It’s that time of year when employees everywhere are getting feedback on how well they are performing in their jobs. Although pretty much everyone hates them, and there have been many calls for their elimination, these annual / biannual / quarterly sit-downs persist in most organizations because they are a useful way to provide formal feedback. These painful meetings force managers and staff to take a hard look at what they do all day and consider how they could be doing it better. An effective manager will cite specific areas for improvement and ask for bottom-up critique as well. In theory, these appraisals offer an opportunity to recognize outstanding work and to correct missteps.
But what if what you do all day (or even part of the day) is raise children? Although more important than pretty much any other way we spend our time, child rearing is frustratingly un-measurable. There is no bottom line to track or lawsuits to win or clients to attract. There are no pounds to lose or awards to win or records to break. Our goal is to keep our children safe, healthy, and (generally) happy and help them develop into good people (however you define that). So how do we know if we are doing a good job? If our toddler bites a playmate, is that evidence we are slacking in our responsibilities? If our child screams that he hates us, does that mean we have failed to get through to him, or that we are doing well at standing firm?
Some say we can only know if our parenting was “successful” in retrospect, by looking at our children once they are grown. There may be an element of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” but I cannot accept that there is no way to know in which areas of parenting you are doing well, and where you could do better.
Can you tell I’m a bit of a perfectionist? I would love to get a report card on my parenting periodically, but absent that, I am constantly on the lookout for clues of what is working and what is not. Parent-teacher conferences offer some insight into how my young children behave when I am not around. But while teachers can tell me how many letter sounds my son knows or how well my daughter sits for storytime, they cannot reassure me that my efforts to nurture happy, compassionate and well-rounded little people are succeeding.
Especially because I work full-time, I worry that I may not be having much impact on my children’s development at all. My husband gives me grief for staying up into the wee hours preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next day, but I feel like at least then I am nourishing their bodies and giving them the best physical fuel to grow and learn. The truth is, I am often not around to create or highlight teachable moments. And even when I am home and giving my kids my full attention, my focus is still split three ways so I cannot give each one what he or she needs all the time.
Still, every once in a while, my children – that is, the work product itself – give me some valuable feedback on my parenting. For example, for my birthday this year, my daughter chose a card from a South African gift shop to decorate for me. When I asked why she’d chosen that particular card, she seemed confused, “Because it has a picture of you on the front,” she’d explained. Learning that my 3.5-year-old thinks I look like a 20-something boho-chic European supermodel was the best gift I got this year.
Similarly, when his first kindergarten schoolwork was sent home, I was touched to find a worksheet that read: “This is how [NAME] got ready for kindergarten . . . ] My son had dictated “I hugged my mommy” and drawn a picture of the two of us. There were so so many things that my husband and I, and our parents, had done to help our son get ready for school, but when asked, he didn’t mention the expensive backpack, alphabet tutorials, doctor’s appointments, or visits to the school. Instead, all he’d needed was a hug from me. And I have plenty of those to give!
I still worry that I’m making mistakes every day – doing something wrong, or not doing something that I should be doing, or handling something incorrectly. Until there is clear evidence that I am failing as a mother, however, I am just going to keep doing my best and enjoying (almost) every minute of it. After all, even if I was crushing parenting I don’t think there’s any performance bonus aside from the chance to spend time with some wonderful young people. The fact that I love hanging out with my kids is appraisal enough for me.