Published on November 19th, 2013 | by Laurian Rhodes10
Bad MUTHA by Laurian Rhodes
A friend and I were taking our kids to the carousel in downtown San Francisco one afternoon a few years ago. It was crowded, one of the S.F. family free days. Lots of parents and lots of kids. Ahead of us was a woman, with meaty calves and shorts that rode up her inner thighs, her gray-bearded mother in a polyester muumuu and the woman’s toddler, a pale little girl with a fluffy blond pony tail. Three generations out on a sunny day. The adults were having some sort of argument, and were yelling at each other as they headed slowly towards the carousel. The older woman had the toddler by the hand and the little girl was fussing and the grandmother pulled her hard and swatted her on the bottom. The girl started to cry and the girl’s mother yanked her away from the grandmother and shouted at her mother “You don’t get to hit her, she’s mine! I’ll hit her if she needs it, not you!”
As abhorrent as that moment was to witness (what child NEEDS hitting?) what I felt most for that mother right then was compassion. Yes, the child was in an ugly situation—I can only imagine what went on behind closed doors—but it was very clear where that woman learned her behavior. She was reared with the same treatment and she didn’t know any different. Maybe she should have—it’s easy to judge her. But at that moment, she didn’t. She needed to do better (and I’d like to think she wanted to do better), but she was unable. Her behavior at that moment was simply, as one of my favorite dharma teachers Noah Levine would say: unskilled. Extremely fucking unskilled.
When I said something to that effect, the friend that I was with answered like this: “I don’t feel sorry for her; I feel sorry for the kid.” I get that, too. But kids are resilient; at that young age, she’s going to love her mother no matter what. That mother was a hurt child once, she’s hurting now, and she needs help. She needs support and love and compassion, and I wanted to walk over and give her a hug right then and tell her to soften. To let herself get sad, get frustrated, get vulnerable. Not to get hard and rigid. I wanted to help HER so she could help her child, because what that child needed at that moment was tenderness and kindness. But that’s what the mother needed, too. I know, I’ve been there.
I’ve been that mother. I don’t mean I’ve been the ‘kill your kids, end up on the front page news the next day’ type of mom. Wait—yes I do. Because there isn’t really that much difference between ME and THEM. That’s the scary thing. Sure, maybe I haven’t lost it to that extent—I usually only scream at home, not in public—but I’ve been there. And I know the shame and I know the guilt that accompanies those outbursts. And maybe that mother didn’t know better, but I’m supposed to. I’m a middle-class, educated mom. I eat organic food. I’m a doula. I had a home birth. (And I pre-judged them based on appearance; after all I “look” more San Francisco and therefore parented “better” than those women did, too.) But all that shit doesn’t prepare you for the relentlessness of parenthood. The lack of sleep, the lack of control, always doing for other people before you take care of your own needs. People tell you that raising children is the hardest job there is. What they don’t tell you is that it’s hard not to fucking kill them.
We’ve all seen that woman. Yelling at her kids in the grocery store. We’ve been the horrified onlookers, sure that WE would NEVER act that way to our kids. I’ve been that mother in the grocery store, spit flying through gritted teeth, hissing at her children to stop pulling crap off the shelves for the 100th time. The one that hasn’t showered in 3 days and smells like cheese from the copious amounts of breast milk spilling from her udders. The reason I wanted to go give that woman a hug is because I am her. But for the grace of the Goddess, there goes a wretch like me. And what she needs isn’t my judgment and scorn but my empathy and compassion.
At one point after my second son was born, dealing with both a three-year-old and a newborn, I remember wondering why there weren’t more mothers running down the street screaming, a bottle of whiskey in their clenched fists. I sat in tears on my front porch after smashing a dancing Snoopy Christmas doll that wouldn’t stop singing ‘Have a Very Rockin’ Christmas’ with a hammer. Every time I walked by the puzzle basket after dark, some motion-activated dinosaur would scare the fuck out of me with a motion-activated ROAR. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stepped on a miniscule Lego in the dark.
And all that tells you is that it’s hard. But it’s way harder than anyone ever told you, if anyone even told you anything. Because that’s every mother’s secret shame: no one wants to admit that their kids are making them homicidal, or suicidal, or that they just wish they weren’t living that particular life at that particular moment. No one wants to admit that they’re exhausted and angry, confused or disappointed. That if they have to play Lego-Star-Wars-Ninja Cowboys one more minute they’re going to start to chew their fingers off.
I guess women are expected to just KNOW how to do this gig from the get go. That myth of maternal instinct is so strong, I remember a lecture by my women’s studies teacher at City College around the time of the Waco, Texas Branch Davidian crisis. After the ATF couldn’t get the cult members to turn themselves in, the FBI went in and bombed the place, killing 76 men, women and children. One of the guys from the FBI said that they had counted on the mothers “maternal instincts” to save the children and get them out of there safely. My teacher was in tears, talking about how this myth of maternalism was so pervasive, so entrenched in our cultural psyche it could actually be expected to save lives.
I’m pretty sure I have something like a “maternal instinct.” It got me to have kids in the first place. But that is not the same knowing how to parent them and getting support when you need it. And all the maternal instinct in the world can’t prepare you for post-partum depression that goes on and on and on. Or for relationship or financial stressors. Or for all of the above.
Because when those moments happen, when you do so thoroughly lose your shit, the tunnel of self-loathing is so dark and cavernous that you can easily get lost, Golem-like, in its slippery chambers. Variations of the chant “I hate myself and want to die” and go on repeat. I’ve felt and truly believed that that my kids would really be better off without me. And there’s nobody there to wipe up my tears. Your kids will get over it. After a couple of episodes of Adventure Time or Tom & Jerry they’ve moved on, and there’s dinner to be made. They need you. Volcanic temper and all you are all they’ve got, and the shame and the guilt will not help get you up and into the kitchen, putting water on for another night’s boxed mac ’n’ cheese. That is when it is time for forgiveness. It’s time for compassion.
There will be times when you will be screaming at your children to GET THEIR FUCKING SHOES ON RIGHT FUCKING NOW (because they didn’t hear you the first 17 times you said it and you’ve already been late 3 times this week and don’t want to get the stink eye from the teacher again), and you realize that you left the front door open and it’s 8:15 am and the whole goddamn neighborhood could hear you and probably did and you want to hang your head in shame and slink into a hole and die. Or the relentless fighting from the back seat and the kids hitting each other screaming “he did it” no, “HE DID IT” over and over which results in road rage, tires shredding down the street, gas pedal floored and music cranked to 11 just to make them shut the fuck up.
People don’t tell you it’s like that before you have kids, but it’s true. True for me, anyway. I’ve sobbed on the way to drop my kids off to day care/ preschool/ elementary school more times than I care to admit. And who ya gonna call and tell “I just told my kids to shut the fuck up?” Mother Teresa doesn’t live here. Nobody’s gonna tell you, “Oh, it’s OK, they’ll forgive you some day after countless hours of therapy.” It’s not OK! If you’re lucky like me, you’ll have a partner that can show up and take over with the kids, and commiserate. One that rarely judges. One that has empathy and knows that although you’re a raging hell cow at that moment, you really are capable of being calm, loving, funny, and sane.
Yet it’s easier for me to look at that woman and women like her with compassion than it is to look at myself similarly. It’s far less painful to watch her movie play out, maybe because her mistakes aren’t my fault. Maybe the distance that objectivity provides also provides clarity. Which makes it easier to judge, but also easier to find space for empathy.
When I’m in that dark hole of shame and self-loathing, I have to turn to myself with the same loving energy that my kids need. I need to mother myself with the same tenderness and love that I—in my best moments—give to them. Anything less is self-abuse and it maintains the problem, it doesn’t fix it. A thousand times a day I think ‘I could have done that better.’ That’s a thousand opportunities to try again.
So after Hurricane Motherfucker rages through town and the pity party is over, what then? We clean up the mess. We apologize. We call the Parents Crisis Hotline number. (Yes, there is such a thing. Here is the number: 510-893-5444). We go see therapists. “Did you hit ‘em?” No. “Then you’re fine.” (That’ll be $125 dollars.) We make action plans involving meditation and counting to ten and time-outs for mom. We buy stacks and stacks of parenting books. We take Kava and passionflower and valerian root. When those don’t work, we make emergency requests for anti-depressants. We drink wine with dinner. (Mother’s little helper, anyone?) We mix our kids’ juice box fruit punch with rum and use it to toss back our Chinese herbs.
And we pull ourselves the fuck back together and read them books and tell them we love them and it’s not their fault but sometimes mommy gets mad and we get up the next day and try to forgive ourselves. And we hope. We hope we didn’t fuck them up too bad. Did I hit ’em? Nope. Could be worse. I’m doing the best I can do. We all are. We apologize for the umpteenth time. We explain why we got mad. We try to move from those painful explosive and unskilled moments to moments of calm non-reactivity. Moments where there is an opportunity for grace. Even for a wretch like me.
(feature photo by pasukaru76/flickr)