When I look at our gross kitchen floor with bits of food that have been there for several days, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When I put Sprout to bed at 8:45 PM for the third night in a row, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When I look at the baskets of unfolded laundry, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When I think about all of the friends I haven’t emailed in months, years, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When I look at all of the unchecked items on my to-do list, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When the lawn is way too long and the garden is an overgrown mess, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When the dishes aren’t washed at 11:30 at night, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
When I only remember my mom’s birthday because of Facebook, I feel like I’ve failed as an adult.
But you know what? I’m not a failure as a Real Adult. Because there is no such thing as a Real Adult.
Two weeks ago, I was in a really bad mental funk. I’ve been in them before, but they’ve always been influenced by outside sources, like being unemployed, being up over and over again with a newborn, or chasing a toddler around Disney. But this was largely internal. Sure, there were plenty of stresses – a very busy time at work, our basement being remodeled – but nothing out of the ordinary.
Despite the lack of a specific source, I could do nothing but dwell on the negative. I picked fights with my mom, criticized Chris even when he was going above and beyond in his hospitality, and had a mental drum-beat of my own shortcomings. My high standards had become completely unachievable for anyone. By trying to fit everyone into a confining box, I was causing them real harm. While I tried to logic my way out of it, my mind kept seeing that Real Adult as immutable, a law of nature. My Real Adult had become a tyrant to myself and everyone around me.
After a couple days of being miserable, I dumped my mind out on the page. I wrote every ugly, unpleasant, unjustified criticism out. And I felt better. By the end of the day, my mind had cleared.
But I also know that this isn’t the end, the real solution. It’s just a temporary fix to the frustration that nags at me, that’s always in the back of my mind as an adult and mother. The mantra of “Not good enough” is always lurking in the darkness.
Unfortunately, I know I’m far from alone in struggling with this issue. Women, and especially mothers, are constantly told by society that we simply aren’t good enough. Unlike dads, moms are constantly criticized for their parenting skills, with everything from mom report cards to random comments from strangers. Parenting books and magazines (which are typically written for moms) offer conflicting advice. Parenting philosophies over-promise results and pass moral judgements if it doesn’t work for you and your family. The Real Mom literally cannot exist – if she did, she’d be a mess of contradictions.
But this goes beyond parenting and mothers. Women are expected to put childbearing on hold or on ice for their jobs, are judged as less authoritative for having higher voices, and can’t state the simple fact that many videogames are sexist without getting rape threats. According to society, women literally cannot be Real Adults because the Real Adult is male.
So, what are we going to do? Society can’t change overnight and the rest of us have to deal in the meantime. But we can take one step – let’s all throw the idea of the Real Adult and especially the Real Mom out the window. She’s suffocating us with her shame and guilt. I thought that “someday” I would understand, “someday” I would be a real adult. But as the old Credence Clearwater Revival song says, “Someday never comes.” We have to stop waiting for it to.
Thankfully, there’s something we can cultivate in ourselves and each other that can fight this relentless negativity – mercy. If we can find space to be merciful to ourselves and each other, we can find freedom. I know it’s not easy, but continuing to foster that level of mercy is something I’m going to work towards. We deserve that freedom for ourselves and for those of us who are parents, our children.