Tim is away for a fortnight. It’s the longest he’s ever been gone. The night before he went, I admitted I was nervous.
‘It’s not that I can’t handle it’, I told him. ‘I can. We will be fine. It’s just I’ve never done solo parenting for so long with two children AND a pregnancy. I have never been more short-tempered than I am now, and they have never been less inclined to listen to me. So I don’t know how it’s going to go’.
It’s true that if you’re looking for something that will poke holes through your parenting self-esteem, pregnancy will do the job nicely. They are watching much more TV than I would normally allow – hours of it, while I shuffle through glacially-paced housework or just sit next to them, exhausted – and I am snappy. Irritable. I am not willfully unkind (we still read, talk, laugh at each other’s jokes), but there is so much less give in me. I can feel it, bleeding through the edges of my self-restraint: a brittleness that means I raise my voice the second time, not the tenth; that means I want things done now, immediately, in exactly the way I’ve asked.
None of this has been my finest hour. I feel it. I think they feel it too.
I have been in a couple of parenting discussions lately where we’ve talked about the importance of being authentic in front of your children. I read a lot of articles where the language of motherhood is expressed in endless, self-immolating sacrifice. Cherish every moment. Sleep next to them, and wake up whenever they wake up. Carry them constantly. Play imaginatively at the park. When they push back, draw them in with extra love. Be present. Be present. Be present.
Now I should say here (before the Emails come) that there’s nothing wrong and an awful lot right with all of these philosophies: if they work for you and your child and make you both happy, go for it. I use many of them myself, and try to do better in the many areas I fall short. But my issue is that they all seem to combine without leaving room for human error, for normal human limitation. I don’t see a lot of acknowledgement that you are a person too, a person with a long history of her own that existed long before you became a mother, with loves and hates and boundless complexities, plenty of which have little to do with your beloved children.
I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t automatically put their children’s needs before their own, and I’m not advocating the opposite here. But is their emotional health well-served by watching us give and give without any space for ourselves, without any visible screw-ups and apologies? I don’t want my children to aim for perfection, swallow their own flaws and beat themselves up when they inevitably get it wrong – but they’ll try, if that’s what they see me do. I want them to make mistakes, learn from them, and empathise with other people’s. I want them to feel the value of a heartfelt, meaningful apology. I want them to know that the substance of life is in the repair, not the plain sailing.
I want them to know that everyone has their own stuff, their own boundaries, their own imperfect histories. And they will too. And they should. To be this way is not a failure. Or, rather: failure is not a failure. It’s part of being a human in the world.
So sometimes they play and I read. Or they watch TV and I scroll through Twitter, only half-listening. Everyone in our family functions better if we get a good night’s sleep, so everyone is supposed to sleep in their own damn bed. I will happily read them three-inch piles of stories under a blanket for as long as they want, but I need them to make up their own games at the park. Sometimes they push me too far or ignore me for too long, and I shout. Sometimes I want to sit in a chair by myself for five minutes, until I’m ready to leap back in. I have an unusually small tolerance for baby voices (LITERALLY ZERO), but if they want to dance, I will always dance. And I place a great deal of value on treating books and people well, not littering, and apologising properly when you’ve messed things up.
If they had a different mother they’d have different stuff, but there’d always be plenty of stuff.
I want them to know that I will always try, always love them, always make it my highest priority to be their safe space, always make mistakes, always have my own way of being their mother, always, always apologise and mean it.
And they will make do with me, as children do. We will make room for each other, and they will tell laughing stories about my failures around the dinner table, in the time-honoured way children have always mocked their parents. That’s fine. I think, finally, I’m in a place where I don’t want them to only see my good side. It’s more important to me that we learn and keep learning – together, messily, and over and over again – how to be a human in the world.
This business of working out how to be a more patient parent is, um, an ongoing series. You can find the other posts here.