My wonderful sister-in-law (and partner in new-mom neuroses) Emily was recently on her own while taking care of Lily’s cousin, Abby (only 13 days Lily’s junior), for a week, thanks Emily’s husband’s work-travel obligations.
Since I anxiously accepted every invitation I got when Joe traveled to Germany for work, I asked Emily if she wanted to come over for dinner and let the girls play one evening. Joe wasn’t going to be home that night, anyway, so I thought Emily and I would keep each other company.
Despite the fact that Emily was in the tougher situation that week, she offered to stop by Panera with Abby to pick up dinner for all of us. They arrived, and Lily was thrilled – at first, about Abby; and then, after we gathered at the table and ate dinner, about Emily.
For after Lily urged me to let her down from her highchair, she walked around the table to Emily, who held Abby in her lap to feed her. Lily wanted to get up on Emily’s lap, too. I offered Lily my lap, but she was insistent about sitting with Emily – and to her credit, Emily managed to juggle both girls, though logistically difficult.
When we were all finished, the girls flitted about the house for a few minutes, and I suggested we walk them down to the library so they had a bit more of an open space to play in. While locking up the house, Lily spotted Emily carrying Abby, and Lily ran to her, saying “Up! Up!”
“Lily, I can carry you,” I said. And she firmly pushed me away with her small hands. “No, Mommy. No.” She reached desperately toward her Aunt Emily. “Up! Emi-me, up!” She started to cry.
Now, I thought, I know how Joe feels when Lily shoves him away and favors me. How horrible to be rejected by this little person you created and for whom you would give up your own life.
Emily – feeling, I’m sure, that mixture of happiness that comes from being the object of a child’s intense desire, and guilt and embarrassment and awkwardness out of empathy for my temporary status of “the unwanted” – brought Abby down to the sidewalk, took both her and Lily’s hands, and ran toward the library, while I straggled behind, staring at the darkening sky, trying to reason with myself.
It doesn’t mean anything, I thought. And out loud, I said, “Parenting is nothing if not humbling.”
Emily agreed, and we went inside, where both girls continued to flock around Emily and want her attentions. I was like an ugly girl along for the ride on a group date or something. So pathetic.
We didn’t stay long, and after returning to our house, Emily gathered Abby’s things and they left to go home. Lily claimed she was hungry – which wouldn’t be surprising, since she was so distracted at dinner that she hadn’t eaten much. So I buckled her into her high chair and set out some food and a sippy cup. But she reached for some unknown item on the other side of the kitchen, not putting her wishes into words, and whined for several minutes while playing with what was in front of her. I tried offering grapes, and bread, and graham crackers, but the whining continued, and she said, “Up.”
And I snapped.
“You want up? Fine!” I said. I tore off the high chair tray and threw it onto the kitchen floor, knowing that it would make a satisfyingly loud, cracking noise. I unbuckled her and lifted her from the seat to standing on the floor.
Lily was shocked out of her whimpering and just stared at the tray, unsure of what just happened. And I regretted it immediately.
Pulling her to me, I said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” I rubbed her back and pulled her up into my lap, wondering if that’s what my little breakdown was all about. I’d thought it was the whining, and maybe it was. But her rejection of me earlier that night was likely a factor, too.
It had brought back what I’d felt for so many years of my life – a sense of being unlovable, not good enough, uninteresting, and not worthy of anyone’s attention or affection. And this time, these feelings were called back up by my own daughter.
Later that night, I told Joe about the tray.
“I lost my temper, and I shouldn’t have. I scared her,” I said.
“Good,” he said.
“Not good.” I shook my head. “She was terrified.”
“It’s good for her to be scared once in a while.”
“Maybe, but not this way,” I said. “What am I teaching her? To throw something when she gets upset?”
“No. You’re teaching her that you’re not going to put up with whining, and that if she wants something, she has to say what it is.”
Perhaps there’s truth to this. But I still don’t like the way I reacted.
Before I had a child, I considered myself to have nearly endless patience. Maybe not on the road while driving – Job himself would lose it at someone cutting him off, in my opinion – but in most day-to-day situations, I’m very rational and grounded. Joe was the person known for his impatience; the guy considers waiting in line to be some form of punishment, for God’s sake. But I thought I had tremendous stores of calm and discipline, and that this would serve me well.
Well, either I’m not exactly the person I always thought I was, which is certainly possible, or parenting is the domestic equivalent of rush-hour driving, pushing us way outside our normal behavior patterns at any given second.
Scary stuff. But let’s hope I don’t resort to giving Lily the finger anytime soon.
Jenn, I don’t have a lot of time to comment, but I want you to know that I AM reading and admire so much your thoughtful, intelligent and very often HILARIOUS perspective on mothering.
Your fan and friend and comrade in this craziness,
Thanks for the support and kind words, Sheila! Writing about all this has been really valuable and therapeutic, actually. (Hard to find the time for it consistently, but definitely a worthwhile pursuit for me.)
I firmly believe that it’s best for children to grow up in a two parent household, if only for the simple fact that sooner or later, one parent will want to kill them. (OK, not really, but there have been times when I would have sold them to the first bidder.)
The parent/child relationship is just like any other important relationship. There are arguments. There are fights. There is frustration. To deprive your child of these experiences would be doing them a tremendous disservice. How else will they learn to maintain strong, lasting relationships? How will they come to know the freedom that comes from forgiveness? We must teach our children about anger and frustration, and how to deal with it. You’re doing a fine job.