Judgment day: Ten years later

MY life

I sat in the hard, straight chair awaiting my judgment. I sported the pink twin set and khaki pants I had carefully selected to portray competence and warmth. Surrounding my chair and the heavy-duty faux-grain table in front of me were essays about wildlife taped to the walls and crudely stroked paintings of what appeared to be ocean waves. There, I sat in front of my judge—my son’s fourth-grade teacher.

You see, as a stay-at-home mom, this is the closest thing I have to a performance evaluation these days. My sixth-grader never said,"Wow, Mom, that was a very effective lecture on reducing cell phone usage last month. As a result, I cut cell phone usage by 20 percent.” I don’t earn job promotions based on output and performance. So, really, this is it.

Like any good manager, the teacher began with the positives.

“His book report based on a nonfiction book was neat, concise, giving him an A. He seems to enjoy our science experiments and he clearly has a good mind for math, but …”

Oh boy, here it comes.

“The following report on a biography was sloppy. He obviously didn’t put a lot of work or thought into it. I’m not really sure he even completed the book. In other areas, I feel like he is not giving his best effort. He should be making all A’s, and he seems to prefer chatting with his friends than listening in class which is disrespectful to me and to ….”

And so it continued. Did she judge me? I don’t know. I felt judged, but how could I not? Ten years ago, I gave up a lucrative legal career with a bright future to do what I thought was right for my kids—be a stay-at-home mom. My main focus was to teach my kids values, to shape them into model human beings. So why weren’t my kids making straight A’s and earning awards for leadership and good character? It had to be my failure.

I squirmed in the rigid, inflexible seat. I tried to hang on to every word and formulate intelligent responses as to why the output wasn’t better. I was thinking maybe she was going to hand me my pink slip. Then, I admitted defeat.

“Do you have any ideas on what we could be doing at home to better motivate him to do his best work?” (I obviously don’t know how!)

Another mom hat

My sixth-grader plays travel, competitive soccer. It’s really more of a career than a recreation. I am his manager. I have tried to wean him away from my carefully packing his soccer bag for each game or my setting his uniform out for him. He has his lapses though and so do I.

“Do we wear our home or away jersey tonight, Mom?”

“I don’t know. Wear one, and take the other one.”

“YOU DON’T KNOW?! HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW?! You’re supposed to know these things!”

His hands outstretched at his sides, seeking explanation, he looked at me as if he were about to fire me, but he couldn’t. No one else was applying for the job of manager/nurse/laundress/cook/chauffeur. No, he was stuck with me and he knew it, but I had failed. I won’t even go into what happened when he realized he was out of shin-guard tape. After all, my job included getting my children to their sporting events with the proper gear. How could I have failed so miserably?

As a stay-at-home mom, I find myself looking for confirmation from the outside world that what I am doing is of value, that I am succeeding. I think it is the plight of my chosen career (and don’t think it is not a career. It is one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding careers of them all).

I have come to realize my success as a mother cannot be measured or evaluated based on 15-minute conferences, game preparedness or on any conventional means, really. As hard as I search for my own validation, I will never find an insightful, objective analysis of my individual performance. It probably cannot be measured at all and can be evaluated only by those directly involved—my family.

I love them unconditionally. I do not pretend to know everything I should teach my children and I am often filled with self-doubt as a parent. I serve as advisor, mentor, tutor, therapist, artistic director, and yes, even sports manager, and much, much more. In some roles, I am more effective and better qualified than others.

Am I perfect? Absolutely not. Am I trying? 110 percent. That is what I have learned in the 10 years I have been a stay-at-home mom. And that is what I have to remind myself on those days when I forget to buy more shin-guard tape.

Shelley Chatfield, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is a Libertyville mom of three.

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