My children have had (at least) two different mothers, even though both of them are me. I’ve been able to articulate how different I was with each of my kids in this way since I read Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. For a long time I just felt guilty for the shifts in my mothering practices that occurred over time, believing as I did that if the way I was mothering at a given time was something I deemed important, I should have been doing the same things with both my kids. But when I read Waldman’s book, in which one of the chapters addresses this issue in her life, I began to frame it differently and let myself off the hook a little. I’m still working on it though.
My children are six years apart in age. So I mothered each of them as, say, 4 year-olds or 13 year-olds at different moments in my own history and at different stages in the family. When my daughter was four I was in school full time and worked at the same school part time; I was broke, and I was married to her dad. It was just the three of us and life was a financial struggle but it was good. I was new to mothering, which made it both exciting and intimidating, and I was in an educational program that I feared was over my head. But I was a parent to only one child, not professionally grounded yet, and many hours from my own family; I had more time then than I do now, it seems, though I sure didn’t experience it that way then. When my son was four, I had split from their dad, was in a relationship with a man who came to be their stepdad, in a much better place financially, a more experienced mother, and I had a firmer sense of my professional identity. But I also was managing a level of stress that was different in kind from what I faced 6 years prior while working on my degree, and though it probably was not greater in amount, it was greater in long-term impact. The pressure to “make it” was much heavier now because I didn’t have the excuse of being “just a student” anymore, because my students loans needed to be paid, and because the professional clock was ticking and I was either building a resume that would be impressive to employers down the line or I was building one that left my drive and sense of direction in question. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my daughter as a baby and toddler. My son spent that kind of time largely with his dad. And for a long time I was pained by the difference in levels of bonding I had with my two kids, though I was very happy that my son had the great opportunity to be home with his dad for a couple of years very early on.
So these differences in where I was personally and professionally had some impact on the mothering practices I engaged in with to my two 4 year-olds. I was more frazzled with my son I think in those years, and less available for relaxed, one-on-one time. But I was better positioned to care for him financially and I was working to get my head in a better place with a partner relationship that was a better fit for who I was becoming. Now, I’m in a much better place for parenting him at 13 that I would otherwise have been, even though parenting him looks rather different than how I parented my daughter at 13. But that’s a subject for another post. More on this idea of I Was two Different Mothers later.