The first time it happened my oldest daughter was two years old.
We were in the Target check-out line, pool party necessities spilling out of our cart, including a purple bubble wand that Sadie had handpicked from the dollar section. I start doing the usual mental assessment of each item as it gets placed on the counter, and suddenly realize that the jumbo pack of bubbles we had grabbed for favors is a way better bargain. I decide to discretely pass the beloved stick of purple bubbles to the young man behind the counter to put back.
Cue the blood-curdling scream.
Not only is my toddler screaming, she is now standing.
I’m doing my best to navigate my pregnant belly around the cart so that she doesn’t unintentionally plummet to her doom, while simultaneously shouting calming phrases at her.
The volume of rage coming out of those teeny tiny lungs is impenetrable.
The train has the left the station, and there is no stopping it.
The offended party (we have since learned) has an extremely high value for justice that cannot under any circumstances be violated, or else she short-circuits. My bubble-wand betrayal simply did not compute. She was totally and completely malfunctioning before my very eyes.
I would look back on this experience, always panning out mentally to a view of the whole checkout section, noticing the stunned silence of the crowds, inconvenienced in the middle of their weekday shopping by the loudness of one small angry child, who just happened to belong to me.
We were the only thing happening in that moment.
And I would think back to the judgmental face of the woman standing in line behind me, the face of the poor startled millennial now sheepishly holding the purple bubble-wand in question, and I would find myself thinking about what they must have been thinking about me.
That would all come later.
She was the only thing worthy of my attention in that moment.
We could not leave quickly enough. In fact, I’m pretty sure I started pushing that cart towards the exit with one hand on my standing malfunctioning child. Mama was getting out of dodge. Did I pay? I must have, but I honestly don’t remember it.
What I do remember is the walk to the car where I was trying to wrap my head around how (and what) to teach this tiny person once she snapped out of it. What do I say? How do I help? I was completely quiet as I strapped her into her car-seat, not strategically, but honestly because I was just as shocked as the crowd and still processing how to help.
Once she was buckled, I paused and we made eye contact.
And then my sweet girl surprised me a second time by bursting into tears and pulling me close.
She didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything. It turns out, I didn’t have to.
Childhood is complicated. The brain is still forming, hormones adjusting, languages and social cues are being learned. The world is big and loud and full of relationships with their many rules. Our kids are up to their eyeballs in learning, every moment of every day from the time their tiny bodies slip into the world.
And they are counting on us – not to mother perfectly – but to see them completely, and to choose to love them unconditionally, literally meaning regardless of the conditions.
They are counting on us to choose not to see the nasty lady behind us, and instead to tune-in to what is happening within the small human in front of us- in their bodies, their hearts, their minds; to ask good questions, to give true answers, to dish out free hugs, and even to lay down hard lines as they grow and need guidance and boundaries.
They are counting on us to know them well enough to distinguish between cerebral overwhelm and pure unadulterated defiance – and to dish out justice or hugs & kisses accordingly.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the last half-decade since that first meltdown:
- Don’t keep a tally of difficult moments. It will only make it harder to forgive the tiny human in your care for all they’ve put you through. (And you’ll lose count anyway.)
- A bad moment, doesn’t make a bad day – unless you let it. A series of bad days doesn’t make a bad kid (or a bad mom). Stay away from superlatives (and the word bad). Keep moving forward expecting the best of each other.
- You cannot control another human being, no matter how small.
- For the people in the back: YOU CANNOT CONTROL ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, NO MATTER HOW SMALL.
- The world will tell you that you are responsible for your child’s bad behavior (or lack of good behavior). They are dead wrong. See above.
- There are some things we can’t do as the mom. We can’t make choices for them. (Are you noticing a theme here?) Which means we might have a really horrible experience in the midst of mothering that has nothing to do with us.
- You are living life hand-in-hand with a child who has every right/freedom/ability to make a series of piss-poor choices which will lead to a slew of not-fun consequences. And because you love them (and are in their general vicinity) you probably won’t be enjoying your child or even your vocation in that moment.
- In that moment, remember that mothering is not a moment.
- Don’t let others opinions of your mothering infiltrate your perspective of yourself or your child. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
When they fail you or embarrass you (and they will), lead with love, be the first one to freely offer forgiveness, and pray that you’ll know how best to love them in that one moment that you’re responsible for right now.
Tomorrow wakes up filled to the brim with fresh mercy. And this will probably make for a great story… later.