My husband often accuses me of remembering all the negative things that have happened to me and remembering none of the good. This might be a little true. It’s not that I don’t remember the good things that have happened to me, in fact, I have three living, breathing reminders of all the good that has come into my life. It’s just that it seems like the most difficult moments of my life have been the ones to spark the embers of change, turning me into a woman and mother forged by fire.
It’s also physiology but I love the meaning making of a womanhood and motherhood forged by fire. It makes me feel like the Mother of Dragons, which I am. But it’s true the body holds on to the traumas of our life, the big T traumas, the little t traumas, and everything in between. The visual memories of hard moments are sometimes stored in the brain but the fear, anxiety, grief, rage we experience gets baked into our bodies.
This is why motherhood can be so triggering at times. Trauma, hard moments, loss – these are inescapable assaults to the soul and we carry this with us wherever we go. When we recognize this, we might do the work to process, to “get over it,” to let it go, to move on through therapy or exercise or meditation or medication.
At least that’s what we’d like to have happen.
But our children, those little loves of our lives, have a unique way of waking up feelings within us, no matter how long they’ve been in hibernation, no matter how much work we’ve put into letting go. Sometimes it’s their cries, sometimes it’s their behavior, sometimes it’s experiences they are going through that raise our internal alarm system. Other times it’s our own reflections on parenthood, and comparing it to how we were parented, that can dredge up our stuff.
And sometimes it’s decorating Easter eggs with your boys.
The Saturday before Easter, my boys, my husband and I sat at our kitchen table, mixing neon food coloring into shaving cream and dyeing our eggs, laughing and enjoying the mess making that was happening. My youngest has always been able to enjoy messy play so he was living his best life but my oldest has had to work at tolerating it. At times his aversion to anything on his hands was so great he ate donuts with a fork and refused to do anything that would get his hands dirty. I was impressed and proud of him as he merrily shoved his eggs into the shaving cream filled muffin tin and mixed colors himself.
But as moms know all too well, things started to take a wee turn. Daniel and I had moved on from the eggs to just messy shaving cream play and Connor wanted to join in. He had probably needed to dig deep to remain regulated during the egg dyeing so his frustration tolerance wasn’t as high anymore causing him to verbally lash out when Daniel wiped away his drawing in the shaving cream. I could tell by the whine, his flushed cheeks and his furrowed brow we were about 30 seconds away from a meltdown but I was too late in intervening.
He shut down, refused to accept help, did not want to have his own section of the table to continue to play and needed to be cleaned up IMMEDIATELY. He began running to the bathroom shouting that he needed a bath. My husband began running after him to prevent food colored shaving cream from ending up all over the house. I stayed with Daniel but the fun was done. I was about 30 seconds away from my own meltdown, anxiety and shame rising like bile in my throat.
The Easter before Daniel was born, Connor and I decorated eggs together for the first time. I used Cool Whip instead of shaving cream in case he put his hands in his mouth and encouraged him to put his hands in the pastel-colored cream. At this point in our lives, I had been wondering if Connor was struggling with sensory processing but we were still months away from fully understanding what was happening in his brain and body. When he clearly didn’t like the feeling of the Cool Whip on his hands, I tried to wipe it off but wasn’t quick enough and he was already flapping his hands in an effort to get it off. To his joyful surprise, it splattered everywhere. He dove back in to the colored cream and started throwing handfuls of it at the floor, at the walls, at our hanging coats.
At me. And the roll of paper towels I was chasing him with.
I didn’t know it at the time but he was so overstimulated he could never have settled on his own. He wasn’t hearing me tell him to stop or my attempts at redirecting him. He just kept running and running, laughing and throwing red Cool Whip around. I was beyond frustrated and feeling helpless, anxious about what my husband would say to me when he came downstairs and witnessed my failure at dyeing Easter eggs with an almost 3-year-old. On Connor’s next pass by me, I grabbed him and held him still. I looked him in the eye, told him he needed to stop and then spanked him on the bum.
I was immediately filled with guilt. I don’t believe in spanking because I don’t think it’s effective. In that moment, it was about discharging my frustration and had nothing to do with teaching him anything. And as a therapist who works with children with trauma histories, i.e., someone who should know better, I felt even worse.
I understand the feelings I had in response to spanking my child aren’t traumas but I was flooded with so much feeling that they undoubtedly triggered past hurts. I also perpetrated psychological violence to myself in that moment by ruminating on it and telling myself that I was not the mother my son needed. It wasn’t so much the spanking that stayed with me. It was the feelings, the intensity of them and how they made me feel about myself as a mother.
So as my son ran screaming towards the bathroom on the Saturday before this Easter, I was no longer in the present moment, instead reliving a moment in time from years ago. But then I was able to do something I wouldn’t have been able to do three years ago. After my husband and I cleaned up, I told him I needed to take a few minutes to myself. I went up to my bedroom, closed the door, and breathed. I breathed in and out, in and out, until the moment passed.
What I didn’t know then, but understand now, is that the moment always passes. I become triggered, I use a coping skill, the moment passes and I’m able to put those feelings down for a bit. Feelings are real and they are hard but they are not our truth. They are tides within us, rising but always falling back, leaving the truth of who we are in their wake. And the truth of who we are is the dock we stand on – strong and sturdy, a survivor amongst storms.
Dear mamas, we are all survivors amongst storms. Things happen and become our past, coming back to us time and again. But these feelings are just visitors, taking up space before taking their leave. In these moments, offer yourself the same compassion you’d offer your child. Take some space and breathe until the only one left in the room is you.