Sometimes motherhood feels so easy. I almost feel like a perfect mother. We sail through weeks smoothly, and I almost forget about all the difficult times—the times I lost my cool, the times I felt compelled to apologize, the times I went to bed with a heavy heart. During the breezy periods, I almost don’t know what other moms mean when they speak of “failing.” Are they making hot dogs for dinner and letting SpongeBob babysit? What can be so bad to warrant the F word? Then out of the blue, I’m reminded of exactly what failing is.
My preschooler woke up whiny and needy, speaking in that annoying Caillou voice and having a problem with everything. Like always, I crawled beside him in bed and gave him good morning cuddles and kisses. This is the beauty of stay-at-home motherhood. He asked me if I wanted to have a gun fight, and I did, of course. Except I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t crouch low enough beside the bed, and I didn’t make the right sounds at the right time. Despite my best efforts, he kept bitching at me. I was over it and braced myself for a long day. I told him I was done playing and went downstairs to fetch my coffee and dignity.
I was mostly cool to his moods all day, going for a balance of validation and detachment. That seems to be a part of the sanity puzzle—letting him have his feelings without taking them on myself. I gave him the extra hugs and holds he wanted, but tried to not let his pitiful demeanor work me. I asked why he was having a tough day and accepted that we all have them. Regardless, I started unraveling as the day went on.
At 3 p.m., my 3-year-old was still whining. I requested that he talk in an appropriate voice all day, but I now found myself ranting, “All you are doing is whining, whining, whining! I’m sick of it!” I was aiming for warmth and control today, but started to lose sight of the target. On top of his yowls, he was calling me “rude.” Everything has been rude lately (well, mostly me), and I’m so over it. He wanted to go to the store for a My Little Pony coloring book, and he kept demanding, “Right now!”
I was loading the dishwasher when I submitted to the crazy inside of me. I slammed it shut in a way that actually broke a glass on the top rack. I could hear the shatter behind me as I walked outside declaring, “I need a break!” He started crying and reaching his arms out while saying, “Noooo!” I came back in after .05 seconds, figuring I should take care of the dangerous mess I made. I didn’t get a chance to gain my composure, and I snarled at him to not come into the kitchen because of the broken glass. He came close while imploring, “What broken glass? What broken glass?”
I angrily shook the bag that held the remnants and growled, “This! This broken glass!”
He returned to the dining room floor and told me that he wanted a hug. He wanted a reminder that I wasn’t a monster and that I still had love and warmth inside, but I didn’t. I told him, “Not right now,” and I didn’t even say it nicely. I could have stopped cleaning the glass to hug him and take control of myself, but I chose not to. Did I want him to feel bad? To be scared? Or did I just want to let go and embrace the crazy bitch inside of me?
I could feel her emerging—the same angry woman from those hormonal postpartum days when I was sharp and irrational to my husband. Allowing her to possess me is a semi-conscious choice because I have opportunities to push her away and deescalate, but in the heat of the moment, I don’t want to. I rather the satisfaction of slamming a dishwasher (or shooting daggers at my husband). I hate that crazy bitch though, because when she returns to that dark crevice inside me, I face a painful low—like a drug addict after a high, ashamed and remorseful.
Today I was ashamed for not being the mom my son deserves—the patient one who skirts boundaries, so fucking close to edge, the one who stays in control and talks gently, the one who shows love when it is needed the most. I was also mad at myself for being such a poor model of appropriate behavior. My actions have high-stakes consequences because these little people are always learning from me. I pictured my children growing up to slam shit when they’re mad and growl at people who ask for hugs. Their wives will send them to therapy, and they will recount stories of their crazy-ass mother.
But wait, that isn’t even the extent of my failure today.
While I was still coming out of my dishwasher-slamming rage, I tried forcing my son to eat a yogurt. He still wanted to walk to the store for that damn coloring book, and I was sneering, “I’m not going anywhere until you sit down and eat that yogurt you had me open.” I’m just tired of serving and wasting, serving and wasting, just to be whined to about hunger 10 minutes later. Those yogurts cost like $1.60 a piece, and I didn’t care if I had just traumatized him—I wanted that fucking container empty. I felt wrong as I was yelling at him to eat, but I kept on, until I saw him carry his droopy body to the table to obey. I saw the scene as an onlooker, and guilt grabbed every fiber of my being.
I sat him down on the couch and cradled his body like a new baby. I apologized for the way I behaved, and his sweet spirit said, “It’s OK. I’m sorry that I was having a bad day too.” My heart shattered like the glass in the dish washer. We talked about being family and constantly loving and forgiving each other.
We had to get out of the house, and I carried him in the Ergo, backpack-style. Picture that—my almost-4-year-old in a baby carrier. I wanted closeness with him so badly that I would have put him back in my womb where there is only comfort, no conflict. But since that’s not an option, I wrapped his body around mine and buckled him in place. The rain soaked us, and he rested his head on my shoulder blades and whispered “I love you” in my ear.
He’s tucked into bed now, and I am slowly releasing the heaviness in my heart. Mistakes are inevitable, but how we respond to them is what’s important. My children need to know this more than they need a perfect mother. Although I sometimes reveal my terrible imperfections to my children, I can show them how to use mistakes as opportunities to grow. I only failed today if I didn’t learn anything.