Sometimes you have revelations as a parent, insights that sneak up on you as you’re walking home from the train station and practically blind you with their truth. For me, these lightning bolts generally sound something like:
It isn't about you.
I have been wringing my hands all week, because after what had felt like a victorious week of potty training, with several straight days of no accidents, we were all of a sudden back to a state of constant laundry. Each day when I arrive at day care for pickup, my eyes go straight to the row of hooks on the wall outside the classroom. I see it hanging from her hook, and I crumple a little: the white plastic shopping bag of surrender with soiled clothes inside. Upon entering the classroom, I am greeted with my usual ball of “Mommy Mommy Mommy!” flinging itself at me, with an extra flourish: “Mommy, I had an ACCIDENT!” Is that triumph in her voice?
At this, I am defeated. We know she knows what to do and how to do it. This is something else, and I don’t know what, and whatever it is, it’s probably my fault. I note that her teachers seem nervous about how I will react to this, quick to jump in with “you know, there are just so many distractions around here, these things happen!” and I think to myself “your social acceptance is not helping me here!” and try to fix my face, feign the same nonchalance that everyone else in the room seems to have been blessed with.
After I unclench, we get in the car, we arrive home, we unpack a box of new books that my kind kind friend who works in children’s publishing has sent. We read about Joyce Chen and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ada Lovelace, we snuggle, and there are no accidents.
The next morning, in spite of myself, I ask, “How many accidents are we going to have today?” and she says, “None!” and I say, “Like None the Number?” (a book we are newly into) and she says “like None the Number!” And when we arrive at school and her teachers so tentatively ask me how the rest of the day went yesterday, I fill in all the gaps in my head: they think I am too rigid, they think I am putting too much pressure, they think I’m a Bad Mom.
Set out in writing, my faults become so clear as to embarrass me in front of myself. Furthermore, this is as classic me as it gets. Do all writers live like this? Are they all so finely attuned to their flaws? Does that awareness help them change?
Out walking in the late afternoon with Slate’s “Mom and Dad are Fighting” in my ears, it came. In response to a completely different question about a kid’s behavior, Rebecca Lavoie’s (really really great) voice said to the anxious letter-writer, “stop making this about you; it isn’t about you.” I think I actually stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said aloud, “wow.” I had to pause the podcast at that point; my ego had been jammed with an Epi-pen and was rocketing around in my skull; I realized that several minutes had gone by and I hadn’t heard another thing after Rebecca spoke those words.
My ego is telling me that the accidents are a reflection on me: my parenting, but also my personality and my temperament. Another “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” sage, Carvell Wallace, has said before that parenting from a place of fear and of projection is rarely the best parenting. It’s not that it matters that she had an accident today, it’s that I am already thinking about accidents this means she will have tomorrow, and my whole demeanor is responding to that fear. How's that working out for me?
Maybe one advantage of being a writer is the freedom and the space to truly sit with these revelations, give them a chance to sink in and increase the likelihood that they will stay with me when I need them most. My most challenging stages of parenting have all been, if not resolved, then at least lightened somewhat by a version of “it isn’t about you.” Breastfeeding, for example: at two months, it was not working for anyone in the family, least of all me, and yet I believed without even realizing the depth of the belief that the barrier to success was me. I was a mother, and therefore I had it in me to breastfeed – when it started going horribly wrong and ended in Ros (and eventually me) wailing every time we tried, I was quick to take full responsibility. There had to be a way that I could fix myself so that it would work. I talked to the doctor, I talked to lactation specialists, I read websites and message boards and books, and my efforts were met with, at best, a shrug and “just hang in there, mama!” My ego translated this in all its variations as “breastfeeding is a huge sacrifice and it’s supposed to be hard, so stop complaining and go hold your baby.” Heaving myself out of that sinkhole took months. When I think back to months 2 and 3 of parenthood, I know I did my best, but I also robbed myself of some of the breathtaking bliss of little tiny babies by making all the challenges of tiny babies about me and my failures.
I want to do better for my family and for myself; we all deserve it. I have a feeling that “stop making it about you” will be a recurrent theme as we slowly progress through the stages of personhood and independence; I will be listening for it.