Shortcomings, Expectations and Pushing Back

I’m still (slowly) working my way through the fabulous book Use Your Words by Kate Hopper. Today’s post was inspired by one of the writing exercises in that book.


There is a scene that plays itself over and over in my mind. It’s not a scene that happened once, on a single occasion. Rather, it’s a scenario that I’ve encountered again and again – so many times, in fact, that the scene is sort of an amalgam of countless different occasions. And it’s a scene that I file under my shortcomings as a mother.

Let me set the stage for you. It’s late afternoon or evening. If you have kids you know it well – it’s the time of day at which your patience has started wearing thin. It’s not so much that it’s been a bad day, or an especially long day. Rather, it’s just been yet another day with young children, and all of the challenges that entails. A day spent fetching snacks and wiping snotty noses and answering question after question after question. A day with no bathroom privacy, and pretty much no consideration for my needs whatsoever. Just a day, like so many before it, and so many that will follow it.

Then, something happens. It’s probably not terribly big, or terribly consequential. But the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back probably didn’t seem big or consequential, either. As everyone is a little bit tired, tempers are short. One of my children is terribly upset by the event, and comes running to me for solace.

What could be more natural than a small child running to his or her mother for comfort?

In this moment, I know that my child will not settle for anyone or anything other than me. However, I also know that there’s nothing left in me to give. I have been all wrung out like a well-used washcloth by the petty and incessant demands of my life. And so, I resist. I back away. I deflect. I stand up and wrap my arms around myself, so that no one can get to me. I hold out boxes of crackers and pieces of fruit at arm’s length, hoping that my efforts at distraction will work. Sometimes I even try to hide.

Of course, my child will not be dissuaded. The harder I push, the harder my little one clings. I try to reason with myself that if I can just sit down with my crying baby for a few minutes, then calm will replace the tears. I will be providing the parental reassurance that can soothe the fears, and order will be restored. And yet, I can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t stand the idea of pouring myself out, yet again. I want room to breathe, and I want a chance to calm myself down.

In that moment, when I’m trying to escape my life, I feel like a failure. I believe that a good mother wouldn’t push her children away when they’re upset. A good mother would get down on their level, open her arms, and give them the unconditional love that they need. A good mother wouldn’t raise her voice. A good mother would understand that her children are behaving in an age-appropriate manner, and keep her cool.

When I was a child, I remember my mother’s friends commenting to her that they couldn’t wait for school to start up again over summer break, because they needed a little peace and quiet. My mother, however, never said any such thing. On one occasion, in fact, she apologized for agreeing with one of them in my hearing, telling me that she was just being polite. She loved to spend time with us, she said. And I really believe that she did. As a child, it made me feel great to know that my mom wanted me around so much.

I haven’t thought to ask her, now that I’m an adult, if she ever felt like running screaming from her children. I do know that when I was a colicky baby sometimes she took walks to clear her head while my father held me as I cried for 15 minutes. But that feels different, somehow. I will never remember those moments when I was three months old. My children, on the other hand, are now old enough to be forming life-long memories of me hiding in the bathroom when I just can’t take it anymore.

Sometimes, in my clearer moments, I can see the raw deal that parents (and especially mothers) are handed. Spending all day alone with young children is really hard. When you pile a whole bunch of expectations on top of that, it’s even harder. Because, let’s face it, mothers are expected to behave in a certain way. We’re not supposed to lose our tempers. We’re not supposed to complain. We’re not supposed to need personal space, or downtime. We’re just supposed to smile beatifically at our children while we prepare organic food and keep our houses spotlessly clean.

Maybe the scene isn’t evidence of my shortcomings as a mother. Perhaps it’s simply evidence that all of these expectations I’ve placed on myself are unrealistic. These expectations were picked up all over the place – from society at large, from my own childhood, from TV shows and books and the local playground. But the truth is that I’ve swallowed most of them whole, adopting them as my own. The wider culture can suggest that I should be eternally patient, but in the end it’s up to me to decide what to do with that message.

Regardless of the causes, the scene usually ends the same way. I realize that I have to suck it up, and so I do. I offer what little I can to my child. I smooth the situation over as best I can. We make it through the rest of the day, and then once my baby is asleep, all is magically well once again. It no longer feels so bad. Now I have a little bit of time to myself. After some TV and some sleep myself, I’m even feeling ready to do it all again, and face a new day.

Maybe today, I’ll get it right. Maybe today, I can re-write the scene. Maybe today, I can let go of those expectations that only make everything harder. Maybe today, I can wash myself clean in the waters of maternal absolution, and in so doing, I can nourish myself so that I’m able to nourish others. And then, I can stop playing the same scene over and over in my mind. The truth is, I’m more than a little bit tired of it. I’m ready to move on.

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  1. I’m in process of reading “Little House on the Prairie” books to my younger and it often leaves me contemplating the parenting differences between then and now. I weight in the simplicity of parenting by how-it-was-done-for-ages and stress of not having anything in house to eat, and contrasts that to simplicity of full fridge and stress of making-it-perfect with children. And overall conclusion is that we have placed (as society and ourselves) too much emphasys (to the point of suffocation) on parents’ influence and response on every situation that happens. We all, collectively, need to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be humans. And understand that raising children as nucleus family has both advantages (you get privacy and exclusivity with your child) and shortcomings (you are the ONLY one to deal with children all day long).

    In any case, sending you virtual hugs. Been there, done that. More time than I care to count or admit.

  2. When my kids were small (3 kids in 5 1/2 years) I used to have this fantasy of my husband coming home from work one day and, noticing me missing, would ask the kids, “Where’s Mummy?” to which the kids would reply, “We don’t know. She’s gone.”

    When I told this to my now grown daughter she was horrified and thought I was a terrible mother . . . until she had a child of her own!

    At least I never actually ran away . . . !

  3. Thank you for writing with honesty when it comes to motherhood. It is tiring hearing about all the ways mothers should be perfect and how horrible so many mothers are that they aren’t meeting those expectations – I appreciate your honesty. I appreciate your sense of humour. I appreciate how you have no judgement when it comes to motherhood.

  4. I can’t believe how calm some people are. I’m the yelly mom. Now Theo has cottened on that if he says “MOM! You yelling at me; don’t yell at me,” my guilt flag goes way up and he’s GOT ME. It’s war I tell you! LOL. *sigh*

    Disclaimer: I only yell in safety situations … (cough)
    harriet Fancott’s last post … What I learned in MarchMy Profile

    • Jacob cries when I yell. Talk about parental guilt trip.

    • I’m totally a “yelly” mom, too! And the funny thing is, if you told me that years ago I never would’ve believed it. Sigh. But it’s true. I tell my daughter to call me out on it so my guilt flag can go up and I can shut up 🙂 Sometimes that works. My favorite (sarcasm) moment is when my daughter starts screaming at me and then I scream at her, “Stop screaming!” The irony is not lost on me, but often the humor is. At least until later. Then it’s pretty hilarious. Off to check out your blog! Since we have the yelly thing in common I’m eager to read more 🙂
      Dana’s last post … Gluten Free Easter, Country StyleMy Profile

  5. My parenting shortcomings are yelling, being lazy (it shouldn’t be that hard to shower before your kids get up!), and letting my daughter watch way TOO much TV so that I can do my own thing instead of “dealing” with her. A couple of years ago I thought I was genius in letting my daughter go to bed with us (then she would wake up at 9 am), and allowing her to watch TV all the time (then I can do my things in peace.) But these are now habits that are so hard to break and the alternative is A LOT of work.

    • Changing things really is hard. Honestly, it took our TV dying for us to break our TV habit. In the end we lived TV-free for two years and it was great, but if our TV hadn’t died it never would have happened.

  6. I hate bedtime. I want it to be lovely and loving. A story, a kiss and a hug and a kind word and good night. But my kids talk for almost an hour, they sneak books in bed and come out at least 5 times to the point that I lose my cool more than I care to admit. I feel like they want me to lose my cool, like a good yelling is what they want to finally fall asleep, and it kills me and tears my heart out that it comes down to that. I don’t really believe that they want me to yell, but they never stop until I do. I just don’t think they should still be awake at 9:30 on a school night after being put to bed at 8:00. Mornings are pretty awful because they are too tired to get up on time and are often late for school. Anyway, I empathize and just wanted to share my own bit of honesty this morning. Thanks for the forum to do so Amber.
    Melodie’s last post … The Night My 7 Year Old Made DinnerMy Profile

  7. I have suffered from mama guilt for a long time. My kids are now 9 and 5 and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. But then I wonder why I have signed up for such high expectations of myself. On my worst days I’m still doing better than the generations before me. I sometimes wonder, if I want my kids to accept themselves for who they are, then shouldn’t I be modeling that for them too? I do the best I can everyday, some days are better than others. I keep saying to my kids, one day I’ll be perfect, I guess today is just not my day. I’ll try again tomorrow. I guess that’s all we can do, love our kids, but also love ourselves. That is what I hope they will remember, not me locking myself in the bathroom with a piece of chocolate as I try to calm down, I’ve been there too.

  8. I love this because I doubt there’s any mom that can’t relate. Having children was one of the things I did in my life that I never for a moment regretted. And I did have times, especially when tired, that I felt overwhelmed. What’s neat to know is those moments fade from memory. So, no worries. As long as they know you love them, that’s what they’ll remember 🙂

  9. I am a mother of 5 ages 16,14,8,6 and 6 (double whammy there at the end). I also run a daycare out of my house with three three year olds and two one year olds. Needless to say I am at my wits end most days. My profession is purely a means to an end, not my lifelong ambition. I don’t have “the patience of a saint” nor do I “just love kids”, (my own notwithstanding).
    It is so refreshing to read a “mommy blog” that speaks the truth! I am usually a pretty straightforward person when it come to my feelings amongst my friends and have gotten a few sneers for being less than the perfect mommy. Thank you for writing exactly what I have been feeling for about 4 years now. It’s so hard to put my own mask on before helping my kids when I never get a minute to even find my mask!
    And my husband is no slacker. He is involved with most everything but the cleaning around here but that is why I had 5 kids, or so my 16 year old says! Manual labor you know. It is what you said, my own expectations of myself. I love your other poster who suggests we all take a breath and allow ourselves to be human.
    Keep writing and know you have a fan in me! No sneers here. Be as human as you want!

  10. *sigh*

    YES. To all of it, including all the comments. I have nothing to add. I’m spent! And today was easy.
    Rachael’s last post … Wordless Wednesday: At the PlaygroundMy Profile

  11. Been there. Not quite in the same way of course. But this past weekend when both my child and my adult child (husband) were driving me crazy, I told my tearful daughter “I just need to be alone” and shut myself in the bedroom for 20 minutes. Everyone was much happier and calmer by the time I came out. So I’m all for taking a mommy time-out when you need one, if it’s at all possible in the moment.

  12. Hey Amber, what a fantastic post. I can SO relate. You’re definitely not the only one who has those kinds of feelings. What I do (if I don’t yell and lose it) is become cold and remote, it’s like I’m trying to protect myself by freezing over. I’m not trying to be cruel, but as you said, I just don’t have anything LEFT to give. Sometimes I hear the voice inside that says, give her a hug at least, and sometimes I force it, and sometimes I just can’t. It’s hard and sad but like you said, and what others have commented, is that the pressure to be perfect is so ridiculously prominent in our society and yet totally impossible. We all know this of course, but it’s hard to let it go. But I’ll give it a try, because like you said, it’s getting old.
    Dana’s last post … Gluten Free Easter, Country StyleMy Profile

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  1. […] Shortcomings, Expectations and Pushing Back | […]

  2. […] With both children at home with me this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by Amber at, in which she illuminates exactly why days with both children at home with me can be so hard: […]

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