publicly) start trying to respond in the best way I can.
And I’d love to say that in that moment I am entirely focused on the needs of my kids. But I don’t always manage it that way. And I find myself considering the needs and expectations of my ‘audience’ and my response becomes skewed by what I think they expect me to do. Which is distracting at best and paralysing at worst. And my parenting in public voice, (which just ain’t the one I use at home) starts coming out of my mouth. And when I sit back and think about it, its ridiculous. And with each year my skin thickens and I care a little less. But that need to appear in control is always there, to not show the vulnerability or desperation I’m actually feeling. Parenting in public. It’s a risky minefield. I definitely don’t have any answers, but I get the feeling I’m wasting a lot of valuable energy. And that’s something I could work on.