My 4-year-old was crying. His 6-year-old brother was running up and down the stairs like a maniac. And my oldest was yelling for me to help her after her shower.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I was feeling overwhelmed.
“Listen,” I said sternly to my daughter, “I need to go and help your brother. He’s crying. You can do this yourself.”
“No I can’t!” she insisted.
She was right – what she needed required my help. But her baby brother was screaming from the bathtub in the other room.
“Please,” I pleaded.
“Why do you always help the boys first?” she demanded.
She was right again. And yet the screaming continued from the bathtub. My oldest boy came in right then and helpfully informed me that his little brother was throwing water everywhere.
I couldn’t take it. “Fuck!” I said furiously under my breath.
Then I saw my daughter’s face.
She heard me.
Her eyes got really wide. “Did you just say the f-word?” she asked with horror.
I paused. I wanted to cry.
“Yes, I did,” was all I could manage.
“I can’t believe a grown-up said the f-word!” she exclaimed.
Clearly the situation was not improving. Worse, my outburst just added to all the questions I have had about my parenting lately.
Who was I becoming as a mom? What did it mean that I was using profanity when I was so obviously overwhelmed by my children? I want to be clear – I’ve never been a parent who doesn’t use bad language here and there. I tell my children that it’s more important to be kind than to use perfect language. This means that telling someone they are “stupid” is worse than stubbing your toe and saying a curse word. Bad language is distracting and rude, I tell them, but how you use it is what really matters.
Still, I never used to be a parent who used profanity when I was feeling overwhelmed by my children. I didn’t want them to know if things were getting so obviously out of control. But ever since my husband died earlier this year, it doesn’t seem like I can handle much at all. Even a simple bedtime routine I’ve done a thousand times is a herculean task.
I am overwhelmed. Single parenting is much, much harder than I imagined it was before I had to actually do it myself. I guess it’s always been hard for anyone who’s had to do it, but that wasn’t me until this year. Maybe it’s the shock of it all that makes it seem extra impossible. Or maybe it’s just that single parenting is really hard for everyone who does it, no matter what the circumstances.
I hope that I was kind to the single parents I’ve known and interacted with in the past. I know that I was usually impressed with how they were able to manage dealing with their kids all by themselves. I know that I thought it must be near impossible to do it. But really, I didn’t know. Because if I had known, I would have been a whole lot less judgmental when I saw a single parent do something less than perfect.
I get it. We shouldn’t let our kids have too much screen time and we should be patient even when they are not. We shouldn’t yell at our kids even when they are yelling at us, and we should closely monitor the things they do behind closed bedroom doors. But I don’t have a back up, so these “easy” tasks were a lot more simple to do when I wasn’t alone. My skin has started to crawl every time I hear a parent talk about how “research shows” we should be doing X or Y. It’s probably true. And yet I’m sure “research shows” that kids raised by a single mom are likely to have a much harder time in the world.
But I can’t change that. I can’t bring my husband back to life. I wish I could read the Facebook article posted by yet another well-meaning friend and think, “Yes, I should do that!” rather than, “Well, my kids are screwed.” I wish I could be a better mom who at least aspires to make sure my kids are doing the “right” things. But I can’t give myself more energy and I honestly can’t do any more than I already am. I am absolutely telling the truth when I say that I am doing the best I can.
Maybe it’s the self-judgment that’s the worst. Maybe no one thinks that my kids are deprived and maybe everyone thinks I’m doing a great job. I bet that’s what a lot of people think much of the time. Or at least that’s what they tell me.
It’s my self-criticism that’s terrible. Whatever I’ve ever thought of other people’s parenting mistakes pales in comparison with how I judge myself. This has always been true, but now that I’m doing it alone, it’s even more intense. I never needed to be a perfect mom, but before this year, I usually thought I was at least a decent one. Now I’m not so sure.
When I realized I said, “fuck” in front of my very impressionable 9-year-old daughter, I knew it was a parenting mistake. A big one. I felt the weight of single parents everywhere. I messed up, and I’m the only example my daughter has of what a parent should do.
So when she said, “I can’t believe a grown-up said the f-word!” I said back to her, “I should not have said that. I am feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Sometimes when that happens, I say a bad word. It’s not what I should do, and I will try to do better. But I love you and it’s not your fault that I’m feeling this way.”
Do you know what she said back to me?
I don’t know if that’s heartbreakingly sad or actually uplifting. But I think she understands that I’m doing the best I possibly can.