I am a categorizer. As hard as I try to look for vibrancy, I see the world around me in black and white. I know the color exists, but it’s easier to just put everything, everyone, into a box that has reasons for all that they are, to separate them into groups. I place them into the two different lobes that dwell in the front of my brain. Negative or positive. Good or bad.
My firstborn, Anabel, is by definition, easy. Patient. Obedient. Good. To this day, she has never thrown a public tantrum. She is kind and compassionate, and carries an intelligence that far surpasses my own. She taught herself the entire alphabet by the time she was 16 months old. By 18 months she was fluent in sign language and potty trained, and by three years old she was reading. Quick as a whip, that one. She loves green vegetables and books. Of course, not every day has been perfect (she is the one who taught me that Love was Heavy, after all), but even when she struggled, I found a way to help her. I knew what I was doing. And I constantly applauded my own efforts and was sure that all that she was (and is) was because of how I mothered her.
For a long time, we fit in the boxes. Good kid, good mom.
But your methods can be a screaming success with one child and then completely crash and burn when applied to a different child. Motherhood has a way of proving that sometimes nature is much stronger than nurture.
Olive, my 20 month-old, is aggressive and strong-willed. She is independent and fearless and funny. She doesn’t sleep well at night. She likes to make messes and color on the couch and break things that can be broken. She has no interest in toilet training or the alphabet. She likes foods filled with sugar, and will throw asparagus and green beans on the floor.
My daughters were born on the same day separated by two years. According to astrology, they share a lot of the same truths, but they are two uniquely crafted individuals. They are beautiful in their own right. They are good at different things, struggle with different things, and balance the scale out in all of the best ways—but different, so very different. If they were to exist in boxes, they would not reside in the same one. I have a hard time not putting my daughters into categories that define them, and labels that give me reasons for why they do what they do.
It is 1:26 in the morning. Olive is awake for her midnight tantrum (not to be mistaken with her 6 a.m., noon, or bedtime meltdowns). This has been happening regularly, for weeks. I don’t think her eyes are open, but her muscles are more than awake. I don’t know if I am just tired, or if I am wrestling a wild animal, but her flailing in my arms demands my attention in a way I cannot ignore. She’s arching her back violently, angry that I am holding her, but angry if I put her down. She is mad that my breasts have run dry. She is mad that she’s tired. And she is mad that she is awake ... but she won’t go to sleep. This is how Olive communicates. To her, everything is an emergency. She grunts, growls, screams. Her emotions sit on both ends of extreme, whatever she is feeling her voice is loud when expressing it.
This middle of the night fight brings me back to this evening in the supermarket. I had to use a force I am not proud of to prevent her from back flipping out of the cart. She is yelling so loud and moving so fast, there are alligator tears and so many strangers’ eyes on us. A man even stops to say “wow” out loud. It is both humorous and humiliating. I am afraid of my own baby. I am afraid of who I can become because of my own baby.
After wrestling with each other for almost an hour, trying to calm her with energy I cannot muster, she collapses in my arms. Her sleeping face has a street lamp glow next to the window. Almost instantly, I am overcome with the love I feel for her. Even after all of the frustration, everything else fades into the dark, and the love is what I feel. I rub the back of my hand slowly across her cheek. It is not often that I get to marvel over her still body, and in these moments all I can think is, what a miracle, I am so lucky.
My dear Olive. She is a lot more work than Anabel ever has been, but she is also so normal.
Sometimes, normal feels synonymous with bad. Sometimes, I feel like normal is breaking me. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I can be a good mom to normal. Lately, my good efforts are not enough, and my children can be difficult.
For once in motherhood, I don’t know what box I belong in.
But, hell, I am still a good mom.
Even if my attempts at feeding them food filled with plants are punctuated with frozen meals being cooked in a metal box with radio waves. Even when they use a pacifier long enough for their teeth to grow funny. Even if they are in diapers longer than their peers, or not talking as soon as them either. Even if they take their first steps in daycare.
I am still a good mom if there are hours of crying or hard diagnoses. Even when I lose it and I yell. Even when my house is a wreck. I am still a good mom if my marriage ends or my kids grow up and make mistakes. I am still a good mom, even if no one is clapping for me, and even if I do not fit in a box.
I’m still a good mom. They are still good kids. And we are all just trying our best to figure this out together. We are beautiful and broken and so terribly loved. We are made up of the little bits of joy that are in between all of the hard and heavy moments.
I am not the sum total of their milestones or their tantrums or their sleeping habits or their good manners—and neither are they. My success as a mother is not determined by the amount of control I have over my children’s behavior or volume. I was called to guide their development, not to dictate it.
They are not my mistakes, and I am not their meltdowns.
I am defined by the love I feel for them, and that love for who they are, exactly as they are, is as colorful as a kaleidoscope and will never, ever fit inside of a stupid box.
Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.