When motherhood is upon us, the majority of us begin studying. We buy books, login to Babycenter, borrow registry lists, and have in-depth discussions with friends and strangers on subjects like nursing, potty-training, sleep-training, and the best pediatricians and preschools.
Why do we do all of this? Because deep down our biggest fear is messing up. When we sign up for the job of parenthood, we commit on every level to do the best we can, even if we don’t have all of the answers (and none of us do.) But at some point, we must all accept that no book can tell us how to do it.
During my son’s first year, I actually thought things were tough. Broken sleep and the struggle to produce enough milk for my growing boy definitely drained me. But I had no idea what was coming as he began walking, running and speaking. This little person was starting to develop, and with it came tantrums, demands, and moments that, frankly, I had not prepared for. Sometimes, the only option you have as a parent is to do you best you can in the moment….and with that, there’s no guarantee of the kind of job you’re doing.
I got a taste of this firsthand on my son’s recent birthday. Take note: your child’s birthday can feel highly significant to you–personally. It’s literally your BIRTH-day. So on my son’s third birthday, I celebrated with cupcakes, gifts and dinner at his favorite restaurant. I envisioned his day as joyful for all of us. But that was not the case.
Halfway through dinner, his happy mood inexplicably changed. It was like a switch went off. There’s a state that happens with toddlers when something goes off in their little minds to provoke them toward hyperactivity, defiant No’s, slapping hands and wiggly bodies. No threats of “time out” make a difference. They’ve crossed over to the dark side and there’s no getting them back.
Without going into the nitty-gritty details, let’s just say it was ugly enough for us to leave the table mid-meal. I threatened my son that we’d better make it home without any major issues, and that he must hold my hand or else….but just as the door of the restaurant swung open, he ran. And this boy runs fast.
On this particular night, it was dark and drizzly and my worst nightmare flashed before my eyes: my innocent (though misbehaved) boy getting hit by a car. I ran after him in a panic, screaming his name at the top of my lungs.
When I caught him I was so enraged, so irate that I did what I said I’d never do…. I hit him. Yup, there it is. The ugly truth. I grabbed him and hit him on the bottom hard enough for him to feel how angry I was and how much I needed him to understand that he cannot run away from me on the NYC streets.
And just at the moment–just as my son and I had hit our ugly rock bottom–a stranger walked by. And out of his mouth came the following horrid, haunting words: “Bad Upbringing!”
I felt my anger rise to my head. “Go Screw Yourself!” I yelled (yes, in front of my toddler, as if this moment couldn’t get better). Who did he think he was? What did he know about this moment and what had led to it? Still angry, and now even more crushed, I dragged my son back to our building where thank goodness, my husband had arrived home and took over.
For the first time since my son had been born, I did not snuggle him before bed nor give him his goodnight kiss. I didn’t have it in me. This alone made him hysterical and I realized was actually his punishment for disobeying me on such a grand level. But even after he had stopped crying and gone to sleep, I couldn’t shake my anger, my sadness at how the night had gone. And the words “Bad Upbringing” wouldn’t leave my thoughts.
I sat on the couch and let my tears fall. Why am I so affected? I asked myself. Bad Upbringing. It’s our greatest fear as moms, that our actions will mess our children up, that one spank or the wrong words will ruin their potential. That one day they will view their childhood as a fail. That on the therapist’s couch they will refer to their childhood experience as Bad Upbringing.
My fear was like a giant cut with lemon juice and salt rubbed in. I was desperately frightened that I was ruining my son, but there was no one to tell me the right way to do it. It was all me and my best guess. I could do nothing but sit with it and feel it. Someone’s poorly timed opinion vocalized exactly what I feared.
The next morning, when my son woke up, I went to his room, unsure of what our dynamic would be. He told me that he was sad and that he wanted to snuggle. So that’s what we did. He asked if it was still his birthday. I told him that it wasn’t but that there was still more celebrating coming his way. I could tell that he felt badly, and before long he told me that he was sorry for running away from me. I told him never to do it again and gave him a kiss.
There is no guidebook, that’s the one thing I know. And when we love this much, we also worry. I have no solutions but only some truths to share: trust your inner wisdom above all else, ignore people that don’t have a clue, and let yourself cry the tears that express your fears–there’s nothing better you can do with them.