I remember the morning I realized it. My sons were 6, 4 1/2 and 18 months old and had done something that had gotten me upset. What they did completely escapes me now which tells you how bad it must not have been, but for whatever reason I went beyond my usual aggravation to a crazy place.
Even now I can recall the rush of heat rising to my face. And then the roar. It was a furious, excruciating explosion of a person going insane. The tirade went on for at least several minutes as I exhausted my frustration and despair at this latest infraction. On and on I went, like a hurricane slowing down only to gather new force.
Finally, my emotional storm began to subside, and as the clouds parted I looked around and realized that my kids were no where in sight.
I found them upstairs in their bedroom, clearly shaken and startled as I opened the door. And that's when it hit me. My children were terrified of me. Not the 'Uh-oh, this is a time-out, no dessert, go-to-your-room' kind of fear but a 'mommy is a scary person' kind of fear.
Now in fairness to me, while I had a quick temper and could get irritated easily, there were also plenty of times when I had better sense and more patience. Usually, at least part of each day was spent in a happy place. We went to parks, colored pictures, baked cakes. I've read them hundreds of books, baked dozens of cookies, and planned many a themed birthday party. Arrgh, matey.
But like many moms, caregivers, and even teachers who spend hours and hours alone with little beings in need - the tasks of engaging their minds, reigning them in, and teaching them all manner of manners, life skills and to not dump the entire contents of the Cheerios box on the rug can get overwhelming and tedious at the same time. It's a lonely and stressful madness that can overcome an otherwise rational mind.
Yes - in all fairness I was a good mom but this wasn't about fairness this was about feeling safe. And while, my explosiveness was never of the physical kind, my emotional reactivity was leaving it's own, potentially more damaging marks.
That was one of the low points in my parenting. And I wish I could say, that seeing their flinching reactions to my opening the door was all it took to wake me up. But it wasn't. In fact, in those moments that I admitted that it really wasn't their fault, I had already been committing myself to being a better mom for several years without success.
Fortunately motherhood (and fatherhood for that matter) is much more than one moment. It's about showing up every day. But who you are when you do arrive is pretty critical too!
Lucky for me, I finally realized that the answers weren't IN me. They were out there. Turns out that just because I loved my kids didn't mean I knew how to handle the stress of parenting. Or even understood what caused it.
I began reading books. I took a journey back to my own childhood to find more empathy for what it's like to be a kid. I did some work on the baggage I brought with me out of childhood. And - probably the biggest leap was that I took several parenting classes to help me learn what to replace my reactivity with. (They're called skills - who knew?)
In fact the journey I took led me back to grad school and to my current career of supporting people (especially parents) in creating the relationships they imagine in their minds and long for in their hearts.
My sons are teenagers now. And I'd like to say that I get it right all the time and that my kids adore me. I'd like to say that but I won't. Which isn't easy to admit. Especially when I became a Parenting Consultant - I worried that I was supposed to have all the answers. But I had to let that go. I know that my challenges are only kept at bay when I DON'T forget that I am not above them.
Would my kids vote me as World's Greatest Mom? Realistically? Nah. For now I figure they'd give me a 'B' or a 'B+'. But that's fine. What matters is that I am a much better mom than I was. Because just like helping my kids know that it is safe to make mistakes, I am working to lighten up on myself as well. And while I may not be the World's Greatest Mom, I don't know anyone who loves her kids more or tries harder.
Now that's a Mother's Day Gift I could see getting.
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Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Relationship & Parenting Consultant based in Ann Arbor, MI. You can find her at www.anniezirkel.com. Submit your relationship questions to email@example.com Creative Commons License photo credit: odolphie