The situations are different—a global pandemic versus the death of a spouse—but the anxiety is familiar. The questions that keep me distracted during the day and awake at night are identical: What will tomorrow look like? When will it be easier to breathe? Is there any way to make this—all of this—feel just a little lighter?
Living in uncertainty feels too familiar. That fluttery, middle of the night sense that things are spiraling out of my control is back.
Which means…my temper is here. Again.
It means my emotional bandwidth, that capacity for quality time playing board games with my kids, is completely usurped by a desperate search for a magical solution that will put everything back to normal. And my tone is sharper than I’d like for it to be. And my patience is shorter than it should be. It means I’m the mean mom.
In the days after my husband died, after that first wave of grief cleared and I could see beyond the horror of my present, as I tried and failed to imagine what my future as a young widow and single mother would look like, I snapped at my two kids too often. When they fought or forgot to do the thing I’d asked them to do a thousand times, my anger spiked too fast, too quickly. My voice rose too loud too many times.
And every morning, before they woke up, I vowed to stay calmer, promised myself that I wouldn’t lose my patience this time. Because they were carrying feelings too big for their little bodies, and they needed me to be better.
Every morning, I broke my vow. My emotional bandwidth would be quickly congested by all those questions that simply did not have answers.
As a global pandemic sweeps the globe, my anxiety levels have returned to heights seen only in the weeks and months following the night my young husband died of a vicious brain cancer.
Fearing for their health, for my health, for the fate of tomorrow and of our healthcare system, for our economy and society, takes up all my emotional bandwidth. My tone is again too sharp and my patience too short and my capacity for quality time is eaten up by a desperate need to know whether they—whoever they may be—have figured out a way to get us back to normal. I’m mean mom.
I wish it wasn’t true. I know my kids are struggling, again, and I hate that I’m reverting to mean mom mode. I want to be the mom that is taking this forced time at home to connect with my kids — completing puzzles and teaching them math using fun Pinterest-worthy recipes and whipping up theme days — but I’m not.
And guilt is now settled in beside the anxiety.
Because shouldn’t I have learned my lesson before? Shouldn’t I be better prepared to deal with the anxiety of the unknown and uncertainty considering I’ve dealt with it before?
In the hours after both kids have gone to bed, as I replay the day in my mind and try to think of the moments where I could have done better, I also try to remember how I pulled myself out of mean-mom mode the first time around.
It wasn’t a moment of clarity or some sudden ability to take a breath before I reacted in a way I’d later regret. It wasn’t a combination of time and settling into a new normal or even learning to live in the present rather than following a trail of “what ifs” into a murky future.
It was the moment my daughter asked me, “Why are you so angry?” and I had to explain that sometimes mommies struggle with big feelings, too. And it was the moment my son woke up in the middle of the night, terrified of the dark and the invisible monsters chasing his dreams, and I sat with him curled on my lap and we took deep breaths together until the invisible monsters—both our invisible monsters—didn’t feel as close.
It was in those moments when I remembered to give myself space for big feelings and deep breaths. The anxiety for the future didn’t fade, but when I realized I needed to make space for my big feelings, while I made space for their big feelings, that I stopped being mean mom.
And maybe this time, in these circumstances, making space for my big feelings means changing the story I’m telling myself, focusing not on the ways I failed them, but in the ways I’d held them up.
Like when I didn’t have the patience for the board game I should have played, but instead curled under a blanket with them and watched a movie. And when I couldn’t muster up the emotional bandwidth to defuse an argument between them, but I could get all three of us outside for a walk around the neighborhood and find some reason to laugh.
Maybe the story is not that I’m the mean mom this time, but I’m the mom who is trying her best. I’m the mom who is walking uncertain roads, but walking them nevertheless.
I’m the mom who is doing her best. Which is good enough.
Because the best we can do is the best we can do. And the best we can do is always enough.
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