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What will the neighbors think?

by Meagan Francis on July 31, 2010

A couple weeks ago, I was out chatting with my neighbor, a very friendly woman who’s a parent herself. When she asked what I’d been up to lately, I shared that I am writing a book.

“Oh really? What’s it about?” she asked.

“Uh, well, it’s a book about how to be a happier mom…” I responded. And inwardly, I cringed a little.

After all, we live on narrow city lots, the sort where neighbors really know each other’s business. My house has a bank of windows facing her large yard. The other side of our house is even more dangerous. That’s where you’ll find the bedroom windows, a mere 15 feet or so from our neighbors’ windows. I leave my windows open a lot. And I sometimes wonder, if my neighbors judged the happiness of our home only by what carries out of those windows and makes it to their ears, what would they think about our family?

I tend toward being a yeller, even when I’m not angry about anything. I holler from the kitchen to the living room to tell the kids their X-Box time is up or get more information about a squabble when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner.  I shout to be heard above the din of a busy house–especially when the din grows into a roar. And yes, sometimes when I’m tired and frustrated and just want the kids to stop what they’re doing and listen to me LIKE RIGHT NOW I yell the worst kind of yell, the angry yell.

It’s a useful exercise, wondering what our home must sound like to those who live closest to us. Of course they aren’t privvy to the murmured “I love you’s” and nighttime tuck-ins, or the stories or shared jokes or laughs or civil dinnertime conversations. But even if they were, would those quiet, peaceful moments outweigh all the yelly-ness?

Would somebody who stood outside my window all day believe me if I told them that I was a happy mom?

And if they wouldn’t, would I believe it? Would my children?

While yelling is one example of something I know I do more than I should, that’s not the only thing that gets in the way between my ideals and my actions sometimes. Recently Sara of Self-Made Mom coined a most excellent term–Comissermom–to describe the sort of one-upswomanship via complaining that is so tempting for moms to partake in. In her post Sara wrote:

I’m constantly fascinated and saddened by the collective misery of motherhood. In many ways, the internet brings out the raw truth of what we are going through, the mindless days, the never-ending little wars with little ones, and the exhaustion that it brings. It’s nice to know that when my child goes completely limp in the middle of Whole Foods in protest, I’m not the only one….

and

We are bashful about bragging about our parenting successes, so instead we turn into negative little mom-bots trying to get a word in edgewise about how sucky things got. I never want to win the battle of the highest thermometer reading.

Wise words from Sara. I wrote here about venting, whether it really helps moms cope, and how to balance telling the truth with writing our own realities a few months ago. But what didn’t occur to me until I read Sara’s post and thought about it in context with the neighbor experience is that commisermom-ming doesn’t just affect us. Our kids know. They listen. And even if they don’t know exactly what we’re talking about or we mostly shield them from complaining, just expending that much energy on complaining about motherhood colors how we experience it.

Perception is reality. If we constantly reinforce (to ourselves, our kids, or one another) the belief that we’ve got it hard, that motherhood is frustrating and tiresome and boring and burdensome, it will affect how we engage with our kids and the rest of the world. Yelling does this to me. The more I yell, the louder the house seems (gee, I wonder why), and the more I want to yell. Even the urge to shout can be traced back to a cause, most of the time.  I know that on the days I face with a clear purpose of having a productive, peaceful, happy family life, I am much less likely to yell at the kids. It’s the days when I try to bulldoze through my to-do list, viewing my children as just another roadblock in a long line of obstacles, that I turn into The Holler-iest Mom.

No mother is perfect and no family is always happy.  I don’t expect that I’ll never find anything to complain about again, or that I’ll never raise my voice at (or simply around) my kids. But I can be mindful about it, make a conscious effort to live the ideals that I’ll admit sometimes don’t make it outside my head. Make a conscious effort to give off a happy vibe outwardly, not just here in my blog, and in my own thoughts.

I don’t owe my neighbors a certain image of our household, or of myself as a happy mom. But I do owe it to my kids. And myself.

If I were my future self, or one of my kids, listening at the window–what would I want to hear?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

selfmademom July 31, 2010 at 11:42 am

Nice addition to my rambling thoughts. You are right. The more we all try to “out-commiserate” each other, the more our kids will hear and absorb. It won’t help their security or egos either. City windows stink, but we should all remember that what reverberates inside our own house can sometimes be ever louder.

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cagey July 31, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Lovely, lovely post.

The last line says it all. I am a yeller, too and have wondered what my neighbors can hear. After all, I can hear THEM yelling.

I try not to complain about my kids too often on my blog. Anyone who knows me, REALLY knows me, is aware that I struggle just like everyone else. But my blog is a record, of sorts, that I think my children will read someday. I don’t want them to read dribble about how tired I am after a night of being up with them when they are sick or that day when my son was obstinate on every single thing or that other day when I thought both had lost their hearing for all that they were not listening to me. For example, of course. Not that ANY of that really happened, right?

Seriously, though. I want them to see the bigger picture of their childhood through my eyes. How their very presence has made my most fervent wishes come true.

Even on the bad days.

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Motherhood Uncensored July 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I believe that there’s nothing wrong with expressing the challenges that we all face as mothers in front of our kids. I think it’s just important that the happy, awesome feelings strongly outweigh the challenging ones – so that there’s a balance.

There’s definitely something to be said about “stinking thinking” and when I think “happy thoughts” (crikey, I sound like Peter Pan), I’m more inclined to feel that way. I really do try hard to remember that at the start of my days.

I still yell – some days more than others. Some days not at all.
But I do want my kids to see that I’m human. And that this job is hard. And it does make me cry. And that I’m not perfect. Because that’s not just motherhood – that’s life in general.

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Meagan Francis July 31, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Kristen, I totally think that letting your kids see both sides of anything–whether it’s parenting or writing or traveling or marriage or any other thing that might seem like all fun and rainbows–is necessary. My kids definitely know that parenting is hard work and I don’t shy away from letting them see the tough side. Still, I think it’s my responsibility to make sure they know it’s not all drudgery. It’s easy (and understandable) to always fall back on the sarcasm, the venting and, well, the yelling. Like you said, the balance is key–making sure the other side is even more strongly represented.

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Amber July 31, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I can really relate to what you wrote here. I tend towards being a yeller, too. Also a bit of whiner. When I listen to myself, it’s not surprise that my kids speak the way they do. Which is … chastening for me.

I agree that viewing kids as obstacles to a to-do list is a recipe for badness. What I try to remind myself, often, is that this is the life that I chose to live. Freely. I’m taking this time right now to live my passions. Which is so huge, and not something that everyone gets to do. I am parenting and working at home and writing and all of that stuff because I love it. Because I want to live a life of my choosing. And if I keep that in mind, it’s much easier to keep the yelling and whining at bay.

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naomi July 31, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Hello, my name is Naomi and I’m a yeller.

Never was it more obvious than when my littlest little yelled at her friend, and when I chastised her, she said “but mama, that’s how you talk to me”

Cringe.

I like the idea of simply being more aware of it … and choosing to make one time a day a soft spoken request vs. a yell … maybe (just maybe) in time the practice will turn into a habit?

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Mara August 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Lucid thoughts Meagan.

I find that the yelling in our house goes in waves. This summer has been a very “yelly” time for me and my husband, but after lots of discussion we realized that this is in good part because our children, for the first time, are going through obnoxious and difficult developmental stages simultaneously (in the past when one has been down usually the other one is up). All of this has been exacerbated by weeks in close quarters as we’ve traveled together.

What to do? We know that this too shall pass but we also made a clutch decision: a week of day camp in the middle of a three-week family vacation. Both boys came home today from their respective camps happy and lo! We were happy to see them. And tonight, although there were a few mild threats, there was no yelling.

All this is to say that I agree with you that I want to be someone that I want to listen to. But sometimes, to be that person, I need to not be around my children.

Oh, and having met you, I never would have guessed that you are prone to yelling- isn’t that funny?

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Meagan Francis August 3, 2010 at 7:17 am

Mara, my second oldest just went to camp for the week and even though he is pretty quiet and easy-going and doesn’t actually cause much of the yelling, simply having one fewer body in the house does seem to cut down on the noise. My eldest son leaves for camp in 8 days. He is a huge instigator, bless his heart, and I think it’ll be much more peaceful in here while he’s gone.

Our reasons for the uber-yelliness are similar to yours right now. Two kids are in difficult phases, we have a toddler (who’s just learned to SCREAM when she wants something, or doesn’t want something) and we’ve just been together a little too much. Getting out of the house helps, as does dividing and conquering (I’ll take just one of the two younger boys to run an errand with me so they get a break from each other, for example).

I’m going to write more about this today, because I have a feeling a lot of us are going through it!

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S August 3, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Meagan — I truly love your posts. I am sick, sick, sick of the commisermom-ing, or of parents who act like they don’t like kids. (I just finished reading your bumpaholic article on Babble, as well). I guess it goes without saying that parenting is hard….but there’s something about these new mom stereotypes that make me want to run screaming. It seems moms are either depicted as slightly pathetic stay-at-home moms – bitter and lost, desperate for adult company, or sarcastic working moms, with high heels and martinis who b*tch about their kids/husbands/whatever.

I guess comisermom-ing bugs me because it feeds into these stereotypes.

A little balance is probably key. But sadly, there are very few mom blogs that speak so openly and honestly about loving motherhood (even when it’s hard). Which is why I’m such an avid reader of yours. :)

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Angeline August 5, 2010 at 12:27 am

I, too, am a yeller. And so are my kids. We’ve got the Latin blood, ya know. I fervently believe that my children have a much easier life because of the windows that open onto our neighbor’s windows. Those windows sometimes keep me in check because I’m too embarrassed to imagine what my prim silent neighbor and her prim silent pre-teen daughter must think of the cacophony issuing forth from our extrovert wild-Los-Angelenos-relocated-to-a-small-quite-town-in-the-midwest home.

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Sarah August 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I have to admit I do get a little pleasure when I hear my neighbor raise her voice just a bit. It lets me know I’m normal (and not the only yeller in the neighborhood).

I sometimes get stuck in complaint mode but then I get sick of myself and turn it around. I’m blessed to even have these kids to yell at ;) (and to laugh, cry, goof around with, learn from and love)

Love this post!

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yvonne August 9, 2010 at 3:13 pm

first time to your blog. well written. very, very true.

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ms picket to you August 9, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Yup. I was right. You are brilliant and a godsend and I am so glad we met. Imperfectly perfectly late-night.

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Jennifer Fink August 9, 2010 at 10:01 pm

And this, Meagan, is why I think so many parents feel dissatisfied by parenting:

“It’s the days when I try to bulldoze through my to-do list, viewing my children as just another roadblock in a long line of obstacles, that I turn into The Holler-iest Mom.”

I do it too, on occasion. But when we, as a culture, view our children as obstacles, rather than fascinating little people we’re privileged to know and love, the adults simmer in resentment. When you shift your mindset, though, everything — and I mean everything — changes.

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Sarah August 10, 2010 at 10:15 am

I always remember this study that was done about the arguments between parents. The study concluded that it is healthier for a child to see his parents argue than to not see it at all. That is, of course, if the conflict didn’t get out of hand and there was a resolution to it that the child could witness.

Your thoughts here make me think about this. I want my children to see life for what it is–messy. I want them to know that we all struggle, at all ages of our lives. That even me and their father struggle, have challenges, get grumpy, push past it, find a way to peace and happiness, resort to frustration, find that peace again–over and over again. That life is a cycle and that we have to be constantly aware of where we are and what we are reflecting to the world.

That said, I don’t ever want my children to feel that THEY are a burden or the reason that I am not a happy mother. Just that the tasks of motherhood can bring me down. Are they old enough to realize this? Probably not. Should I be more careful with the things I say, the attitude I reflect? Certainly. But if I had to choose between the way I’m doing it now and some false declaration of my life just to appease some idea of harmonious family, I’d choose my messy approach to a life that is always messy…no matter how neat we hold it up in our mind…the details of life are ALWAYS messy.

So lovely to meet you at Blogher. If I weren’t so dumbstruck by the scene I might have had more to say.

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Heather Mundell August 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Wow, I appreciate reading this post.

I think about what people are hearing through my house’s open windows a lot! And it’s not pretty at times. And it makes me glad that my street is one where people are cordial yet not close and not (openly) nosy. This way I can continue believing the fantasy that nobody’s hearing what’s going on.

Secondly, I love the term comissermom – I’ve been wanting a word to describe the competition for the most reasons to complain, and this is a great one. I find it really hard not to feel like I’m sinking into a pit of sadness and yuckiness when I’m around these kinds of conversation too often. Too much “Ain’t it awful?” really is awful.

Love your blog!

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Dorothy @ Family Vacation Ideas November 27, 2010 at 4:47 am

I’m not a yell mom but i don’t say i’m
perfect. Your article is very true it really
happens. Great article!

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Lise February 7, 2011 at 10:18 am

Gosh, I am so relieved there are so many other moms who yell. Is that a bad thing to takeaway from this post?? Not that it’s a good thing but that I’m not the only one.

We had a gorgeous day a few weeks back, were headed down the street to the park when my daughter decided to dig in her heels about something. I yelled “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to, I told you to do it” when I realized that the windows were open and a particularly sweet mom from the neighborhood was at the playground. I was mortified.

Like, let’s-not-go-to-the-playground-until-they-leave-mortified.

Then I felt badly that I was more embarrassed by what another mom thought than I was about what my own family thought. Of course that was when my daughter emphatically stated “You have to apologize because you hurt my feelings!”

Which I of course did.

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Karen L May 17, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I think I do some of what could be seen as comissermom-ming but I think that most of the time I do it, I’m doing it in a kinda healthy way. I enjoy story-telling and my kids’ antics provide good material. Most of the time, I try phrase my “complaint” with humour. I’m forcing myself to see the humour in a frustrating moment and forcing myself not to take myself too seriously. Buuuut… thanks for the post, I’m going to be more mindful of what I’m saying/writing.

It is important for a lot of people to share their stories and make connections based on common experiences but I do think (like a lot of previous commenters have said) that there is a balance to be found – between engaging in stickin’ thinkin’ and silencing people’s uncomfortable truths. Not everybody tends to land on the same side, either. And it seems to me, I see the same number articles/posts about how we’re all too negative and about how we’re all too positive.

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