February 11, 2011 § 8 Comments
A few days a month, we play hookey from preschool. My son Oliver is 5 and next year, he will officially be a kindergartener. It won’t be so easy to take days off then, so I do it now, while we can. Instead of driving off to his Waldorf school, we head the other direction to the Braddock Road Metro and ride the rails into DC. Usually, we go to the National Museum of American History and spend all our time in the transportation wing, which is full of streetcars, old-fashioned trains, buses, and glimpses of Americana through the 20th century. It’s a pretty amazing place.
Usually these no-school days are great. We get to play a bit longer in the mornings and we stop for a special snack. I tried really hard to make today a fun day too, but there was much complaining by my five-year old despite the cinnamon rolls for breakfast and the ability to read in bed for a little while. I am in the last stages of a bad cold and my throat still hurts. I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how much stamina I had.
During our outing, I kept looking at my watch, wanting to be somewhere else for some reason. I was aware that I wasn’t enjoying the present moment but could not shake a general sense of grouchiness, a feeling that we weren’t getting to see all that we needed to see at the museum. I was in a hurry despite the fact that there was nowhere else I had to be. I wanted to relax into the moment and into the day but I was annoyed by Oliver’s whining and the way he kept pushing his brother out of his way.
Finally, at noon I called it quits by the robotic car, which was designed by Stanford for DARPA. On the wall over the car was a video of the race it had won, despite having no driver. It kind of creeped me out, but Oliver, who loves anything with wheels, was hooked. “OK buddy,” I told him after the video was finished. “We need to pack up and go now.”
“NOOOO!” Oliver yelled again. “YOU NEVER LET ME HAVE ANY FUN. IT’S NOT FAAIIRRR.” What I was thinking was: Haven’t I been letting you have fun all morning?
I signed and started walking towards the museum’s front door. I thought of a post that Lindsey Mead Russell wrote about life being a poem and a practice. “Stop and breathe,” I told myself, but I was already huffing and puffing in my winter coat. The metro station was still a few blocks away, through the wind and the frigid day. “Mommy,” said Oliver at the front door. “Do you have my red hat?” I had given Oliver his hat while he watched the video.
I looked at Oliver and felt my eyebrows knot together. “You left your hat back there?”
Oliver put his hands on his hip. “It’s not my fault. It was in your backpack.”
“You need to get your hat,” I said and we made the walk back through the museum, passed the gift shop and the ice cream shop and the coat check room, all the way to the back of the east wing. There was the hat, right next to that robotic car. Oliver picked up his hat and jammed it on his head. “This day is no fun,” he said.”I’m tired of walking.”
I had to put Gus down in order to zip up Oliver’s coat and Gus started to cry. “MOOOMMMMYYYY, CARRY ME.” Despite my best efforts, I was losing it. I felt an anger rising and then I was angry at myself for getting angry on a day that was supposed to be fun. I put all of my fury into zipping up Oliver’s coat. But I had momentarily forgotten he was still wearing it.
“HEY,” he yelled as I yanked the zipper up halfway. “THAT WASN’T FAIR.”
“Let me tell you what isn’t fair,” I said. “It’s not fair that we skipped school and ate cinnamon rolls and came to this museum and you are yelling at me. We’re going to school from now on.” Maybe I even added, “and that is that.”
“Oh my,” said the Voice in my head. “I think you said that out loud.”
Somehow we made it to the Metro. I watched my fury dance in front of me, dance through me, even as I cursed it. Even as I tried to melt it with compassion. It just didn’t work because I felt no compassion. I deserved no compassion. Did I really zip his jacket up like that? I wondered? Did I really say that out loud? I knew that the source of my irritation was not necessarily my son but the fact that my son did not appreciate what I wanted him to appreciate. I thought that I deserved wonderful behavior from him because it was a special day to me. And that’s not how parenting works. “Your kids are going to love things you think are no big deal and they won’t appreciate things you think they will love,” my own mother told me. “Whatever you do for them you have to do for your own memory books, not theirs.”
As always, in my worst moments, I think of my favorite parenting book: Mitten Strings for God by Katrina Kenison. In her chapter titled Discipline, she writes: “The issue, then, is not whether or not we can mold our children to do our bidding, but whether we can learn to ride out life’s ups and downs without losing our own bearings.” The way she writes about her son Jack is a mirror of how I feel about Oliver. She writes: “In [Jack’s] passionate, headlong rush into life, he has shown me exactly where my rope ends, where my patience runs out, where my edges fray, where my own outer limits really are. He has taught me that in order to be an effective and loving disciplinarian, I must first be able to control myself.”
I had not controlled myself. Again, I had failed.
We were sober and quiet as we rode the cold escalator down into the Federal Triangle Metro stop. We sat on a bench and waited for the Blue Line. We got seats when the train came and settled ourselves, tired and wanting to be home. “Mommy,” said Oliver, lugging up my backpack. “Can you read to me?” I pulled out Martha Speaks from the backpack and we began again. It is a book that Oliver can read too and somehow, in a matter of minutes, we were laughing at the dog. We were pulling out the flashcards from the back and playing a game with them. Gus momentarily got bored and started kicking the seat in front of us. I was tempted to just let him after our morning, but there was a woman sitting there, wearing a black coat and a hat. “Gus,” I said to him, “Please stop kicking.” He didn’t stop. “Look Gus,” I said again putting my hand on his leg. “When you kick the seat, the woman sitting there can feel it. Sit back Peanut”
Surprisingly, Gus listened to me. He seemed a bit chagrined, if a two-year old can look chagrined. He is such a sensitive little guy. “Good job,” I told him and we kept reading. At the next stop, I reached down to get another book and noticed the woman in front of us getting off. She turned to me and held out a piece of paper. She had a stern face, and my first thought, was No, please don’t complain about Gus kicking the seat. But when I read the paper, what I saw written in thick black marker was, “You’re A Great Mom.”
I can’t imagine what my face looked like to that woman. I only know what I felt. Shock, first. People in DC just don’t do that. That morning while waiting for the train, I complimented a woman on her coat and she just glared at me. Secondly, I felt immense pride and recognition. Joy. Could I really be a great mom? But that feeling was quickly followed by guilt. Oh, if only she had seen me twenty minutes earlier. I cringed a little, said thank you and shook my head, all at the same time. The woman nodded firmly at me and then she was gone, out those quick Metro doors. It all happened so fast that the boys hadn’t even noticed our exchange. Who the hell was that? I wondered. I thought about her all day: Why didn’t she speak? Why did she bestow such a kindness upon me, especially one that can never be repaid?
It also struck me as kind of random that she just happened to cross our path during one of the better moments of our day. It reminded me of something I read in the January 31st issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an essay about Amy Chua and I read it greedily. Like many moms, wondering if the Tiger Mother is really going to get away with it, I am fascinated by Amy Chua. But the essay wasn’t as much about Ms. Chua’s book as it was about parenting. “Parenting is hard,” Kolbert writes. “As anyone who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.”
I feel like that tonight. Disappointed in myself. Wanting to erase my shadow self as much as I want to erase Oliver’s. But it doesn’t work that way. Whatever I have tried to deny or cover up or not look at only grows that much stronger. So tonight I am trying to make peace with all that I don’t like about myself. I am trying to let it dissolve into the light. I am trying to remember that the source of ourselves is basic goodness. I am trying to listen to my soul, to that something that knows what to do, even if the mind I identify so strongly with does not. I am trying to trust in that soul, even if I don’t always hear its music. In a way, it’s like driving blind. Navigating by the stars. Driving a robotic car, already programmed and not much caring if you think you’re behind the wheel.