By Tracy G. Cassels
The other day I screwed up. I lost myself and yelled at my daughter.
It started with a crappy sleep. Nothing specific happened to lead to a bad sleep, I just couldn’t sleep well, probably because it was a Sunday night and I rarely sleep well those nights – looming Mondays and all. So I started the day tired and grumpy. All morning and early afternoon my daughter and I stayed inside playing. While we had a good time, I know that we both need our outside time to really feel good, something we didn’t have. Then my girl went down for a nap an hour before we were supposed to pick up my stepson (who is in Grade 5) from school because his after school care was closed that day. I spent her nap time getting some work done, but stressing about the many upcoming deadlines I have, the fact that there was a screw up in the pay system at school so I didn’t get the money I was supposed to get the previous Friday (which is always fun when bills are involved), and thinking of the million loads of laundry, grocery shopping, and other errands that also demanded my time. Not exactly the kind of stuff you think of to calm down.
An hour passed, my daughter was still asleep, and I was due at my stepson’s school to get him. He’s old enough to hang out for a while on his own or with friends so I can be a bit late, but it’s not something I like to make a habit of. So I woke her up – as gently as possible – and got her ready. She was clearly tired, but to her credit she tried to be happy about it all. Then we went to the car.
10 minutes late already.
At the car things start to fall apart. You see, lately she’s decided she has to get into the car and her car seat herself. I open the door, she climbs into the side without her seat and then heads over to her seat and climbs in. No problem. However, today I put on shoes that apparently have lost their grip. It was like she was wearing socks and so every time she tried to put her foot on the door frame to climb up, she slipped down. I watched her try a few times, me getting more and more impatient with each failure as she got more and more upset. I bent down to try to put my hands out so she could use it as a step. It just infuriates her. She must do this herself.
15 minutes late.
I have the – I think – brilliant idea of taking off her shoes so she’s barefoot. This works. She gets a grip on the door frame, gets into the car, I smile and pat myself on the back. Until she seems to think this is cheating and climbs out of the car instead of into her car seat and asks me for her shoes. I try to explain that the shoes don’t work so please just climb in again. She wants her shoes. I start to get antsy and angry myself. Just once, why can’t she do things the easy way? Why does she have to be so freaking independent? She’s crying and I’m clenching my fists. But I take a deep breath and put her shoes on. She returns to the door and can’t get up. Her feet are slipping out from under her again. She gets even more upset and angry.
I’ve had enough. I pick her up, put her in the seat, yelling, “That’s enough!” I shut the door and go around to the other side. I open that door and tell her she can climb into her seat, but she’s not climbing into the car anymore.
My little girl is hysterical. She’s crying that she wants out. I say, “No” and look at my phone.
Just over 20 minutes late.
I take a step away from the car and take a big breath. I’m still angry but realize I’m not at all being fair to my daughter. So I go back to her side, open up the door and let her out. I tell her she can try one more time but that we need to get her brother. I’m antsy and wondering how the hell this is all going to work out – cursing everyone from my stepson’s daycare which is closed to schools that, in my opinion, end too early, in my head at that point.
Between sobs she manages to climb in herself. I can’t help but cheer for her when she gets in and she looks at me with her wet face, still crying, and points to herself to say, “I did it”. Then she climbs over and gets into her seat. She takes some deep breaths to calm down and is soon not crying.
I do the same.
And I start to feel absolutely horrible. So I apologize. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Say you’re sorry and people will forgive you. Say you’re sorry and those horrible feelings will go away.
My daughter – who signs instead of speaking, outside of some names – says “Mom” and signs sad and scared. I think she’s telling me I was sad or scared, so I say, “Was mom sad?” and she says, “No.” Then says, “Mom”, points to herself, then signs sad again. It takes me a moment. “Did mommy make you sad?” “Yes.” “Did mommy scare you?” “Yes.”
I have done what I had hoped to never do. Ninety-nine percent of the time I can remain totally calm in the face of my daughter’s anger or sadness or frustration, knowing that she’ll get through her hard time by having me be there for her. And in my anger, tiredness, and frustration, I completely forgot that there was a little girl who was equally angry, tired, and frustrated. Only this time she didn’t have her mom to help her through it because her mom was too focused on her own feelings.
“Oh baby. I’m so sorry. Mommy never should have yelled. But please know that mommy loves you.”
“No? No. Mommy does love you.”
“Who does mom love then?”
We survived. I spent the car ride reassuring her that her feelings were totally fair and that she had every right to be angry with me and that even though she may not realize it, I do love her very much. We got to my stepson’s school over 30 minutes late. He was playing with a friend and didn’t even notice us arrive and was actually somewhat sad we’d come to take him home! Within a couple hours or so, things were back to normal with my daughter. She accepted my love and was cuddling and wanting to play. By nighttime, she was eagerly climbing into bed with me.
What’s the point of sharing this?
First, I had to present that awful story for any mom who’s been there and feels like shit. Because I think most of us have, but these aren’t the stories we generally share with our friends, unless we feel completely safe and secure telling them our ‘lesser moments’. I think it’s even harder in circles where we speak so openly and vehemently about peaceful parenting and not harming our children. To admit we’ve screwed up, even once, in this regard can be nearly impossible. And so for these moms, I hope you can take some comfort knowing it’s not just you. That we can try and try and still fall sometimes. And that’s when we need to stand back up and try some more because one fall doesn’t equal failure, but giving up after that fall does.
But it’s more than that. The real reason is that this made me really realize how much our actions affect our children in both how they feel and think. My daughter is 2 and I imagine her feelings of sadness, fear, and loss of love are not unique to her. And yet in an effort to help parents, especially moms, not feel guilty, we have a society which tells you not to feel bad for snapping once in a blue moon (or every month, or week) because we all do it. But the fact that everyone screws up now and again doesn’t make this particular action any more excusable to my daughter than if everyone didn’t screw up. And in our many attempts to live guilt-free, we ignore the very real effects on our children.
I’m not saying that parents should forever feel like horrible human beings for snapping (though feeling bad after is generally a good sign of our moral compass). But we should be cognizant of how these actions affect our children. And just because they are sometimes too young or too emotional to tell us exactly how they feel doesn’t mean they don’t feel as awful as my daughter did that day. And as I learned, sometimes even saying your sorry won’t be accepted right away.
And that’s okay.
Our children are human and subject to the same whims and emotions that we are – if not more so because they can’t always contextualize or rationalize events that happen around them. Oftentimes I see parents who either ignore their child’s emotions altogether or who assume that once they apologize, the child should simply get over it. It’s not always that easy – just like it isn’t always that easy for us. We want it to be because when the apology is accepted, we can let go of our guilt, something we can’t do if our child remains upset. Sadly when children don’t accept the apology, parents can get angry all over again. I shudder to think how my daughter would have felt if I had taken that route.
What we as parents have to remember is that the guilt and bad feelings we have when we screw up are our problems. They are emotions we need to process and we can’t expect our children to make it better for us. If we apologize only to make those feelings go away, we’re not honestly apologizing to our children. In fact, we’re teaching them to ignore the feelings of others when they don’t coincide with what they want. And that’s not right.
Loving your child means accepting how they feel regardless of how much it may hurt you at a moment, or drive you crazy, or make you feel bad about yourself. Allowing them to express that emotion without judgment will not only make your child stronger emotionally and more secure, but will lead to a better relationship in the long run. We will all screw up – to err is human – it’s how we handle things after we’ve done the inevitable that we need to be more mindful of.