99 Problems

Published on April 13th, 2021 | by Stephanie Sprenger


The Anti-Feminist Agenda of Family Wellness Night

There are only so many years of whac-a-mole bedtimes a parent can handle before breaking. Thus, when our daughters were three and eight, we decided to upgrade our haphazard nighttime routine and end the day on a less frazzled note. We called our new hippy-dippy ritual of meditation, breathing, brain gyms, essential oils, and gratitude “Family Wellness Time.” 

During its glory days, it was a treasured part of our day and a welcome contrast to previous years of scrambling, scolding, and begging before collapsing on the couch for 45-minutes of television and perhaps a bourbon.

A year in, I decided to implement a weekly “bucket filling” practice familiar to most preschool parents: each family member gave a (theoretically) genuine compliment to everyone else. The first time, I was pleased to hear my daughters sincerely complimenting each other’s positive qualities and chiming in with things they liked and admired about Daddy. And then it was my turn.

“I love how you’re always there for me when I need you, Mommy,” my oldest began.

“I love how you snuggle me, Mommy,” my four-year-old chirped. 

“I like how you’ve brought music and family wellness into our lives,” my husband added. 

It was sweet, and I appreciated that my family felt nurtured by me. 

Yet as the weeks passed, I began to notice a slightly troubling pattern. My family members easily complimented each other’s talents. But when the time came for the family to “fill Mommy’s bucket,” the contributions all took a similar turn: What Mommy did for each of them

I attempted to depersonalize it and take a larger, more intellectual view of things. Wasn’t it fascinating that children acknowledged the positive qualities of their caregivers through such a specific lens?

Children are naturally egocentric and perceive other people as relative to themselves, I assured myself. But the girls had no problem using adjectives to describe Daddy’s attributes: Brave, funny, strong, good at fixing things. 

It seemed that only I was adored solely for the ways in which I fulfilled other family member’s needs—my gifts were all those of service. Apparently, my family viewed me as the one cliché I had worked desperately to avoid: the martyr. Which meant only one thing: my efforts to raise young feminists was a miserable fucking failure.

I had taken active steps to help my children perceive me as a whole person, making time for myself; writing about motherhood and feminism; spending time with friends; I avidly and sometimes feverishly practiced self-care. Whenever the flares of guilt at indulging in such activities would arise, I repeated the reassuring mantra that I was paving the way for my daughters to one day be whole, fulfilled mothers.

Week after bucket-filling week, my family praised how I cooked for them, helped with homework, and provided hugs. I felt ashamed for dismissing these accolades as empty and meaningless; what mother would be disappointed with the acknowledgement that she was a comforting, steadfast presence who met her family’s needs? Was I really such a hopeless narcissist that I needed them to lavish me with praise for my abilities and achievements?

It was unclear whether my righteous indignation was on behalf of my own ego or the larger implications for the role of motherhood. My husband, a classic “Acts of Service” Love Language dude, was doling out what for him would have been the highest praise. We “Words of Affirmation” people sure are particular about what types of affirming words we prefer to hear, aren’t we?

“Mommy is smart,” I craved. “Mommy is funny,” “Mommy is a good singer.” Hell, I would have gobbled up “Mommy is so pretty!”

I knew my dismay was somewhat ridiculous. My four-year-old’s bucket-filling efforts often rang false—she referred to Daddy as “strong” and “brave” week after week, and often mistakenly praised her artistically challenged sister’s drawing creations. Really, did I expect a keen, discerning eye from a preschooler?

Then a new phenomenon developed: when it was time to “fill my bucket,” my family members seemed to dry up, floundering as they struggled to come up with something to say. As if it wasn’t enough to be labeled the perennial giver, now my husband and children drew a collective blank when attempting to identify things they liked about me? It bordered on humiliating. 

During our final installment of “Bucket Filling,” I listened to my oldest child earnestly thank me for “always being there to listen to her problems” and felt my jaw clench. “I love Mommy because she’s . . . she always . . . I love how she . . . You go, Daddy, I need to think,” my youngest child hemmed. I gritted my teeth with irritation. My husband also seemed at a loss. The two of them continued to stall, unable to find the words to say something flattering about me.

I nodded curtly as my preschooler tacked on that she “loved my hugs” and visibly flinched when my husband added that I “was always there for the family.” Body rigid, I irritably swirled the singing bowl a few perfunctory times and sent everyone off to bed with an edge in my voice. 

I knew I was being hypocritical. I clearly hadn’t thought about my mother as a whole being when I was a child. I hadn’t pondered her abilities, interests, or relationships outside of who I was as her daughter. Maybe children can never really see their mother clearly (though able to describe their father with a plethora of objective, accurate adjectives drawing merit to his excellence).

What of my crusade to model the “whole, empowered mother” for my daughters? If my agenda to pursue my happiness, goals, and dreams was lost on them, it meant I could no longer rely on my mission to inspire as a panacea for my guilt. If my children hadn’t registered my efforts, the only remaining justification for why I continued to prioritize my self-care and ambitions was: “because I wanted to.” 

It took some time, but eventually I realized that reason was more than adequate. And I needn’t have worried about my anti-feminist children—they came around. At nine and fourteen, they are my inside joke collaborators, cheerleaders, and movie-quoting companions. My Family Wellness insecurity and defensiveness now seems like a juvenile phase no different from their own fleeting childhood habits.

After my hasty and extremely un-Zen renunciation of bucket-filling, Family Wellness Night gave way to the “frantic dumpster fire bedtime” era, followed by the more harmonious “Harry Potter ReadAloud Bookclub,” which gave way to our current practice, which is sadly non-existent.

A pandemic may be the perfect time to reinstate a bedtime ritual, but instead we have used the time to quietly retreat to our own corners at the end of the day. We have, however, discovered the shared late-afternoon pleasure of The Great British Baking Show and have even mustered family game time with some regularity.

During a recent game of “Say Anything,” I read the question aloud to my family members: “What is one word that best describes me?” Their answers transported me back to our bucket-filling bedtimes of five years ago, with that eerie sharp relief cast by the juxtaposition of parenting eras: 

“Whimsy,” wrote my youngest. 

“Witty,” my oldest contributed. 

“Songbird” was my husband’s response.

I’d like to say the memory of it all made me feel sheepish or chagrined, but it didn’t. I felt grateful. And seen.

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About the Author

Stephanie Sprenger is a music therapist, freelancer writer, Executive Producer of Listen To Your Mother Denver + Boulder, and mother of two daughters. Her work has been published in O Magazine, The Washington Post, Cosmpolitan.comRedbook.comand Brain, Child Magazine, among other places.

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