Jurnee Smollett: “I’ve Exhausted Myself Trying To Be The Perfect Mum”

“I’m such a bad mom.” Five words we tell ourselves, veiled in the feeling that we're just not doing it right. The truth is, with the bar of motherhood set so impossibly high, there really is no doing it right, all the time, in every way. And now, in the throes of a global pandemic, the bar has shifted even higher. If you, too, are making meals out of old cereal, abandoning screen-time limits, and, you know, are occasionally terrified about what the future holds, you're not alone. No Bad Moms is a series about not just lowering the bar, but ditching it completely. It’s about finding the good mom within all of us. And most of all, honouring that in each other, on Mother's Day and EVERY day. So, please share your stories about what it's like to be a mom right now with #nobadmoms, because we see you. And, no matter what, we think YOU are an inspiration.
Photo: Courtesy of LISA O'CONNOR/AFP via Getty Images.
I pride myself on being resilient. During my pregnancy, I was determined to dispel the myth that pregnant women in the workforce aren’t as productive, or that this would inhibit my job performance. Thus, I worked my entire pregnancy and gave birth to my son, Hunter, nine days after wrapping Season 2 of Underground. When he turned 18 months old, I went back to work full-time with the words of my mentor in mind: “Just strap that kid on your back and take him everywhere.”
So I did — Hunter is now three and a half, and he’s taken over 40 flights. I've been fortunate to take him everywhere (even on set) with me since he was a baby, which is a privilege I know most working mothers don’t have. Like my mother (six times over) and sister before me, I practised extended breastfeeding just past his third birthday. Averaging 16-hour work days and pumping in bathrooms between shooting fight scenes, I was determined to achieve that goal. Yet I struggled with feeling inadequate, plagued by “mum guilt” every time my focus was pulled from my son and placed on my work.
Photo: Courtesy of Jurnee Smollett.
Nothing pained me more than when he would cry as I headed to work. I found myself overcompensating for those feelings by trying to “do it all,” which ironically only fed into my feelings of inadequacy rather than relieving them. After long days I’d come home and try to make up for lost time with Hunter. Fatigued and running on empty, I felt I was underperforming in my motherly tasks and not fully present. Why couldn’t I get it together? I was my own worst critic. How did I become a collaborator of my own internalised oppression? I didn’t need anyone to mom-shame me, I was doing it plenty myself. 
Before quarantine began, I was shooting a project in Vancouver after having shot Birds of Prey and Lovecraft Country back-to-back. Hunter, our beloved nanny, Fia, and I returned home two days before the Canadian border closed. Fia went home to quarantine with her family. Initially, I thought, Okay, this won’t last long. I will shift, using this extra time off as an opportunity to have uninterrupted, one-on-one mommy and son time. I thought, We’re going to have dance parties, learn to sing songs on the guitar, and I'll be fucking Marthastewart.com! I grew up with a mother who was always there for us — she made us homemade doughnuts and built our beds with the wood she purchased from Home Depot. I imagined Hunter and I doing much of the same — baking cookies, playing basketball, and finally getting this potty-training thing under control. Equipped with boundless energy, I would find beauty in the mundane while resisting the temptation to turn on the electronic babysitter, aka the TV. I am a planner, but all my plans were quickly thrown out the window.
As we now know, this situation is far from being temporary. I desperately wanted to downplay it, yet the news of the pandemic kept getting worse. My anxiety started creeping in. I began to experience a level of grief and heartbreak I wasn't anticipating. Reading the news and being on various texts threads with family and friends who exchange anxiety-filled updates only fed my fears. 
The wave of bad news was a faucet I couldn’t turn off. 
While on a Zoom call with my team, I juggled the tasks of cooking pasta, and opening a Popsicle to ease Hunter’s cries. Neither accomplished the job. I parked him in front of Zootopia, taking a moment to process the bad news delivered to me. The film I was scheduled to shoot was being postponed indefinitely — that’s daunting to say the least. Essentially, I, like many in our nation, became unemployed
In a time when so many are living paycheque to paycheque, I am aware of my privilege. As a woman of colour, I am also aware that historically — within any industry — during a recession, we’re hit the hardest. Due to the wage gap, we have less take home pay in the immediate, and less median wealth. I even read a study showing that, in 2007, white women had a median wealth of around £36,000, compared to around £80 and £100 respectively for Black and Latina women. 
Nothing is more terrifying as a mother than feeling as if you cannot navigate the waters for your children. My heart breaks when reading stories about women like Tanya Denise Fields living in the Bronx raising six kids while battling COVID-19. Or MaryAnn Fausey Resendez, a single mother who taped a note to her daughter’s back which read, “I am only 5. I can’t stay home alone so I have to buy groceries with mommy… Before you start judging, stay back 6 feet.” 
Photo: Courtesy of Jurnee Smollett.
No one can prepare you for raising a toddler during a pandemic. Sure, I can teach Hunter to properly wash his hands but how do you explain to a three-year-old that he must wear a mask that’s too big for his face? How do you explain why he can't see his cousin for months, or why there is a mascot performing in the street for a “drive-by birthday party”? You learn to get creative and make everything a game, like giving Hunter frozen hockey figures made from ice moulds to watch melt in the sun (buying me some “me time”). But what happens when your anxiety buries your inner playful child
In addition to explaining to Hunter for the fifth time not to throw valuable rolls of toilet paper into the toilet, everyday tasks such as making breakfast became a struggle. The monotonous routine of cooking, cleaning, Zoom meetings, reading scripts, homeschooling (certainly not a part of the plan), playtime, and bedtime can feel overwhelming.
Here the mom guilt creeps back in. Sure we’re in a pandemic but where is the playful mom with the boundless energy? You let your son watch YouTube so you could sleep longer? Then he had a Popsicle before breakfast? FAILING! Who’s to say that’s a fail? I don’t let my child starve so isn't that a win?
Only now, I've realised I’ve exhausted myself in pursuit of being the perfect mom. Perfection is an illusion. This time is forcing me to slow down. To give myself grace. My own inability to recharge without apologising for it created an environment in which I couldn’t be my best self. Running myself into the ground served no one. Not my son, not my family, and certainly not myself. Subconsciously, I based goals of perfection on a sort of outward consensus of motherhood. However, inward lies the instructions of what motherhood should look like for ME. Only me, and no one else. I believe God gives us primal parenting instincts. Only when we become socialised and conditioned by our environments do we silence our instincts.  

No one can prepare you for raising a toddler during a pandemic. Sure, I can teach Hunter to properly wash his hands but how do you explain to a three-year-old that he must wear a mask that’s too big for his face?

Jurnee Smollett
Through a daily routine of meditation, prayer, and journalling, I’ve been able to inspect some of these feelings in order to release that which no longer serves me. My anxiety is better now in Day I-Can't-Tell-You-What-Day-This-Is of quarantine than it was weeks ago. I’ve turned off the news, muted the group texts, and released the attachment I had to the outcome. For me, it's a constant exercise in letting go of that which I cannot control in an effort to return to my playful self.
I will be so bold to say that whatever the new normal will be, I’ll enter it with curiosity, the eagerness to play, and discover creative ways of approaching everyday life…much like our children do everyday. Through stillness, I’ve been able to shift my perspective from being at the mercy of these conditions to finding wisdom in the uncertainty. Forget the plans, be kind to myself, stay present, breathe, inspect and release that which doesn't serve me, play. Repeat. That’s how I’m finding my joy during a pandemic. 

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