I picked her up at school, alone, late in the afternoon; she came to me already troubled. She was tired of having to stay for chess. And she was hungry. And something else was bad, she whined. I arrived at school annoyed; the holidays, the stress of my son's new school, my husband being home were all taking a toll.
“Don’t start with me right now,” I snapped at her. I wasn’t having any more.
And she was in tears, predictably, at that. “Mommy!”
“What?” I walked quickly from the cafeteria feeling the eyes of other parents on us. She would follow me or fall behind because I was not indeed having any more.
“Why are you being so mean? You are always so nice to me! You’re always so nice when you pick me up!”
And she was right. Our relationship had undergone a sea change over the past months; I had been nicer, calmer, patient. I was happy when I picked the three of them up in the afternoon, together in a crowded cafeteria, or separately dependent on activities. I cuddled and slowed and laughed and stroked hair. Today was a bad day and that was obvious to both of us.
I was grateful to know this was the exception to the new rule as it were, although I was still annoyed and short tempered because of arguments that were beyond my daughter’s understanding or involvement. I wasn’t being fair. But this stood out to both of us because I had become a mother who is usually “nice.”
Months ago, a year ago, two years ago the situation would have been different. I wasn’t happy or nice as a rule. She would have asked, “Why are you always so mean to me?” There had been many conversations about mommy screaming and using bad words. “You use so many bad words,” my oldest once liked to tell me; and, “You really shouldn’t.”
I felt slammed for a moment with guilt and shame; I know their edges like my own furniture. I had fallen off a wagon of sorts, fallen into angry behavior, fallen away from a newer, safer place I was building for all of us. I had gone from being the adult back to being a child: the upset, disappointed child in front of me and the frustrated, revenging child I had been. And, if I am honest, as much as I knew this, and I knew what to do to make it right, I wasn’t coming back immediately.
This is the most baffling and humiliating part of parenting: the knowing and the doing are at opposing ends of a spectrum with years of experience, hurt, expectations, and fear between them. May the universe bless the parents who do better solely because they know better; heaven help the rest of us who struggle with our own best intentions as we falter and flounder along our own paths.
My oldest is eight; my twins are almost seven years old. Many nights I have resolved to be nicer the next day. Some nights it isn't necessary as our days have gone relatively to extremely well. Many nights, however, despite understanding that the ups and downs of these years are a constant, I promise, saddened with regret, that I will do better tomorrow. The promise of a new year, the replacement of a calendar on a wall is another opportunity to attempt to parent without anger, without my own brand of mistakes. There is value in that attempt; as well there is value in knowing I will always be a human being bound to repeat mistakes, although I may make fewer if I am lucky, and if I remain dedicated, resourceful, and optimistic.
By the time we returned home that day, I was less snappy and feeling we were coming around; but Molly was quick to remind me, telling her father and siblings: "Mommy was so mean today!"
The promises a brand new year offers us, and the promises we make as parents are similar in that they are not concrete, but rather fluid in nature, filled with hope and intention, and the ability to renew themselves in the face of failure over and over.