In these columns, I tend to focus on the joys, idiosyncrasies and contradictions of being a peace-loving, simplicity-seeking parent in a hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized (but still very prudish), consumerist society. I think I do a good job as a parent — for the most part. But sometimes I fail. Sometimes I really blow it. Sometimes, the only thing I can do is say, “I am so sorry. You did not deserve that, and grown-ups are not supposed to do that.”
Allow me to offer you two examples of my total failure as a parent.
Since your columnist is committed to brutal honesty in this essay, I begin with a note about my personality: I crave appreciation and recognition — to a fault. My favorite two words in the English language are “thank you.” What are children — at 1, at 6, and probably at 16 too — not so great at? Appreciation.
Example number one: Seamus, my 1-year-old, is following me around the second floor. I am bent on completing some household chore, and he is crying and whining for my undivided attention. He wants me to sit cross-legged, with him in my lap, and to read My Family Loves Me eight or nine times in a row. I have already explained to him in my calm, rational mommy voice that I will read to him as soon as I finish folding the clothes. He does not understand. He never understands. I take a sip of water. He whines for the water. I offer it to him. He pushes it away. I pour it on his head.
Yep. I did that. Me, Frida “Nonviolence” Berrigan.
And, let the confession continue. For a second, I felt awesome and in charge. His eyes got big, he sputtered and then he started to cry. For real. Not a “Mommy, read to me” kind of cry, but a “why am I all wet and soggy and cold” cry. I felt so stupid and weak. Now, not only was he really mad, but the floor was soaked, he needed a whole new set of clothes and I was a bad mommy who reacts to being whined at by pouring water all over her 1-year old’s head. I needed my own mommy to put me in time out.
I got Seamus into dry clothes, wiped up the mess, returned to my calm mommy voice, apologized to my little son, and spent the next hour reading to him surrounded by half-folded clothes and other incomplete household projects. He had my chastened, loving and undivided attention.
I made sure that I told my husband Patrick and my 6-year-old stepdaughter Rosena that story. But when I told her, I made it sort of funny, while embedding a lesson in it about how big people should not do mean things to little people just because they can.
That leads me to my second confession. One Saturday morning, the whole household was getting ready for soccer practice. Rosena was dressed in her soccer outfit, so I told her to spend the next few minutes putting her clean clothes away. I typically do all the laundry and deliver a basket of folded, sorted clothes to her room. One of her chores is to put all the clothes away. Not too much to ask of a big 6-year-old, but she often needs many reminders.
Patrick was getting ready, and I was busy putting warm clothes on Seamus in his room.
“Hey Frida,” she said from the doorway. “Want see something cool?”
I did not even look up. “Are your clothes all put away?” I asked with an edge.
“No, I haven’t started yet.”
Grr, I saw red. Too much red for the situation (which is part of the problem and comes back to my almost unnatural appetite for appreciation).
“Get going with it, Rosena,” I said as I finished getting Seamus ready. Then I went into her room, where she was going through the motions of her chore without any enthusiasm.
I thought about how much of my work goes into the little work she has to do. Bringing the laundry down two flights to the basement, in and out of the washer and dryer, and back up two flights of stairs — folded, sorted and basketed — to her room. All the while, Seamus is somehow not falling down or up stairs, getting stuck in washers or dryers, or crying hysterically because he is neglected in a corner. I do all of this and manage to keep him relatively happy and alive. (Yeah, you snort: when she isn’t pouring water on his head. It was just the one time, I swear.)
I thought of all this, and I got mad.
“I should not have to remind you to do this over and over, Rosena. I should not have to beg you to put your clothes away. I do so much work, and you only have to do this one thing. You know what? Next time I am not going to fold it. You will have to fold it all yourself. How would you like that?” My voice was too loud. I was angrier than the situation warranted. I was feeling unappreciated. Danger zone.
That could have been it. That would not have been so bad. All parents raise their voice and get a little shrill on occasion, right? But no, I went one step farther. I pulled half a dozen articles of clothing out of her laundry basket, shook them free of their folds and threw them on the ground.
“In fact, you fold it now. You do it.” And I walked out of the room as Rosena started to cry.
I wasn’t halfway down the hall before I knew I was wrong. I wondered if I could go back into her room and apologize. But I knew I needed a few more minutes of distance and the calm perspective of my husband. I knew that if I went back in right then I might get even madder at her for crying. So, I took myself down to the kitchen to tattle on myself.
“I got mad, Patrick,” I told him. “I got mad and I crossed the line.”
I told him the story. He did not tell me I was a terrible mommy, which was really nice of him. He said that he thought that Rosena wasn’t really trying to get out of doing the chore; she was just distracted by her excitement at showing me the cool thing. He asked how I felt as I was throwing the clothes. I told him I felt like I had all of her attention, which felt sort of good (even then) but that I didn’t know how to uncross the line I had crossed.
My husband isn’t just a good father and an amazing partner, he is also a younger brother, and that gives him a certain perspective that I — as the eldest of three — do not have.
“Did throwing the clothes feel like a big sister power play?” he asked.
“Yes, I have been right there before. I have done things like that to my brother and sister. Oh jeez. I am such an idiot.”
“You are not an idiot,” he said. “You are great. You are trying. Go and tell her you are sorry.”
It was a long way back upstairs. Rosena had put all the clothes away and was sitting in her room — glum and small. I asked her why she had cried.
“Because I felt like you were being mean,” she replied.
“You are right. I was mean and I am really sorry. I was mad and I should not have been mad. I felt like you didn’t appreciate my work and that is not fair. You were excited about the Lincoln log thing, and I want you to share your excitement with me all the time — even when it is chore time. I am really sorry. I should have acted more like a grown-up and less like a mean, big kid.”
I kept talking. I told her that I acted like an evil big sister drunk on power and largeness instead of acting like a parent who takes advantage of every opportunity to model good behavior and impart valuable moral lessons. Then I launched into a long soliloquy about how being an adult means that you should be able to pay attention to more than one set of emotions at a time — yours and other peoples’ — keep all of that in perspective, and understand where your own anger and frustration comes from and take responsibility for them.
I talked for a while. I could not help it.
“Do you understand all that?” I asked, after a brilliant summarization of my main points.
“No,” she said, her lovely little face wrinkled with concentration and confusion.
“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes I just need to talk. I am sorry. Do you forgive me?”
“Yes,” she said simply and emphatically. I am a lucky stepmom. Then she told me that during sharing circle at school she had said that her chore was putting her clothes away, but that one boy said his chore was watching TV. We laughed together at that.
Once they were off to soccer, I was left to reflect on how to become a better parent.
- Having patience with my little one, my 6-year-old and myself
- Learning not to take things personally — Rosena was not being disobedient, she was being distracted and there is a difference
- Working to create a household culture of gratitude and appreciation through modeling that with Patrick and to my kids
- Understanding that my maternal habits come from my own upbringing, my role as daughter and eldest sibling, other romantic relationships where “thank you” was not said enough or at all — my whole history up until this very moment
- Knowing that I am going to have to say I am sorry again and again and again — to Seamus, to Rosena, to Patrick and to myself
The biggest lesson I took from this, however, is that you don’t have to call your kid names, hit them or worse to be violent. Blame, retribution, shock tactics, yelling, disproportionate consequences, diffused, misplaced or out-of-control anger are just as bad. In both of these cases, I felt like I did violence to my kids. I used my power and my bigness against them instead of using my bigness and my power to protect and educate them. Bad mommy.
The only way I can be okay with that is to know that through reflection, discussion and confession — all without beating myself up too bad — with my partner and with others, I can carve new pathways for myself as a parent.
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