We depend heavily on fire for cooking, sterilization, power production, and much more; but the same Godsend that supports life can turn on it in an instant, voraciously consuming its master and bystanders alike. It should come as no surprise then that flame and temperature idioms are all over the place, carrying any and every connotation on the spectrum of positive-negative (i.e., to be “en fuego” is very good, a “cool” hat is good, a “chilly” reception is bad, and going “down in flames” is very bad).
One day at the beginning of May my stay-at-home mom fire burnt like I was a shorty “hotter than the sun in the South of Spain” on Sean Kingston’s dance floor. After allowing Viv a few pediatrician-recommended minutes to adjust to wakefulness, I sauntered through her door with a perfectly heated bottle. I played it cool when she rejected the milk after little more than an ounce, and I feigned a lazy contentment as I read her books when in truth I yearned to light a fire under her little bottom to pick out an outfit (let’s not kid ourselves, I’ll never be entirely chill; she gets to pick one item and I coordinate the rest of the look). When she politely asked for an extra diaper (“Dipe, puh.”), I repressed the urge to refuse the odd and wasteful request, then smiled as I watched her carefully wrap her stuffed bunny in the diaper, her own jammies, and “pink” (the blanket she sleeps with) saying, “Ni ni, I luf, Mommy Daddy check on ooo.” I made up the lost minutes by using a reflective kitchen appliance to insert my contacts while cooking Vivi’s eggs and toast. I responded to her initial rejection (“No egg, NO TOAT!”) with a gentle “okay” and busied myself with the dishes rather than pressuring her to eat. She quietly devoured her breakfast. The tardiness of the grocery delivery service set us back another ten minutes, but I still didn’t get all hot and bothered. Even when Viv dissolved in hysterics while helping stow the almonds in the cupboard (she wanted to drink the balsamic vinegar, naturally), I kept my cool, maintaining brain function throughout her performance and remembering to remove sausage and spinach to thaw for the evening’s meal.
Walking from the gym to my OB’s office, I continued to bring the mommy heat. When Vivi demanded a snack and then refused the six options I’d packed in quick succession, I didn’t get fired up; I simply segued into a fascinating game of naming fruits by color (Me: “Yellow. Banana.” Vivi: “Banna.” Me: “Lemon.” Vivi: “Yemen.” Me: “Blue. Blueberry.” Vivi: “Boob-berry.”). As we entered the doctor’s waiting room, Viv began to howl at high volume and all heads swiveled to glare at me. She barely utters a peep at her own medical appointments but gets scared when she thinks I’m in danger from a menacing threat, such as a blood pressure cuff. I could have melted between the two fires, taking whatever steps necessary to quiet her and end the embarrassment – like offer her a pacifier when “binkies” are reserved strictly for sleepy time or issue a draconian condemnation of her “outside voice” usage – but I try hard not to let my sensitivity to others’ opinions render my parenting inconsistent. Her cry was frightened, not temper-induced. I soothed Viv and let her express herself until she bought into my assurances that no one would hurt Mommy. Inconsiderate of other patients? Maybe. Harmonious with our considered approach to child-rearing? Definitely. Grace under fire.
After throwing together a costume for daycare during Viv’s nap (The email from her teacher exemplifies a new type of occupational performance pressure: “Good morning Gail! Tomorrow will be Cinco De Mayo and all the children and staff will be dressed up for it. If you would like to have Vivienne dress up we are all looking forward to seeing her outfit since her superhero outfit was ADORABLE! See you tomorrow.”), I felt a rare, in-the-heat-of-the-moment confidence. As a student, clerk, and lawyer – even as a teacher – my ability to respond quickly and proficiently to challenges often left me feeling down right sizzling (imagine me finishing a draft, licking the tip of my finger, touching it to my bicep, and saying “tsssssss” as if my upper arm were a hot skillet). Even socially I often thought I’d see smoke rising from my clothes as I offered an impeccably timed, witty comment. And I generally forgave myself in short order for professional missteps as well as jokes that fell flat or landed a foot in my mouth. In fact, I’ve pretty much always felt a deep-seated confidence (placing body-image and a few tween years aside) that manifested itself multiple times a day in self-congratulation for completion of even the smallest tasks. “Nicely done,” I’d think, “you read 108 pages of Twilight today when yesterday you only made it through 97!” “Sweet, three ten minute miles IN A ROW.” “Excellent turn of phrase for closing that motion. Rocked it.” “Superlative sock-bracelet-scrunchie matching.” “That’s one small color-coded binder for Gail, one giant leap for organized kind.” “Bam! Another perfectly cooked bag of microwave popcorn for this lady.”
That unwavering aplomb disappeared during the last two years. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought someone else could love and care for Viv better. The two of us get on like a house on fire, and I’m proud of the little person she’s becoming. But Viv’s pain-ridden first six months, the feeding tube dependence of the next six months, and the weaning struggles of her third half-year swept through the warehouse containing my stores of assurance and pluck like a massive fireball, and the normal trials of motherhood simmered and surged as flames continuing the incendiary destruction.
I constantly took fire from myself for minor tactical errors. “If we’d left the park five minutes earlier, we could’ve caught the trolley and gotten home in time for an early nap. Instead she had to sit in her stroller forever and got her second wind. Way to go, genius.” “Really? You brought the pink swimsuit? How many searing shoulder indents must you see before you relegate that thing to storage, jackass?” “Rush her to bed much? You could have read another book, enjoyed a few snuggles, and gracefully departed from a drowsy angel. But no, you’re right, a hyper, angry toddler and a bad taste in your mouth is totally worth the extra six minutes to yourself. Well played.” Then there were the times my blood truly began to boil, usually during a prolonged nap battle but even over something as silly as Vivi removing her shoe and kicking it onto the sidewalk for the fourth time in a one-block span. I very rarely got angry at her; my own inability to fire on all cylinders all the time – sensing and responding to her tiredness cues or keeping a cool head (Helllllooooo, just stick the damn sneaker in the diaper bag!) – infuriated me. And of course my frustration only left me more ill-prepared to make the next judgment call.
Never once before in my professional life did I feel so overwhelmed as to contemplate quitting or getting myself fired; but this job repeatedly left me thinking, “I can’t do it. I just can’t f*#$ing handle this anymore” – mostly during Viv’s illness, but on more than one occasion since she’s been well. I know I’m not alone, and I know it’s not just other type-A folks fighting this fire. What is it about parenthood? Why do we hold ourselves to a standard more exacting than those at play in the most prestigious professions? Why do we suddenly focus on our limitations rather than our achievements?
One could argue that parenting causes such heightened self-doubt because it doesn’t allow for perfection or definitive best practices. I don’t buy it. A term paper, bench memo, legal brief, or lesson plan can always be improved upon; and both teaching and the practice of law admit of no unambiguously correct course of action in most cases. When I worked, I accepted those facts, did my best in the time permitted, and got on with things. I also reject the theory that stay-at-home parents play with fire when they combine their work and home life into one sphere. I’ve seen my husband and other members of the paid labor force burned by the same phenomenon.
To properly communicate my working hypothesis, I need to put aside the half-baked colloquialisms and images (just for a second) and provide a metaphor that harnesses fire’s complexity. Picture, if you will, a forge fire driving production up until the moment its flames surge out of control, escape the hearth, destroy the smithy’s shop, and scorch his neighbors’ outbuildings. Now call that blaze – with its potential and threat – human passion or ambition. My theory is that new parents are more invested in this project than any previous one. Because we’d go through fire and water for our kids, we develop a yearning for perfection that doesn’t recede in the face of our cognitive understanding that precision and flawlessness cannot exist here. In practical terms, we want so desperately to give our children the best that we continuously question whether we could be doing better. Our intense love for our offspring and unending desire to help them on their way literally sustain hominid life on this planet, but the same impulses allowed to run rampant produce a fear of imperfect performance that can compromise parental decision-making and emotional well-being. We start with the most promising of intentions and end up holding a bill for charred outbuildings.
Does this mean I’ll be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire by giving birth to a second kid? I don’t think so. The feeling that my parenting had set the world on fire continued the last two months. It survived even when my attempts to care for Viv misfired. Both the newly effective communication between us (i.e., the fact that she talks) and the break I get on Tuesdays and Thursdays definitely provide a coolant for the engine behind my maternal drive. But our minute-to-minute existence really hasn’t chilled out that much, particularly not with Vivi’s fuse growing shorter as her official “twos” arrive. I think the real change was a mental one: after a totally fortuitous day of feeling like I absolutely could not have done better by Viv, I accepted that my best efforts are enough. Since that day, even when I know I could have attained greater parenting success with a different course of action, I don’t give myself hell over it. I don’t stand paralyzed by regret and anger. My best in each moment is my best in that moment, and, as previously established, my best is enough. My unparalleled passion for this job continues, but my ambition finds itself tamed; I truly believe that I’m achieving at the highest level, as is, imperfection and all.
After deciding that I can take the heat, I find myself once more dancing around the kitchen in my skivvies to the sound of my own applause.