Friday, May 15, 2009

Mean Mommy

In June of 1999, Charlie and I brought baby Nate home from the hospital, where he proceeded to not sleep for more than two to four hours at a time for the next two years.

I’m really not exaggerating.

In those early, early days, we rocked him endlessly in the living room to the drone of the TV (volume on low), we bundled him up in the stroller just to get out of the house and absorb some Vitamin D (or maybe just to remind ourselves whether it was night or day), we drove him in endless circles around our hilly Spokane neighborhood. We fed him and swaddled him and didn’t feed him and swaddle him, turned on the dryer for white noise, turned off every possible appliance for absolute silence, and I don’t think we were any further than perhaps two months into our career as parents when we found ourselves slumped in exhaustion on the floor of the hallway outside the nursery at some ungodly hour with our hands over our ears in an attempt to muffle the steady wail of our infant. We were defeated and discouraged, and I for one felt as though every basic human right had been stripped from me by that ten-pound person in the next room. And I’ll be honest: at that moment, I resented it. Greatly. Despite my fatigue, I remember a self-preserving anger rising within me with each hour I was kept from my bed, and because of it, I didn’t trust myself to walk back into that room for the tenth time that night, pick up that baby, and rock him soothingly back to sleep.

The next morning, I called a close friend of mine who had become a mother just a few months before me. We had gone through the new motherhood gauntlet of general inaptitude together, and when I described our disastrous night, she addressed the subject very matter-of-factly (I remember hearing the telltale sounds of the dishwasher being unloaded as she spoke). “Now you understand,” she said, “how it’s possible that some children are abused.”

And that’s such an ugly sentence I didn’t even want to write it now, eight years later.

But it’s true. If you meet a parent who says it’s not--that they can’t see the Step A to Step B sequence of unspeakable potential for such a thing occurring--they’re lying.

It goes without saying that this statement condones nothing, but is there anyone in our lives who can stir us to greater levels of emotion, good and bad, than our children? When they’re infants, certainly hormones come into play, physical exhaustion and the like. I know of many women who have confessed to being where I was that night with Nate…too tired and angry and simply over it to go one more minute as someone‘s mother. But even later…when our children are two and arching their backs against the confines a restaurant high chair for the umpteenth time, or when they’re four and throwing punches over a juice box straw bent the wrong direction after a day filled since 5 am with nothing but the same, or even when they’re nine (fast forward to Nate today), and pushing every button you’ve ever had while you‘re in the midst of a dozen other stress-inducing chores, they possess the ability to stir us to a near visceral form of anger.

And the thing is, even then, even when they’re misbehaving and we don’t know where we went wrong that they turned out so rotten, it’s not about them, is it? They’re only the toddler-sized side effect of our anger, not the cause. What’s it really about, then, when we turn and yell? When we slam the door? When we walk away with fists clenched? It’s about the car payment that’s overdue, and the boss who’s causing us misery, and the fight we’ve had with our spouse. Or maybe it’s about getting a terrible phone call or even just about not fitting into those jeans or feeling as though sometime in the last year and without our consent, our purpose in life has narrowed to the single pile of laundry on the bed. Or maybe it comes down to nothing more than stepping on that f*%@ing lego in the hallway for the third time in an hour.

Anne Lamott said it best in a fabulous essay she wrote for called Mother Rage:

“One reason I think we get so angry mad at our children is because we can. Who else can you talk to like this? Can you imagine hissing at your partner, "You get off the phone NOW! No, NOT in five minutes ..."? Or saying to a friend, "You get over here right this second! And the longer you make me wait, the worse it's going to be for you." Or, while talking to a salesman at Sears who happens to pick up the ringing phone, grabbing his arm too hard and shouting, "Don't you DARE answer the phone when I'm talking to you."

Of course you can’t. We all reserve our worst behavior for our children, don’t we? Another friend of mine (and I promise all these ‘friends’ are not just thinly-veiled pseudo identities for myself…I just don’t want to name names here) once admitted to becoming so irrationally angry with her seven-year-old (about which she couldn’t even recall at the time of this telling), that she impulsively reached from the driver’s seat of her car into the back, grabbed her daughter’s just-bought-yet-uneaten ice cream cone mid-lick, and threw it viciously out the window of her moving car. She told me she had been so furious, she could remember only wanting to punish her child--the person she loves most in this world--in the most immediate and hurtful way possible.

But here’s my favorite part of this story: she had thrown the ice cream directly onto the windshield of a police cruiser in the next lane. That little girl? Had the last laugh.

But have you noticed (I’m certain you have) that the degree to which we love someone is in direct relation to the degree to which they have the ability to frustrate us, disappoint us, infuriate us? In regard to our children, I don’t think this fact has as much to do with DNA as it does with the day-to-day practice of provision and love; it’s quite nearly meditative in nature. You know the sacraments of parenthood I’m speaking of: the laying out of clothes, the washing of hair in luke-warm bubbles, the brushing of teeth and the preparing of dinner. The hands held at crossings, the lifting by the armpits, the fingers intertwined with yours and the feet stuffed into socks in a rush. The seatbelts clicked and the lunches packed: these are the daily repetitions that somewhere along the line become holy, building an unshakable foundation brick by sometimes painstaking brick. And then if you’re lucky, you‘re paying attention for the easy stuff: the cuddles. The vacations. The goofy grins and the terrible jokes. The constant stretching of muscles and satisfying ache of growing pains, all culminating in the blink-and-you-miss-it overwhelming joy of raising a fellow human being for whom you’d lay down your life a thousand times over.

Last week, I came across a poem Calvin had written. (Remember National Poetry Month?) Well, I guess his class had studied haikus and cinquains and hadn’t even told me! Here is one of his:

Happy, runner, caring
She loves her laptop
She is the best mom

I don’t mind telling you that this poem left me relieved beyond measure. Yes, it makes reference to my internet addiction, and eludes to my love of long jogs far from the chaos of my children, but take a good long look at that leading word. Happy.

The truth is, I am happy. I’m also terrified that my children don’t know it, or at very least, don’t think I’m happy with them. In the still of the night, I worry that the bad--my mistakes, my occasional temper, my angry threats issued from a position of fatigue or discontent that has nothing to do with any one of them and everything to do with me--will outweigh the good. That the frustrated quips and exasperated sighs will be what I leave them with, in the memories they store of their childhood. And that would be devastating.

So you’ll forgive me for clinging to this poem, stowed safely away with all the other pieces of artwork and writing I treasure. Because surely if they view me as happy, then that’s what they are as well.

And there’s nothing I desire more in this world than the happiness of my children.
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