I was sitting at a table in the Tropical Smoothie of our local YMCA with my 5-year-old. We were doing all sorts of learning activities together, but mostly having fun. We sat cuddled up, laughing, talking, writing in our journals about the people we love, making bar graphs with conversation hearts, and reading books. I looked up and saw a woman smiling adoringly at us while waiting for her smoothie. She thinks I’m a great mom, and her approval was apparent.
What she doesn’t know is that an hour beforehand my two sons were arguing. My 5-year-old was freaking out about the paint on his hands that wouldn’t wash off easily. His little brother already had his toes on the step stool, and his hands in the sink, and because there wasn’t proper room for two, all I heard was whining and screaming.
Usually I’m the kind of mom who is quick to redirect, guide, and see misbehavior as a learning opportunity, but my energy was depleted. Despite the two cups of coffee I’d had, I felt worn down before 8 a.m. hit. I stayed mostly quiet beside them, applying mascara in an attempt boost my morale. I was hoping they would figure their squabble out on their own, and maybe they would have if I didn’t come undone first.
Nothing was especially bad about this particular situation. In fact, whining, shrieking, and complaining are so normal on some days that maybe it was the buildup from its persistence that broke me and sent me to the dark side.
I put my mascara down, picked up my preschooler, and set him down on the couch. I (quite ironically) yelled about him needing to be calm and not whine and scream whenever there’s a problem. I huffed, “You’re 5 years old! You’re not a baby! Stop acting like one!”
I forced a shirt on him and told him he was going to school even though we had recently decided to do that at home. My rage felt so good that I threw an umbrella stroller that tempted me so intensely in the living room. I knew I was wrong. In my attempt to teach him how to ask for things appropriately, I was exhibiting the exact opposite, but I wasn’t ready to stop.
My 2-year-old came to me and showed me how to take deep breaths, something we’ve done together for a long time, but instead of paying attention to him I walked to my bedroom closet and slammed all the doors on the way. There, I put my hands on my knees and roared, the kind of roar that’s relieving in the moment, but makes your throat hoarse in the evening.
I emerged from my room still yelling about my preschooler’s yelling, and he retorted, “What about you?” I’m not typically one to scream, demean, and lose my cool, but he had a very valid point in that moment. I snapped right out of my rage and acknowledged calmly, “We both have work to do.”
He had a look in his eye that I’d never seen before. It was one of disgust and hurt, and the sight broke my heart. I said, “I see in your eyes you don’t like me right now. What should we do?”
He replied, “Make it better and be nicer to each other.” He walked upstairs to his bedroom and told me to follow him if I wanted to. We curled under the blanket together and held each other. He told me he felt bad, and I told him I felt the same.
I told him that we should not only love each other better, but also ourselves. I had him tell himself he’s perfect and wonderful just the way he is. Then I did it for myself, but it didn’t feel true at all. With my hands on my heart, I continued, “It’s hard being a mom and always being patient, and needed, and putting out fires, and putting everyone ahead of yourself. It’s hard, but you are doing fine.” Ahhh, that actually felt good.
I felt comforted by my own self. I thought he needed some of that understanding, too, so I said, “Just like it’s hard to be a 5-year-old and have a little brother who is often in the way. It’s hard being 5 and having a little brother.”
He held his heart and agreed, “It is.” We kept cuddling, and he told me his heart still felt “cracked up.”
I told him mine felt the same. I apologized for screaming, putting him down, and slamming doors, and he didn’t let me forget about the incident with the umbrella stroller, but we forgave ourselves, and each other, and went to the YMCA.
There, we looked like the best little family. I asked him open-ended questions while rubbing his back and truly caring about his answers. I watched him draw pictures and listened to every word when he told me about his creations. I didn’t just look like an amazing mom, because I really am one. But sometimes I mess up.
I talk to my children with respect and welcome all their feelings and questions. I consciously try to make them feel empowered, perfect, and loved. But despite the contents of my heart and the direction of my intentions, I’m not always the mom people see, or the mom I want to be. It’s hard to admit, and even as I write this, I’m so tempted to say that I pushed the stroller to soften the reality, but that’s just not true. I threw it. Me, the perfect, gentle mom doing crafts with her son in the YMCA.
I felt a little bit like a lie as I sat there, with my adoring onlooker fooled, for as caring as I am, I’m also imperfect; for as gentle as I am, storms sometimes rage inside of me. I’m not any one thing. No one is. The following night I stumbled across a Walt Whitman quote that read, “I’m as bad as the worst, but thank God, I’m as good as the best.” And all of a sudden, my redeeming qualities felt more powerful. The grip of guilt loosened, and the pressure to be perfect eased as I felt permission to contain multitudes.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the woman at the YMCA thought of me, regardless of its positive or negative nature. It’s all half-true. Nobody’s judgment defines me completely. I am what I decide to be, and I have the freedom to make that decision every moment.