People rarely rave about their childhoods and it’s no wonder. So many mistakes are made.
I see how that happens now, how we all create future work for our kids by checking our cell phones while you are mid-story or sticking you in the basement to watch a movie because we love you but we don’t really want to be with you anymore that day, or coming unhinged over all manner of spilt milk—wet towels, unflushed toilets, lost brand-new! whatevers.
Almost every day I yell at one of you so loudly that my throat hurts afterward. That’s why I keep loz- enges in practically every drawer in the house. I hold it together and hold it together and then, when the bickering picks up again, I just detonate. Like yesterday, Claire, when I listened to you whine through two rounds of some card game called Egyptian War. Finally, it was Georgia’s turn to go first, and you said you couldn’t play anymore because your armpits were sore. “That’s stupid,” Georgia said, and you cried, “Stupid is a mean word!” and smacked Georgia with your open palm as I watched. “GO TO YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW, MISSY!” I hollered. “It was an accident; I fell into her on accident!” You both froze and I got to my feet and I leaned down into your faces and ranted at you through set teeth, like the heartless tyrannical caretakers in movies about orphans. I was so disgusted with both of you, your impatient overreactions, your loss of self-control—then I turned right around and disgusted myself.
If John Lennon was right that life is what happens when you’re making other plans, parenthood is what happens when everything is flipped over and spilling everywhere and you can’t find a towel or a sponge or your “inside” voice. But if my temper has made you hesitant or tentative, is there any atoning for that?
In a parent-teacher conference last year, Ms. Tunney said, with obvious hesitation, “Sometimes— sometimes, your daughter has a bit of an edge, a way of snapping that makes the other kids pull back.” I cried when I left the classroom. I knew.
There are other mistakes, less obvious. I don’t mirror your emotions enough, though I can’t say why because when I do, it seems to calm you down. I forget to praise your effort instead of your achievement, I discipline by carrot and stick instead of reason, and I ignore the indisputable research about the benefits of family dinner. I’m a zero when it comes to the culinary arts—everything tastes like ground shoelaces, except my salads, which you are years away from appreciating. Until then, we go over to Beth’s house and trade wine for dinner. It’s a brilliant solution but sometimes, on the way home, when you go on and on about how Beth is such a good cook and then Dad adds his accolades about Beth’s homemade red sauce and roasted broccolini and how you ate every bite, my mom-ego twitches and cramps, and by the time we get home I’m practically convulsing with animus.
I used to be “pretty chill,” as I once heard Dad say to his friend Graham when I turned down a Corona at a two-year-old’s birthday party. For instance, before I was your mom, I didn’t have one of those plastic dividers for my silverware. I’d just take the basket out of the dishwasher and dump all the knives, forks, and spoons right into the drawer. My friends Mike and Andy, who coached me through the last of my single years, still talk about it. I went around the world without a credit card or a cell phone or a plan of any sort, I hitchhiked a thousand miles, I went to Dead shows with people whose last names I didn’t know, I wore green Birkenstocks to the office. I thought I’d be cooler as a mom. But then I leaned back on the delivery table and Dr. Laura Statchel pulled out a baby, and somewhere between the precious bundle that was Georgia and the placenta, all that it’s cool, no worries, sure why not? stuff came out too.
My default answer to everything is no. As soon as I hear the inflection of inquiry in your voice, the word no forms in my mind, sometimes accompanied by a reason, often not. Can I open the mail? No. Can I wear your necklace? No. When is dinner? No. What you probably wouldn’t believe is how much I want to say yes. Yes, you can take two dozen books home from the library. Yes, you can eat the whole roll of SweeTarts. Yes, you can camp out on the deck. But the books will get lost, and SweeTarts will eventually make your tongue bleed, and if you sleep on the deck, the neighborhood raccoons will nibble on you. I often wish I could come back to life as your uncle, so I could give you more. But when you’re the mom, your whole life is holding the rope against these wily secret agents who never, ever stop trying to get you to drop your end.
This tug-of-war often obscures what’s also happening between us. I am your mother, the first mile of your road. Me and all my obvious and hidden limitations. That means that in addition to possibly wrecking you, I have the chance to give to you what was given to me: a decent childhood, more good memories than bad, some values, a sense of a tribe, a run at happiness. You can’t imagine how seriously I take that—even as I fail you. Mothering you is the first thing of consequence that I have ever done