parents

'The one day of parenting I wish I could erase.'

Michaela.

By MICHAELA FOX

Recently a close friend of mine tearfully confessed that she had lost her cool and smacked her child, after being pushed to the brink. She was deeply regretful and I knew she considered the smack a major parenting failure. Her eyes bared her pain, and also her vulnerability. I recognised this pain. I recognised her regret. She was reflecting back an experience of my own and most likely many other parents too.

We all have parenting moments we are not proud of. We would like to erase them from our memory. My friend was ashamed of her actions and full of self-loathing and guilt. I shared her pain, too, as I have stood in her shoes and acted in ways I deeply regret.

Children bear witness to some of our most shameful behaviours and worst mistakes. Most parents can tell you with grim precision what they were, and the feeling of shame that followed. I can tell you mine.

It happened shortly after my third child was born. Neck-deep in the demands of three children under three, and suffering from bone-crushing fatigue, I was struggling to stay afloat.  Adding to my catalogue of pressures was the terrible trouble I was having with one of my children. She was miserable, and as such I was miserable, as well as exasperated, conflicted and angry. Her behaviour was ruining my time with my baby and interfering with my enjoyment of my other child who was delightfully happy.

Know that feeling?

When we are pushed to the brink at times, explaining how it got to that point is senseless. Often the tipping point is an insignificant event; it’s what has led to that moment that causes us to explode. Recounting the event can rarely convey the rawness and power of emotion.

I can’t even remember what my child did on the day I wish I could erase. And that itself shows how inconsequential it can become in time. But I do recall with haunting clarity the rage that welled up inside of me. I lost my cool and snapped. As I screamed at my young child with unrestrained emotion, I barely recognised myself. Who was I? What kind of mother screams at her barely two-year-old?

As my emotion boiled over, I did the only thing I could think of to diffuse the situation. Only I didn’t do it lightly. I grabbed my child with force and flung her into her cot and shut the door.  Her cries intensified.

I then fled to my room and buried my head in my hands in shame. Trembling and unable to process the intensity of my emotion, I cried.  I didn’t recognise myself in that moment. I had been in stressful situations before: before children I had a very demanding career and nothing, nothing, had pushed my buttons like this. Coming from someone who is reasonably calm, the sense of almost losing control was scary. As a mother who doesn’t believe in smacking, my assertive grip and heavy handling of her was, in my mind, inexcusable.

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In my case it wasn’t so much what as did as much as how I felt. Rage is a very confronting emotion and it shook me to my core. The fact that both the source and recipient of my rage was my daughter exacerbated my distress. I felt like I had betrayed her. I felt like I had betrayed myself.

I called my husband and told him I was not handling the situation well and needed his help. He left work immediately.

Later that night, I held my precious daughter tight to my chest and repeatedly told her I loved her. And I said I was sorry. I smothered her in kisses and promised to try harder. But it did little to assuage my acute sense of remorse and sadness.

Michaela’s three kids.

Regret is not a helpful emotion, and neither is guilt. And yet as parents we seem more willing to enshrine guilt in memory than all the stuff we do well. Mothers are especially skilled at harbouring haunting memories of parental failures. We are hypercritical of ourselves, rarely acknowledging our triumphs which, in both my friend’s case and my own, far outnumber the failings.

Raising children is hard; life with young children is particularly challenging. Toddlers are known for their irrational, impulsive and limit-pushing behaviour. It’s a constant jostle between ecstasy, love, bewilderment and intense frustration. Numerous studies have found that mothers and toddlers average a conflict every 2-3 minutes. Add to this an unsettled baby and you have a formula for exhaustion.

A few years on, this episode serves as a reminder to me that parenting involves emotional extremes. We are capable of tremendous love and tenderness, but we are also capable of fury and despair. This is parenting: a vulnerable roller-caster of a ride.

I take great comfort in Angela Mollard’s words in The Smallest  Things: “My mothering is not a scoresheet of triumphs and misdemeanours. It’s a complicated, sometimes fraught, sometimes gentle, ever unfolding, infinitely beautiful ode to love.”

I hope these words comfort my friend, too.

What parenting confession do you have?

Michaela Fox is a freelance writer, blogger and mother. She has three young daughters and sometimes wonders why she had them in under three years! She is hoping that short-term pain results in long-term gain. You can follow her on Twitter, join her on Facebook or read her honest musings on motherhood at Not Another Slippery Dip.

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