“Can I come out now?”
I take a deep breath as I continue chopping vegetables for dinner prep, willing myself to ignore the two-year-old screaming in his room.
“Hey mama! CAN I COME OUT NOW!?”
Each syllable is a staccato, as if an actual period sits between them. I look at his door, waiting to see if he will try to make a break for it, then back to my cutting board at the perfect piles of vegetables: at least they do as I say. This task is keeping me sane, and I long to continue my silent protest, but with one last glance at the unending scream behind the door, I sigh, swipe the veggies into the bowl next to me, and make my way to his bedroom.
The minute I open the door he screams, “Close the door! No!” and attempts to kick the door shut in my face. So it goes: when the door is closed, he screams to come out, for me to open it. When I come to open it, he screams for me to leave, to close it. Round and round in a maddening battle of wills we go, until both our energies are sapped and an hour is lost, taking my hopes of nap time along with it.
I have four kids, but none of them require quite so much of me as this one does. He is my most beautiful, laughter-filled child but when he gets mad bless it all. I never really knew the limits of my patience or the depth of my frustration until he came along. He pushes every boundary and button and often leaves me with almost no gas left in the tank.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the effects of this on my other kids: his neediness, my emptiness. I'm guilty of putting more responsibility on them or expecting more from them than is fair simply to keep the peace with this one; simply to not rouse his anger or rile his already fragile state. In better moments, I know what I'm asking is unreasonable or, at the very least, unfair, but in the moment, I just don't want to hear him scream. And so I blame the others for being too loud, not sharing enough, or not listening to me when they should have. You see, it's easier for me to expect more from the kids who I know can rise to the occasion than take a chance on releasing the monster.
The boys are fishing off the dock as I sit next to them. I try to read my book but am interrupted every 30 seconds or so by someone needing a new worm. The truth is, it's not so much fishing as it is having a fish nursery; I swear these are the most well-fed fish in the lake.
My older brother joins us, and he immediately makes a comment about how my dad would have never let them waste worms like I'm doing. “Really?” I say, not knowing exactly how to respond. “Oh yeah,” he says, “He used to get so mad and mom would always try to convince him to buy more for us, but he would never give in. Then they would fight about it and we would just sulk away to find something different to do.” I know he is trying to be light hearted, but I hear the bitterness in his voice as he tells me the scenario. I smile back at him and nod my head—my go-to response when I disagree or am uncomfortable—and he resumes baiting hooks for the boys.
Sometimes I wish I could engage in this conversation better with him. I wish my memories were clearer and I could agree or disagree with more merit than I feel like I have. My memories feel different, but I can’t exactly pinpoint why. Whether it’s because he is the oldest and I am the youngest and my dad mellowed with age and experience (as I expect we all do) or because he and I have such opposite personalities, the truth is my relationship with my dad is completely different than his. As I wrestle with this reality, I have to keep reminding myself he is allowed to have different memories than me. His memories are no less valid than mine just because they are different, but it is hard to reconcile our differing experiences. The harder thing, though, is listening to the pain he has over his broken relationship with my dad and how it has affected him.
In the silence that follows his story, I find myself making an internal checklist of all the reasons my kids will never have that kind of baggage from their childhood and upbringing.
They're different than my brother. I'm different than my parents. Our relationship with each other is different. We can be immune to this.
But later, as I lay restless in bed, I reevaluate my sense of immunity to this thing and I'm overcome with panic. What things do I say now that will negatively affect them someday? What responsibility do I put on them they're not ready for? And, finally, what are the things I do now they might forever hold against me?
As I wrestle with these thoughts, I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with a friend. She’d been expressing to me how lonely she was feeling in post-grad life, and I asked if she had talked to her parents about her struggles. She explained that, since she is the responsible one and her sister always requires a bit more from her parents, they don’t worry much about her and she, in turn, tries not to give them anything to worry about. I remember looking into her eyes, tears threatening to spill over at any moment, and thinking that I would never make my own kids feel that way. I remember feeling absolutely heartbroken for her. But now, as I lay awake in bed, thinking of my two-year-old and all the times I prioritize his needs over everyone else’s simply because they seem so much greater in the moment, I wonder if that is what my other kids might feel someday: lonely because they don’t want to worry me, sad because they wish, for once, I’d give all my energy to them even if I know they can figure it out on their own. I realize, once again, I am not immune to being that kind of parent. These thoughts are crippling, and I toss and turn all night.
Sometimes I think my love for my children can protect us from the negative effects of relationship. Just like an immunization, I think somehow the love that lives in my head and heart will transcend the loneliness and bitterness, the frustrations and unmet expectations; as if my love is greater than that of my own parents, greater than that of my friend’s parents. In moments of honesty, I know this is not true. I know my love for them is great, yes, but I also know how deeply my parents loved us and I'm so very sure my friend’s parents feel equally toward her. We are all parents and we all love our kids with that mama bear fierce kind of love.
I think if I expect to ever sleep again, I need to learn to live in the unknown of how my actions today will affect my kids tomorrow. As a human, I realize it is certainly okay to fail sometimes but, as a parent, I carry so much responsibility for how my kids perceive themselves and who they will become. It’s easy to forget I am not the only factor in their lives. They’ll have other relationships, situations, and, of course, their own sense of the world to shape who they will become.
Because of this, I'm coming to realize immunity is not a fair goal. The goal must be to love my kids so deeply that, when confronted with failure on either side, grace abounds. After all, we are only human: both myself and my kids, and there is danger in thinking we are already perfect. I’m slowly realizing I don’t want to be the kind of mom who never makes mistakes. I want to be the kind of mom who says I’m sorry when she does; the kind of mom who says how can I do better? And then does better. I also want to be the kind of mom who says I understand when they make mistakes or when they simply need someone to be there for them because even though immunity and perfection are unattainable, grace and humility certainly are and I’m crossing my fingers those will be the defining characteristics of our relationship.
I’m standing waist deep in the water, holding my baby and chatting with my aunt while my other kids fish and catch frogs. We’ve been talking for almost two hours all about raising children: the burdens and the joys; the frustration and the elation. She has five grown kids and I, four tiny ones. I’ve watched her my whole life, the gentle way she speaks to people, the grace-filled way she loves on those around her. I know she isn’t perfect, and she likely wasn’t or isn’t a perfect mother, but I am absolutely certain her children are better because she was their mother.
“You are doing such a lovely job with these boys,” she says in her lilting English accent. “They’re nearly perfect, aren’t they?” she says. I nod my head and think back to that day in the kitchen.
As I walk back to resume dinner prep after another lost battle with the screaming two-year-old, I find my middle guy waiting in the kitchen for me. “Is quiet time over?” he asks, as every fiber of my being fights the urge to scream at him to get out, to go back to where he knows he is supposed to be. Instead, I scoop him in my arms, tickling his tiny armpits as I say, “Do you know how much I love you?” He squirms and squeals beneath my hug, laughter echoing through the house. “Yes, mama, yes!” he says, between giggles and gulps of air.
We are just a normal family, not immune to the very same trials anyone else may face, but we walk forward in love and grace everyday, trying our best to be better with the knowledge we gain.
Perfect? Definitely not.
Nearly perfect? I’ll take that.
Guest post written by Bonnie LaRusso. Bonnie is a born and raised Chicagoan who lives in a lodge in the suburbs with her summer camp sweetheart, Jason, and their four little boys. You can usually find her sweating it out at yoga, chopping veggies in the kitchen, or playing backyard baseball with her crew. She survives on a steady dose of laughter and Jesus. For more of her daily musings and the cutest little crew of boys, check her out on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.