Weathering the Little Storms
I have two incredibly smart, creative, loving kids, for whom I am intensely grateful and by whom I am regularly awed. This sort of gushing sounds like a great launching pad for a comment on the joys of mothering. However, I must diverge from this and confess a somewhat painful truth.
Mid-afternoon on a recent spring Saturday, I was craving cookies and decided to make it a mom-and-the-kids affair. This method is messy and slower but seemed an obvious opportunity for my kids to enjoy the sensory experience of baking. I admit I hoped they would remember it as a cheery memory of childhood. I spend too much time wondering what they will remember and in what light my mothering will be cast.
Five minutes in, I felt the self-assured perception that I had made the right mothering move when my tenderhearted ten year old said, “Mom, I love baking with you. It’s so nice to do it together and just hang out and chat.”
At intervals of about twelve seconds, my daughter asked, “Can I do that?” regarding each ingredient to be measured, dumped, and mixed.
I shouldn’t have gotten ahead of myself. I was already viewing this minor event through the kaleidoscope of memory, seeing their smiling faces with a warm heart. I’m not sure when I’ll learn—or if I can learn—not to put that memory-curating cart before the horse.
After blending butter, sugars, and flour, it became clear that something was amiss. The batter was too dry, and I realized that skimping on the butter had been unwise, even though a note to myself on the recipe said to do so. My daughter had set up a stool next to the baking sheets and was ready to scoop cookies. Foreseeing the frustration likely to be created by disobedient cookie dough, I said, “Hey guys, I’m going to have to do this part because I’m not sure how well this is going to go; it’s a little crumbly.” But before I could finish what I hoped would be calm, concisely-worded mitigation of impending crisis, my four-year-old daughter cut in emotionally, which is not terribly uncommon. This trait was likely woven into her on purpose, as a karmic teacher of sorts, in response to my years of verbosely cutting in on very nearly anyone I’ve ever loved (or known) with my compulsion to connect, to clarify, to beseech. I am an interrupter; she is one, too, and comes by it honestly.
The irony of course is that, since this is often her modus operandi, you’d think I’d be ready to take in stride whatever impulsive protest she’s slinging. And it’s true; I’ve done my homework to try and be that calm, competent parent who knows the right combinations of words in the perfect tone of voice, timed just so. I’ve read all the heavy hitters in the parenting field on raising a so-called “spirited child.” These definitely helped; in fact, I shudder to think what kind of parent I’d be to this passionate, precocious, at-times demanding daughter without those guides.
Still, too often I lose my grip on the training imparted by books, friends, my conscience, and my own childhood memories of how I was lovingly parented. I remember witnessing my mother losing her temper only twice in my catalog of childhood memories. Either I’m wrong and she had a higher loss-of-composure rate than I recall through the misty fog of looking backward, or I’m right and we are painfully different parents.
I lost my grip as my daughter interrupted my rationale for finishing the dough scooping myself. She emitted a whiny moan, probably shaped like an “N” with many “o”s after it. I waited, then attempted my explanation again in that creepily calm tone that is essentially ominous satire of true patience and composure. She cut in again with yet another petulant, whiny refutation of my stance.
And I snapped.
This time I snapped loudly. Very loudly—the vocal decibel that instantly pops tears to the other person’s eyes out of sheer shock. In this case, the other person was a four-year-old. Nearby was an absorbent ten-year-old, staying still and unobtrusive, waiting for the storm to blow over. I think I bellowed some version of “stop” and some indictment of her impatient outburst at my explanation (which I’m sure some part of my brain felt I really didn’t owe her. I’m the grownup for crying out loud!)
An inner voice started commentary on the reality—that this sweet little memory-in-the-making had been trashed. What had started simply and warmly had turned into a painful episode where my calm introvert was forced to absorb my enormous feelings of frustration on behalf of his sister’s equally enormous feelings, never hidden, never in question.
The episode ended with me excusing them both from the kitchen—the ten-year-old silent, the preschooler wailing. After a few minutes, I said, “I’m sorry. I did not handle that well, especially after your kind words about how this often goes.”
My son said, “It’s ok, Mom.”
I said, “Thank you, but it’s not.”
Ten minutes later, I walked in and addressed them both. “I know I can’t make this come true, but I hope that when you are parents you don’t do what I just did. At least not much. I know why I lost my patience, and you know, too, don’t you?”
My daughter nodded slowly; we have been to this fractious rodeo before. “But still, I hope you can find ways to avoid it. I don’t really think it’s ok.”
That’s when I felt a thought stream across my mind: “Your mom was better at this than you are,” and I didn’t dispute it. It peeled past my thoughts objectively, smoothly–like the ticker of stock prices, showing the investor has taken a loss, and must feel the simultaneous disappointment and acceptance.
Right on this revelation’s heels, I felt the painful sting of remembering that just this morning I had been right down at her eye level to tell her how much I loved that she was my daughter, that I loved her so much. I had been inspired by a delightful breakfast repartee preceded by a snuggly morning bedshare, and the memory of a playfully enjoyable evening with her the night before. Why couldn’t I sustain that momentum for more than 24 hours?
Perhaps I was not the mother my mother was. She was calmer, less exasperated. I don’t remember her inducing tears in me with a sharp, cutting voice.
No, I’m not her. So, what then? I can go with I am worse at mothering than the mom I miss every day. I can just leave it there.
Or, I can state another no less true axiom: I am a different mother. Of children different than I was. My mother’s daughter did not claw her way out of the womb more than two months early, a sign of her tenacious unwillingness to delay any joy of life. We had different daughters, and so perhaps we are different mothers.
Ultimately, I know that it would not be hard for me to list off the ways I’ve mothered well. They’re interwoven between imaginative play and comforting hugs, combing out lice and coaching good manners, ferrying to activities and singing songs, card games and affection.
I suppose there is logic behind weighing that pile of good works against the sharp spikes of anger and verbal domination. But the question for me is: Does it really work that way?
I can’t undo the moments of parenting of which I am ashamed. Maybe all I can hope to do is drown their memory in the better ones.
After she finished the cookies, I found her asleep on the couch. She was up late the night before and played outside all day, but still my thought was: I hollered my child to exhaustion.
Just then, the lyrics of a song I’ve heard a hundred times rushed into my mind. I heard “Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House as I scooped my daughter up into my arms. I knew I should probably wake her, but I wasn’t ready to lose this quiet closeness. I leaned back, pulling her on top of me, letting the weight of this small child slow my heart rate. Barely thirty minutes later, here was the scolded little person wrapped up in the scolder’s arms. And while this kind of day fits into what many call a “season” of parenting, it struck me that this one day was itself multiple seasons. It was sudden proof of Neil Finn’s lyrics, “Even though you’re feeling warm / the temperature could drop away / like four seasons in one day.”
Although I want to, I just can’t trot out the cliché about how this peaceful moment reminded me that I loved my children so much–that I’d do anything for them. Not because it’s not true, but because on a daily basis, I’m so much more concerned with doing the right thing. It sounds a bit controlling, actually–this quest for rightness. The truth is I’m a walking irony: a control freak who can’t always control her mothering emotions. If I set that aside, though, I still want to do the right thing by my kids, not to win a mothering award–not even a silent, internal one about how I stack up against my memory of my own incredibly calm and loving mom. I want to do the right thing so that they can be dignified, respected, thriving people. So that they can be whole.
I want to be a good mom, to live in uncomfortable peace with the reality that there is no such thing as a perfect one. Every single mom is making her way through the maze. Most of the time, I think I really am a decent one. But when I’m not, I can only hope the better memories will drown out my mistakes.
Katie Chicquette Adams teaches high school history and English in Appleton, WI, currently teaching at our local alternative high school. She frequently writes for her small writer’s group, and regularly participates as a live storyteller with Appleton’s Storycatchers, Inc. at the group’s live events. Additionally, she has contributed interview-based features in a local digital arts magazine, River + Bay. She is married with two kids, whose divergent and nearly opposite demeanors have taught her how little she knows about being human.