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.