For a nerd like myself, there was no better day than report card day. I waited for my grades with joyful anticipation. With few exceptions (damn you, Calculus), I was excited and proud to have my classroom victories in hard copy. My Mom and Dad were always enthusiastic about my academic success, but presenting them with that list of A’s was an important childhood ritual.
That need for positive reinforcement continued in my professional life through performance reviews. Having tangible proof of my strengths and weaknesses was always satisfying. Meets expectations. Exceeds expectations. FAR exceeds expectations. Like a grown-up report card, without the need for parental signature.
When I left the world of work for stay-at-home motherhood, I knew I’d miss some things about the workplace, but it never occurred to me that I’d suffer from lack of feedback.
In case you’ve never experienced a newborn: Babies are not good at communication. Beyond malodorous clues, the new little person that I was suddenly responsible for was really terrible at telling me how things were going.
For those of us who thrive on positive reinforcement, this was frustrating.
Luckily, the first few months of frequent pediatric visits filled that void. The nurses provided oddly specific data points I found easy to associate with metrics of my parental quality rating: Baby’s head size is 87th percentile? That’s practically an A-, right? Height off the charts? Clearly I was doing a superior job parenting. Weight a little below 50th? Maybe just an off day. Let’s work on that, OK buddy? Cut to me furiously scribbling notes about protein sources and veggie muffins.
In my heart of hearts, I always knew that these percentiles had nothing to do with how I was doing as a parent, but what else did I have? How did I know if I was doing it right without any metrics? Was I meeting expectations or not? There seemed no way to tell without clear goals established through complicated paperwork.
I felt more than a bit insecure.
I turned to the Internet, in its infinite wisdom, to track my son’s developmental milestones. Turning over by 3 months, crawling by 6, walking by 12? Yes, yes, and well no, not so much. My son was a late walker, although he talked a blue streak (those who know me well are not surprised at this). It really hit home when another parent ‘helpfully’ pointed out that he was the only one at the music class still crawling around. As his peers toddled to the drum, he scooted happily around. I had to ask myself: Had I done something to cause this obvious delay? Too much stroller time? I beat myself up about it in my mind all afternoon. Failed to meet expectations.
That night I was in tears relating the events of the day to my husband, who patiently listened and talked me out of hiring a pediatric physical therapist for our 13 month old.
“Look at that happy little man,” he said, watching our giggling baby boy turbo-crawl around after the cat.
“He’s doing great. YOU are doing great.”
And that’s all it took.
This wasn’t about me and my ego, it was about taking care of my family. That particular stage didn’t last long, but during that time, my rewards would have to come in the form of stickers and hugs, in small victories over shoelaces and Legos and the occasional well-timed nap. And by the way, my son eventually did walk, for about ten steps, and hasn’t stopped running since.
Now that I have two ‘big’ kids, I get lots of running commentary on everything from my grooming techniques (“Mom your hair looks… not good.”) to my culinary skills (“These are almost the most delicious hot dogs you ever made!”). They are smart enough to know that positive reinforcement is their Get Out of Jail Free Card and some days I even feel like I’m killing this whole Mom thing.
“Mommy,” my younger son will say, hugging my legs and looking up at me. “You’re the best Mom in the world!”
I laugh and pick him up while I still can; while he still lets me.
“I probably am,” I tease. “Because YOU two are the best!”
And with that review, the only one that really matters, I know I’ve exceeded expectations.
This piece originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Fete Lifestyle Magazine.