Oprah, I Never Should Have Doubted You

"I can barely deal with my cocker spaniels"

It was worth having a kid just to know that Oprah didn’t lie to me. I thought she was pandering her ass off when she’d stare into the camera at her audience of stay at home moms and tell them, “You have the hardest job on earth.”

C’mon, you’re better than that Oprah, I’d think to myself. Eye rolling became one of my Favorite Things.

Here’s what I didn’t know: Whether or not you like gambling – and I never have­­ – when you’re a mom every hand is all in. The stakes are painfully high and there’s no leaving the table. Ever.

If I tune out at my radio job, maybe I mispronounce Fallujah or Jermajesty. I make a mistake on baby duty? My kid drowns in a bucket of water and I end up on “Dateline.” They replay the same thirty seconds of footage of me from happier times over and over in slow motion, laughing and kissing what used to be my baby. A grave and deliberate voice-over will introduce the grisly tale, which will be titled something like “Drowning in Guilt.”

At work, maybe I say something spectacularly mundane, at worst, maybe I slip and drop an F bomb and get fired. That’s bad, sure, but not as bad as turning my back for a second at the park just long enough for my son to shove a leaf in his mouth and asphyxiate.

Every moment, I’m one choking hazard away from a cautionary tale.

I get distracted as a mom, and next thing you know I leave my baby in the car thinking I’ve dropped him off at daycare, he overheats in a tragic and stupid accident, and I’m right back on “Dateline.” One sloppy baby-proofing job and my boy is guzzling nail polish remover and chomping fistfuls of Ambien thinking, “These Skittles are kind of lame. I’m tired. Nighty-night forever.”

Aside from the unimaginable pain of losing one’s child, I’ll be that lady – the lady whose baby drowned in two inches of water in a bucket. For life, I’ll be the mom who let her kid choke on a leaf because she was checking email on her iPhone. There’s nothing worse you can be in this life than a bad mom, so if you let your kid overdose on Ambien, you have a serious PR problem to go with a lifetime of guilt and loss. And it’s going to be hard to get another prescription.

As a working mom, I can honestly say that going to “work” is like a vacation, because the worst that can happen there really isn’t that bad compared to the ever-present possibility of turning my back for two seconds as my son flips off the changing table into a long-term coma. Working is quarter slots, sipping a watered-down drink, just killing time until the buffet opens. Being responsible for a human life, the one nature has designed you to love and protect, is being pot committed, every second. You may have a pair of threes, but you just keep sliding chips into the pot until you’ve mortgaged everything you have and pawned your gold teeth to stay in the game. You may have to hit the emotional ATM all night long, but you have no choice, nervous as the size of that pot is making you. You can sweat and fidget all you want, but you just can’t leave. It’s like an awful Eagles song.

Sorry I thought you were pandering, Oprah.

I just assumed you had to suck up to moms, that you owed it to them for their boundless devotion, for their categorical embracing of a tycoon with a pack of Cocker Spaniels and servants.

I assumed Oprah was just making moms feel meaningful as they defrosted chickens, vowed to get to Curves to lose those last 20 pounds of baby weight, ordered diapers in bulk online, vacuumed partially masticated cheese puffs out of couch cushions, poured capfuls of detergent on mounds of laundry, and prepared to climb into the mini-van for either a grocery run or to drive into a tree.

Yeah, yeah, I would think. I know it’s probably dull and trying being a mom. I know you have to shape young minds and the children are our future and all. I know you have to set boundaries and make rules and be a bummer and please and thank you over and over and eat your vegetables. I know. But is parenting the hardest job? Wouldn’t that be running a Fortune 500 company, sitting on the Supreme Court, dismantling bombs, air traffic controlling, or being a theoretical physicist, chess master or cellist or something?

Now I get it. The stakes. That’s what I couldn’t have understood before. Cellist. Cellist, my ass.

Sure, the average 23 year-old mom might not consider every grim possibility, cause she hasn’t watched as much Oprah as I have, but I do.

Yes, There’s something about the combination of aching boredom (at least at the baby stage, sorry, newborns aren’t that scintillating all the time) punctuated by moments of transcendent parental joy, all coated with a thick paste of danger and shellacked with a coat of exhausting hyper-vigilance that is unmatched by any other “job.” Coal mining, yeah, that’s boring and grueling and dangerous, but if you screw up, you don’t kill your kid. So parenting is basically like coal mining without the lunch break.

And this is why I shouldn’t write Mother’s Day cards.

That is so much darker than I mean it to sound, because only if you have something of value does the losing of it haunt you.

Being a mother is everything great I thought it would be: I don’t sweat the small stuff, my priorities are reshuffled in a good way, I don’t waste as much time worrying about who likes me or whether or not I’m good at things, I’ve experienced the refreshing lack of self-involvement that comes from total focus on another human being. It still feels foreign, like a play princess outfit I’m trying on at the store every time I say it, but “mom” really is the title I’m proudest to have, and when the kid clings to me because he’s scared and I’m comforting, I do feel a rush of achievement, because I’m that person for him. I just have to get used to the idea that while I used to see myself as a nickel poker kind of girl, I’m a high roller now.

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25 Responses to “Oprah, I Never Should Have Doubted You”

  1. Greta
    May 17, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    I think motherhood in general – regardless of whether a woman works outside the home or not – is the hardest job in the world! It’s like you say, the stakes are so high! A mother can be home all day with her children, or working all day while her children are in daycare and she is still going to worry about their well-being and the impacts her choices are going to have on their development, happiness and future! I am a stay at home mom and I don’t imagine my anxieties would be relieved in any way if I worked outside the home. If I wasn’t the one on duty, I would be worrying about the competence of the care provider who was responsible for them, no matter how good I felt about selecting them in the first place. If I worked, I would worry that I was missing out on my boys’ childhood and I would worry they might resent me for it later. Staying home, I worry I don’t stimulate them enough and they are bored….and might resent me for it later :) HA!

  2. Brad
    December 9, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    Bill Burr has directly addressed this issue:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX4ox7kNdu0

    This is a must view for all of you

  3. DeWhite
    December 4, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    “and me wondering how anything fragile survives” – ‘The Abortion’ by Anne Sexton

  4. Jake
    December 3, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    This is a very insightful post, Teresa.

    By the way, I just listened to you on Giovanni’s G.I.O. podcast, and if you do produce a nude calendar to promote your book, I’ll buy ten copies. (By the way, I mean that in the least creepy way possible, though I fear that even the least creepy sense in which that statement could be taken still comes across as pretty creepy. Drat!)

  5. Annie
    November 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Teresa, I love this post- it is all so true. I have three kids, and I stay home with them all day, and while I love, love, love them, and I love being “mom”, THIS IS A TOUGH GIG!! No one could have prepared me for the full-time anxiety that motherhood brings, and I so appreciate the metaphor of gambling, going all in, with high stakes.
    You rock :)

  6. Migg
    November 20, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    Wow.
    I’m planning to have children in a couple of years and the overwhelming anxiety I feel about having children now is clearly not going to dissipate once I actually have children on my own—good to know ;)

  7. Heidi Ferrer
    November 11, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Me too, Dude.

  8. Heidi Ferrer
    November 11, 2010 at 10:23 pm #

    Me too, dude.

    -Heidi Ferrer

  9. Ali
    November 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    Teresa Strasser, you are my idol.

  10. MommyNamedApril
    November 10, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    brilliant. someone famous once said parenting is like being on suicide watch for 18 years. sorry, too lazy to google who said it.

  11. exploit more things
    November 10, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    Teresa – was introduced to you on the AC Podcast, and am sad that he’s switched his schedule. Your voice was a great contrast.

    The enormity of decisions is one of the things that slightly diminishes over time, and having eyes on both sides of your head for a mobile little toddler is a learned skill, not an inherited one.

    Just remember: there are more stupid people raising children than ever before, and you’ll be happy to continue on with your day, confident that your decisions are being made with a higher rate of correctness than most people in your country, if not the world.

  12. Sara
    November 6, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    This is so very true. I wish that my work awarded me such a break. What happens when for a living you then too hold lives in your hands? You have to be at your best and on your toes because your patient is in labour, and the health of her and her unborn baby rely on your to be alert, and focused (despite it being 4am in the middle of a 12 hr midnight shift that followed a napless whiney day!??).
    This working mom business is hard. This is the first time I have visited your blog, thanks fo sharing!

  13. Jocelyn Aucoin
    November 4, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Well said. I had my first baby 8 months ago and if I had penny for every time I’ve thought and/or said aloud that being a Mom is the hardest job in the world, I’d be on my way to a good fortune. Thanks for your honesty!. The world needs more moms like you!

  14. Lottie
    November 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    I just love you, Teresa. All the above is why I never had a kid, I know I just couldn’t handle it and I’m with Oprah, barely able to take care of a pet dog.

  15. Troy
    November 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Brilliant.

  16. NameRequired
    November 4, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    I have little doubt that raising a newborn or a few months old baby is like that. But after reading this entry, I also consider that you are a bit too frightened of what could happen. I am not trying to challenge you, and it is true that horror stories are there, but I do not think they are the main trend. Babies are resistant – but of course, if you are giving her/him a bath, you have to have extra precaution.

    Babies, at a certain age, get to be called “kids” and gain a bit more independence. Then they go to school, etc.

    I can think of other jobs that, for me, seem as risky as yours. Miners, to put just one clear example. With the additional fact that most miners have to be that for their entire life, that they get work related diseases, and worse, that they see little result from their job – not as rewarding as seeing your baby growing.

    Why are we always trying to compare?

  17. julie
    November 3, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Teresa, thanks so much for this. As a working mom of triplets, (my wife stays home) I realize every day how lucky I am to get a break at work for a few consecutive hours, while my wife, the queen and woman I never give enough credit to, has no break. When i’m at home, i’m constantly worrying about something awful happening to one of them, or even one of us, essentially leaving the other alone to handle the unmanageable. Thanks for talking about the hard stuff!

    • sara
      November 3, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

      t – you got it dead on, complete with apropos metaphors. i am the aforementioned wife of said triplets, and i think moms in general, whether at work or stay at home, have the hardest jobs. breaks or no breaks, you’re constantly thinking of your offspring. screwing up is a very distinct and terrifying possible reality. it’s true, the joy outweighs it all, and hearing ‘i love you, mommy’ can make the most horrific day suddenly brighter. i’m thrilled to be the one to stay home, i doubt i could manage the stress of not knowing what my kids were up to at any given moment.

  18. Marley
    November 3, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    It’s good to know I’m not the only one who spends my days pondering the many ways in which my toddler-age child could die a terrible death thanks to a moment of neglect.

    Add to your list the fear that she will electrocute herself on my laptop’s power cord, hang herself on a window blind cord, choke on a piece of grape because it was only cut into thirds rather than into sixths, eat a poisonous variety of mushroom while playing in the backyard, pick up some deadly bacteria after accidentally consuming some dog poop that got squished between her fingers, or find the knife that I used to cut up her dinner and stab herself in the neck while I’m momentarily selecting what podcast I want to listen to during mealtime, and you’ve got my day.

  19. Stefanie
    November 3, 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    And this is just one of the reasons I developed a serious drinking problem. Every word of this column resonated with me. I have to wonder though if not everyone feels this way. Are some people just blissfully unaware of the sickening responsibility that motherhood is 24 hours, 7 days a week (also known as 24/7)? Also, why doesn’t anyone tell us this part? Why do we all go along thinking about the fact that it will be a real bummer when we have kids and realize a big day is finding a new chicken recipe or getting our kid to swallow a green vegetable?

    I just think it would have been nice if I could have been prepared for the prickly sensation of anxiety that set in around the time I came home from the hospital with my first baby. It’s gotten better but to the commenter a few above, having more children didn’t solve it, it just made me feel like I’d moved my poker game from Treasure Island to the Bellagio. I’m all-in TIMES THREE!

    I’ve always been a fan of your writing but now I’m awestruck! I will pass it on.

  20. V_T_
    November 3, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    You know, I always have to laugh a bit when people do that “Being a SAHM is the hardest job in the world!” Really???? OK, maybe I will agree if you have a bunch of kids and you have to deal with things like rivalry and them running off in different directions when you need them to listen to you, plus worrying how you’re going to pay for all they need in life. But me, I have one seven year old and a husband with a good job and am truly blessed to be a SAHM. And I’m not going to brag about how “hard” I have it. It’s been a breeze. I have a wonderfully behaved kid, I have plenty of time for him, and it’s not hard at all to pay attention and make sure he’s not off somewhere alone falling out of a tree or drowning in a bucket of water. I’ve had time to give him lots of one-on-one attention and as a result he’s excelling in school and doesn’t even need me to help with homework.

    WORKING moms that I know have the hardest job in the world. They deserve all the credit. They always wind up coming home and doing all the housework we SAHMs do PLUS hold down outside jobs because face it, husbands rarely pitch in 50-50. They have to worry about their kids in daycare being properly cared for and coming down with every sickness in the world.

    • ErinK
      November 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

      THANK YOU! I’m a working mother of a six month old baby boy, and I rarely get this kind of credit. :-)

    • Sheila
      November 3, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

      Honestly I think whatever you “know” is magically “easier” than some imagined alternate reality. I don’t think “working Moms” (implying that those who primarily parent are sitting around on the couch eating bon-bons and watching soaps or reality TV ? HA ! not even in 1955) lets face it “parenthood” begins wiith “labor” just to get your mother-father brains cells firing correctly about what you’ve gotten yourself into. Work is work – whether that’s designing the next software release for your company or helping your spawn learn to sit up, walk, draw, multiply, drive and decide. You can get canned from your “paid” job for doing it badly – but as T so hilariously yet impactfully pointed out, you get headlines for F’ing up the parent gig – or maybe if you do it badly enough, the damaged kidlet will take an ax and give her father 40 whacks and when she’s seen what she has done, gives her mother 41. It really isn’t about the hardness of the job, it’s more about the eternal lingering nature of the grade you get. You aren’t just screwing something up in your own wretched life, you’re potentially giving some poor soul an uphill expensive and shrink filled journey to restore happiness or in a worst case scenario, you might be the next person to have to sit in an interview chair and say “no … no I honestly never had any sense that Jeffrey would become an infamous cannibal, he was just sweet Jeffie Dahmer to the family”. I don’t know what it might have been like to have had my only job be raising my two daughters, but I don’t think it would be easier or harder than doing that and earning the Cheerios money for the family. It would just be different. Great installment T.

  21. Kerney Whitman
    November 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    That really sums it all up! I am a mom of one child, too. I do hear that if you have more, it gets less frightening. Since I’m an old mom and she’s already 11 1/2 years old, I won’t be trying out that theory. Sure do miss you on Adam’s show, glad to have you here!

  22. Stacey
    November 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    I always like reading your work, T. It reminded me of a column Dave Barry wrote years ago (I could only find a pdf link on his site: http://www.davebarry.com/natterings_files/daveUNEASYRIDER.pdf) when his son had been in a bad bike accident.

    “But the feeling of vulnerability didn’t go away. It only got worse, always lurking inside, forcing me to accept that I wasn’t in control any more, not when I knew my universe could be trashed at any moment because of unpredictable, uncontrollable developments on this newborn comet, zooming through.”

    High stakes, indeed.

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