I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I am not the mother you deserve. I’m sorry that I’m not the mother I thought I would be, or that I think I could be, if maybe things were a little different.
I’m sorry that when I’m stressed, I revert to old patterns probably set in my childhood – I talk to you as if you are an adult. I treat you as if you an adult – a belligerent, unreasonable, whiny little adult.
You are not an adult, you are a child. But when I am stressed, I don’t see you that way.
And so, today happened:
Your father has been away for days and days, I have been single parenting. Now he is home but he caught a bug. I have a cold, but it isn’t as bad as whatever your father has, and so I am still in solo loco parentis.
I picked you up from school. I went to pick up your sister from daycare while you played Minecraft. Then I rushed to cook a quick supper before your tee ball game. I slopped the pasta-and-sauce in front of you and urged you to eat quickly, because we had to get to tee ball. I had been hoping your father would take you to tee ball, since he is the one with the interest in baseball but he has come down with the flu and is fast asleep.
Luckily, today was a game day, and the field where your games are held is twice as close as the field where you practice. So, with a few minutes to spare, I popped upstairs to change the baby before we left, and I found your father, who had woken up in time to say, “You know it’s at [school name] today, right?”
“Oh. They sent an email. I wasn’t sure if I’d told you.”
That school is significantly farther than either of your regular fields, which means that we were already late. I frantically changed a wriggling baby and rushed you out to the car without even grabbing the baby carrier.
“When will my new shoes be here?” you asked, putting on your sneakers.
“When they get here.”
“because they have to make them?”
“No, because they have to mail them and I don’t know when the mail gets here please get in the car.”
“But I really want new shoes.”
“Well they aren’t here yet so GET IN THE CAR.”
I put in the name of the school into Siri – I had a general idea of the way but I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
You were impatient. “Uh, MOM. Let’s GO.”
“I’m getting directions, Owl.”
“TO THE PLACE WHERE YOUR TEE BALL IS.”
“You COULD just get a MAP,” you said from the back, in tones of deep disgust.
“THERE IS A MAP ON MY PHONE AND I AM PULLING IT UP NOW.”
“YES AND GETTING A PAPER MAP AND TRYING TO FIND THE SCHOOL ON IT WOULD TAKE LONGER SO JUST LET ME DO IT PLEASE.”
So I got the directions, which matched what I thought I already knew, and we drove to the school. It was past six when we got there, but we parked and I lugged the baby toward the baseball field that we could see on a hill along a big path.
When we got there, the field was empty. We wandered around looking for another baseball field but there was only a soccer field, with kids playing soccer.
“I don’t play soccer, I play TEE BALL,” you said pointedly.
“Yes, I know that. Let me call your father.” Dumping the baby on the grass I called and he answered groggily.
“It’s on X road,” he said.
“Yes, I know, I’m on that road.”
“No… you said [school name]”
“Oh, no, that’s the high school. It’s at the elementary. Sorry.”
“Okay, thanks.” I hang up, and gesture at you. “Okay, we have to get back to the car, we’re at the wrong place.”
You trailed behind, trying to play on various sculptures on the decadent high school grounds (my high school was NOT this fancy). “Mom, look at me!”
“Come on, Owl!”
“But MOM!” you call.
You catch up to me, sounding a little tearful. “I wanted you to look at me.”
“I know, sweetie, but I am trying to get you to the car so I can take you to your tee ball.”
“But you could have done that AFTER you looked at me,” you say plaintively.
“There’s no TIME, Owl. I told you to keep up. You shouldn’t have even been playing on those sculptures.”
I open the door to the car and you clamber in while I buckle the baby back into her seat.
“Mom? Will we be early?”
I snort. “No, Owl, we are very late.”
“Why do you think?”
“Because we’re at the wrong place?”
“Right. And because I didn’t know we would be going so far today so we didn’t leave early enough.”
I shut the car doors and go around to the front to get in. When I open the door to the driver’s seat you say indignantly, “MOM, I was trying to TALK to you and you CLOSED THE DOORS.”
“I know, Owl, I’m sorry, I was trying to get into the car so we can GO TO YOUR TEE BALL. You can ask me NOW.”
I drive to the elementary school which isn’t far off, and we park and I can see the tee ball right away. Unfortunately, because this is Vancouver, it is three terraces down and we have to go down three flights of steps and then a long sloping path to get to them. The game is now half over.
I drop the baby in the grass. “Okay, go! Go to your team!”
You run to the field and look around, a little lost, but your coach waves you over and gets you batting. The baby, delighted to be free, crawls around on the grass and for a moment, things are peaceful.
You finish batting and come looking for a drink. I am dismayed.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I say. “We forgot your water bottle. I was in such a rush to get here…”
“But I’m thirsty,” you say, wounded.
“I know, buddy, I’m sorry, but when we get home you can have a BIG glass of cold milk, okay? I’m sorry. I forgot.”
You sit down. “I’m tired.”
“You can’t be that tired, you spent the last two hours sitting down playing Minecraft at home.”
“I’m REALLY tired. I need a rest.”
Your coach comes up and tries to get you to go on the field, but you insist that you are too tired.
“Okay, you rest for a while and come back when you’re ready,” she says. You start playing around on the grass and rolling down the slope.
“Owl, if you’re done resting, you can go to the field,” I say.
“I don’t want to. I’m resting.”
“But you aren’t resting. You’re playing around.”
“Coach SAID I could rest.”
So I sit there, in the spring evening, on this random field, while you roll around, and your tee ball team plays tee ball. And I am struck by the ridiculous futility of everything. Why did I rush to get you here when you clearly don’t even give a crap about playing? Even though at dinner you were telling me how much you love tee ball and how it’s your favourite thing, the game is half over, you have only played half of an inning, and here you are goofing off on the grass instead of playing with your team.
And I feel like I hate everything and everyone, even though I love how cute your sister looks crawling around the daisies and even though I know tee ball is just for fun, and if you’re having fun I shouldn’t give a damn about anything else.
Now your team goes to bat again and you miraculously recover and run to get in line to bat. Just like before you hit the ball on the first swing and send it zipping past most of the kids.
When batting time is done you return and plop into the grass. “I’m tired again.”
“Fine, then I’ll just take you home.”
“What? Why?” you whine. “I don’t want to go.”
“Well, you clearly don’t want to play,” I snap. “So why am I here? Let’s just go if you’re not going to play.”
“Coach SAID I could REST.”
“You’re just resting to avoid playing field. Either play, or we go home.”
So you grab your glove and trudge out to the field, and perform one of your miraculous catches that sends the coach into hysterics.
Now the game is over. You played a total of one and a half innings. You are delighted.
“Now I can play! Please, can we stay and play? Pleeease?”
Forgotten is your thirst. Forgotten is your supposed exhaustion. There are green slopes to roll down.
And I think, Why not. The baby is still having fun crawling in the grass. It’s a lovely evening. You are happy. You want to play. Why not?
“Now Owl,” I warn you, “If you play here, then when we get home, it’ll be time to go straight to bed. When that happens, will you be sorry you stayed to play, and wish you went home for stories instead?”
“No,” you say firmly.
“You’ll be happy you stayed to play?”
“Okay.” I suspect that this will not, in fact, be the truth, but neither do I see a reason to drag you home, kicking and screaming. And so you celebrate, and I rest, and watch you roll around with your sister in the grass and the growing shadows.
After about twenty minutes you sigh and say, “Mom… can we GO yet?”
I look down at you in surprise. “Can we GO? I’m waiting for YOU!”
“I’m so TIRED.”
“Okay, so if you’re ready to go, let’s go. Get your baseball stuff.”
You grab your helmet and glove while I hoist your sister into my arms and we start trudging up the long sloping path.
“Mom. Can you carry this?”
I glance down. “No, I have the baby, I can’t carry your helmet. You carry it.”
“But MOM. I’m TIRED.”
So who isn’t? I wonder.”I’m tired too, buddy. I have the baby, you carry the helmet.”
“But MOM. It’s HEAVY.”
I hold out the baby. “You want to trade?”
You give me a crooked smile. “She’s even heavier!”
“Exactly. You carry the helmet.”
I keep walking up the path, while you trudge behind yelling, “Mom! MOM! MOM I CAN’T CARRY THIS ANY MORE. MOM? I SAID I CAN’T CARRY THIS. MOM? I’M TIRED!”
And I should probably just take the helmet, and find a way to juggle a giant plastic thing with no handles while lugging a one year old with no carrier, because you are five, but I just can’t face it. I ignore you and keep walking.
“MOM!!!” you holler, “MOM I CAN’T CARRY THIS ANY FARTHER!”
“That’s too bad!” I shout back as I keep walking.
“But I’m tired!” you say again.
I whirl. My patience, frazzled at best, is now entirely gone. “So am I!” I bellow. “What else have you got?”
“But Mom…” you say. “Mom… I’m so tired.”
“So am I, Owl,” I repeat. “So am I. But I still have to carry this baby. And you still have to carry this helmet. Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter if we’re tired. It still has to be done.”
And I know that this unpleasant fact of life – the fact that the world doesn’t really give a shit how we feel about things, that life still goes on regardless – is probably too heavy for a five year old, but I have looked deep inside myself and I have found no reserves of gentleness and patience, no part of me that can pretend that your tiredness matters more than mine, no part of me that can pretend that I can carry a helmet AND a baby, no part of me that can forgive you for begging me to stay and then having the gall to complain about it on the way back to the car.
“Mom,” you say again, your voice breaking. “I’m THIRSTY.”
I whirl again. “I KNOW you are thirsty, Owl,” I snap. “I know that. I forgot the water. But on the other hand, we could have left TWENTY MINUTES AGO AND YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN HOME AND DRINKING WATER BY NOW. But you wanted to stay at the park! And so here you are, STILL THIRSTY. We will get home, and you will get a drink, but YOU decided to stay here. YOU are the one who didn’t want to go home yet. And so it is YOUR problem that you are still thirsty.”
And I know, because I’m not actually a terrible person, that this is too heavy a thing to lay at your door. That a five year old only thinks of green rolling slopes, and not water bottles, and that a five year old cannot think of how he will feel in twenty minutes. But as I have said, I’m just done. I’m done. I have a cold. I am tired. I am stressed. I did my best to get you fed and get you to tee ball and I still managed to screw it up, and I know that not one bit of this matters. Because my being tired doesn’t change anything. My being fed up doesn’t change anything.
But here you are, still labouring under the childhood belief that what we want MATTERS. And I can’t handle it.
“I don’t want to hear any more whining,” I instruct. “I can’t help that you are tired. I can’t help that you are thirsty. All I can do is get you home so you can drink and rest, and to do that I need you go to UP THESE STAIRS.”
You sniffle and trudge upwards, but you look up at me and deliver what you clearly believe to be the argument to end all arguments. “MOM. I am TIRED.”
“I KNOW YOU ARE TIRED! SO AM I! THAT DOESN’T CHANGE ANYTHING!” I am now full-on shouting, and I hate myself but I can’t stop the vitriol from pouring out. “I don’t want to hear another word of whining. If you can’t say something that is not a whine, then DON’T SAY IT.”
We reach the car.
“But I’m TIRED!” you insist.
“THAT WAS WHINING. I SAID NO MORE WHINING! NOT. ONE. MORE. WORD.”
You climb into the car, and look at me tearfully and start to speak. I cut you off.
“DO. NOT. SPEAK.”
“But MOM,” you say again, “I wanted to TELL you something.”
“Then go ahead and tell me something, but so help me, it had better not be a complaint.”
You look at me with big, soulful eyes, and I wonder if you are going to say one of those insightful things that children say sometimes, that totally melt you and make you realize what a dick you are being to this tiny person in your charge.
“Mom,” you say, with a trembling lip. “I’m really, REALLY THIRSTY.”
And that’s when I really explode. I don’t remember the exact words I used, probably because I have already suppressed them out of sheer shame, but I am pretty sure the phrase “suck it up” was in there, and “your own fault”, too.
And even as this rage is pouring out of my mouth, I am hating myself. Because most of this is not your fault. It is not your fault that your father and I didn’t communicate clearly. It is not your fault that we were late. It was not your fault that I forgot the water. And because this is not the mother I meant to be. Because I want to be the kind of mother who picks you up and offers to carry you piggy back off of the field, helmet and all. Because I want to be the kind of mother who responds to complaints with tickles. Because I know that what you really need is to be cuddled, and told that it is okay, and cut some slack. And I know that because, let’s face it, that’s what I need, too.
But I know that I am not going to get it, and I have nothing left to pass on to you.
And sometimes I am the mother who tickles, and the mother who carries you, and the mother who sympathises, and I am sure that that is what confuses you even more when I spew fury at your tiny body, while I furiously buckle your five point harness for you because you are too devastated as you sob into your grubby hands to do it yourself.
You choke out an apology, but I bet you don’t even understand why I am angry. How can you, when I’m not sure I do myself?
And I look at your tear-stained, dirt-smudged face, and I try to make amends, but the best I can do is a poor shadow of my normal self. I explain that I am NOT angry at you for being tired, or thirty, that everyone gets tired and thirsty, and that I am also tired and thirsty. But I explain that sometimes there is nothing we can do about being tired and thirsty but just wait until we can get to a place where we can rest and take a drink, and that complaining about it, and whining about it, doesn’t help things. It just makes us more unhappy.
But I don’t think you understand. In your mind, to think it is to say it. How can you be tired and thirsty without talking about being tired and thirsty? They are one and the same. Nor can you understand that sometimes what we want doesn’t matter. It will probably take years for you to fully understand that. I’m in my thirties and I still struggle with it some days, still have trouble with the understanding that what I want make no difference to my life.
Wanting something doesn’t make it happen. Otherwise I would be a paragon of sympathy and understanding, which you deserve, because that is what I want to be for you.
And so we drive home in silence. And we walk inside in silence, except for a brief moment on the porch when you say again,
“I really really want my new shoes to be here…”
I manage to keep my mouth shut.
We get inside, and pass your father, who is half asleep on the couch with the flu. We walk to the kitchen, and as I take a cup out of the cupboard you say,
“Mom… I am really, REALLY THIRSTY.”
And I snap again. Not nearly as badly as I did at the field, but I snap, because I am HOLDING THE CUP and I am OPENING THE FRIDGE and I TOLD YOU NOT TO WHINE.
And your father hears this and rushes in, and tells me that I am done dealing with you for the day. And he has made the right decision because I know that even though your father is swaying and coughing, he isn’t going to verbally abuse you.
And so I collapse on the couch, and stare off into space, and wish with all of my heart that this evening hadn’t happened, that I had found a reserve inside me to keep things cheerful and happy, and I look inside me for such a hidden reserve and keep coming up empty.
Your father leads you past me and tells you to say goodnight to me. I hold you tight and kiss you, and you hold me tight too, because you are young, and loving, and you don’t quite realize how awful I am yet.
But some day you will.
And it will be my own fault.