The Things Unwritten and Unsaid

by Allison Slater Tate
Originally Published: 

People criticize moms who write about their kids. We over share, they say. We exploit, they cry. We’re narcissistic navel-gazers, spewing treacly, precious cliches all over the interwebz.

Perhaps. Sometimes. Maybe.

But I write about my experiences, parenting and otherwise, in an effort to connect. There were so many days early in my motherhood when I sat on the floor in my underwear and cried right along with my colicky, unhappy first baby, leaking from every orifice and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into by having a baby. I felt completely alone, because my friends were not really having babies yet, and I was completely blindsided by the reality of motherhood. I likened it to being hit by a bus: the Bus of Motherhood. I could not have written anything precious or treacly about those first few months. They were brutal, not poetic. What got me through that first year was connecting to other mothers — in support groups and playgroups, online, and through words. Words spoken and written carried me when I could not walk.

I could probably write a book listing the many, many hard moments of parenting, like those first days, that I never saw coming. While I find being a mother infinitely awesome, I also find it infinitely difficult. Being someone’s mother is hard, yo. It’s hard for all the reasons we talk about: the Groundhog Day-type frustrations of trying to feed, clothe, and nurture volatile little people every day who would really rather we leave them to their all-beige, carb-heavy diets, infinite amounts of screen time, and the ability to beat each other, Hunger Games-style.

I’ll be honest and say that yes, the sleep deprivation that came with my newborns was devastating. Nursing a baby was worth it, but left me worn and touched out by the ends of my days. I have shed bitter, frustrated tears more than once over a meal I made that was instantly rejected. I have asked myself when I might have a day that doesn’t include cleaning up someone else’s body fluids. I have cried over my children growing up, cried after losing my temper with my kids, and cried because I am just so tired and this is just so grindingly hard sometimes.

But the hardest things about parenthood, I have found, are things I actually can’t and won’t share — precisely because I do want to protect my children’s privacy. They are the things that go unwritten, the moments that go untold. They are the days that I feel like I have messed up so much or I am not sure what to do, when I feel paralyzed and frozen and like I just want to go be anonymous in a coffee shop somewhere for a few hours and not be anyone’s mother for a while. I want to hide, not because I don’t love my children, but because I don’t know how to be a mother to them in that moment. I don’t know what they need. I don’t know what I need to be for them to make things okay. They can’t be fixed with band-aids or diaper changes or a snack full of protein or an earlier bedtime.

There is a quote widely attributed to Plato but argued to have originated with Ian MacLaren that goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” That could never be more true than when it applies to parents. From my experiences and from what I know of my friends’ experiences, we really only see the tips of the icebergs when we encounter other parents at school pick-up, on the sidelines of athletic events, and in the aisles of Target. We might see other parents tussling with a tantruming toddler or clutching the hand of a new Kindergartner or tending to a child who had the wind knocked out of her when she collided on a soccer field. But we don’t often witness the kinds of moments that knock the wind out of the parents and bring them to their knees — the hesitant steps into the child psychiatrist’s office, the millionth confusing parent-teacher conference, the discouraging test results, or when a child tells his mother, “My brain doesn’t work the way other people’s brains work.” We don’t see the mother who wraps herself around her child when she is putting him to bed, tears falling into his hair beneath her face, because she’s not sure how to make the world work for him. We don’t see the dad pausing outside the door and taking a deep breath because it’s hard to leave for a day of work knowing his child is struggling.

I write about parenthood, but sometimes, the very stories that rip my heart apart are the ones I can’t write. My darkest days are the ones I have to keep to myself, precisely because they are not about the 800th wet bed I just changed or the epic meltdown the toddler had in the Gap or the failed playdate. They are so much bigger: they are yawning chasms with tiny, swinging rope bridges that I am attempting to cross every day without allowing myself — or more importantly to me, my children — to fall. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that there are tiny, swinging rope bridges surrounding me, stretching across those same chasms and ones I cannot see, and other mothers and fathers are stumbling across them, knuckles white, teeth gritted, while they lead their children on their own paths. They are all fighting their own battles, and all of them are hard. Hard, and worth it. But the battles you don’t see are far bloodier than the ones you do.

I learned in those first dark months with my first baby that motherhood would make me cry. That promise has held true, in both good moments and bad. I had no way of knowing then that the things that crushed me then — the never-ending cluster feeds, the inexplicable public crying jags, the long nights of shushing and swaying — would not even compare to the things that crush me now. That terrifying feeling of not knowing what to do, of looking around for the real grown-up to swoop in and save us all, has never gone away. It just grew.

So I want to tell you out there — you, the one fighting your own hard battle today that no one around you can see and you feel you cannot and must not reveal to protect your child — that I know. I know what it feels like to fill out the forms, to receive the emails from the teachers, to wait in the doctors’ offices, to walk out of a child’s bedroom and want to crumble to the ground with the weight of the not-knowing-what-to-do. I might not see your battles, but I know they are there, and I am battling too.

Even if I don’t tell you about it.

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