There are times when you know, with absolute certainty, that you are the worst parent ever to walk the earth. These epic Bad Mommy Moments aren’t, like, Susan Smith or Andrea Yates-level crises, DefCon Five. Your kids live. But after a Bad Mommy Moment, you aren’t sure you want to.
A couple of weeks back, I met my Bad Mommy Waterloo. My husband had been away on a business trip for a few days and I was pretty frazzled, what with the 3-year-old demanding I play 800 consecutive rounds of the Dora the Explorer Card Game (a game so tiresome and moronic, chimps would find it unchallenging) and the 3-month-old demanding to remain cemented to my body 24-7. Josie was experiencing some bedtime anxiety, probably made worse by Jonathan’s absence. At 8 p.m., a mechaieh — I managed to get the baby down, and then start Josie’s bedtime ritual. But Josie dragged her heels so long, the baby eventually started to grouse in semi-awake hunger (“Arp! Arp!”). I told Josie it was time to sleep — she’d already had several songs, two snuggles, three books, a potty break and a glass of water — and left the room and shut the door. Josie let out a furious, deafening, dead-waking scream. The baby, terrified, began to shriek. I scooped up the wailing baby, went into Josie’s room, put the baby on Josie’s bed and put my face right next to Josie’s. I hissed at her like a snake: “Look what you did. You made the baby cry. Does that make you happy?”
I’ll never forget the look on Josie’s face. First her eyes got huge. Then they welled with tears. Her lower lip trembled, and her beautiful little face crumpled. Josie loves the baby; she didn’t want to scare the baby. She’d only screamed because she didn’t want to be alone.
What the hell was I doing, trying to make a 3-year-old feel guilty? What kind of monster was I? I hugged Josie and told her I was sorry, told her how much I loved her. I asked if I could nurse the baby while sitting in the glider chair right outside her room. Still crying softly, Josie nodded yes, that was fine. I kissed her and went outside. For 15 minutes there was silence, as I nursed the baby and Josie lay quietly in the dark. Then Josie came out to poop. I put the baby under the mobile and helped Josie wipe and wash. As we toweled her hands, Josie looked at me and said, “Mama, I had a dream you didn’t love me anymore.”
My heart felt like a hard, tight little fist. I thought I might puke. I told her I’d always love her, no matter how angry I got.
As long as I live, I will never forget the fury I felt that night, the desire I had to wound her. I’ll never forget the way her features melted into that stricken look. I’ll try my damnedest not to let it happen again. (Why, this very morning, when I heartlessly insisted that Josie brush her teeth, and she flung herself on the floor and snarled, spitting out each word, “I. Don’t. Love. You. Any. More,” I refrained from saying, “I don’t love you either, right now. And I hope you get cavities and need massive hurty shots of Novocain and I get to say, ‘I told you so.’”)
All my friends have Bad Mommy Moments. Sharon looked at the toys scattered all over the floor of her tiny apartment and thought, “Mmm, I oughtta clean that up; someone could get hurt.” But hey, she was tired. The mess stayed. Not five minutes later, her 16-month-old daughter stepped on a See ’n Say, skidded into a full-on split and broke her leg. She was in an ankle-to-hip cast for months, and then needed physical therapy to learn to walk properly again. Frida told her 2-year-old to stay away from the decorative candle on the table at the grown-up party, but of course the child was drawn to it like, well, a moth to flame, and wound up setting her hair on fire. (She wasn’t hurt, just interestingly coifed and eyelashless for a while.) And then there was the woman who shall remain nameless, who struggled so mightily to get her nursing bra open; she yanked it so hard that the clasp flew open and whapped the baby in the eye.
We’ve dragged our tantruming kids out of stores. Let them have graham crackers, Nutella and chocolate milk for breakfast, just to keep them quiet. Threatened to send them away forever. (When my friend Lena’s daughter insisted she wanted a nicer mother, Lena picked up the phone and pretended to call the adoption agency. Her daughter completely melted down.) And let’s not forget Jane, whose toddler was just learning to dress himself. He was supposed to be putting on the pants he’d just picked out, but he came out of his bedroom clad only in a pajama top. His mom gently reminded him that he was supposed to be putting on his pants. He protested indignantly, “But I am got mine pants on!” His mom searched his room for them — drawer, bed, laundry basket. No pants. He kept insisting he was wearing them, though obviously he was not. She stood him upright on the floor, got down to eye level and demanded, “Where are the pants?!” He lay down on the floor and sobbed, revealing that the pants were around his chest, under the pajama top. He’d gotten his entire body through one leg hole and shimmied it up like a tube skirt. Hey, he’d tried. And she’d negated his efforts.
Some stories are not as funny. Last weekend at a neighborhood birthday party, a little boy was fidgeting as he ate his pizza. His mom, engaged in conversation with another grown-up, ordered him to sit still. He did for a moment… then started bawling. He’d been trying to tell her that he needed to go to the bathroom, but she hadn’t been listening. So he wet his pants, which mortified him. As his dad whisked him away to change him, the mother stood in a corner and sobbed. “I’m the worst mother ever,” she said to me.
She isn’t. I’m not. But we’re all flawed beings.
And no one wants to mess up this job. We’ve gotten the message that we’re not supposed to feel pure rage at our children. Ever. We’re not supposed to be selfish, or careless. We’re supposed to be perfect. We’re either Donna Reed or Andrea Yates. There’s no in-between.
I still hope to find a teachable moment in all this for Josie. I got her the book “Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!” by Mem Fox (illustrated by the wonderful Marla Frazee). It’s about a toddler who means well, but keeps making messes and destroying things. Her mom gently chides her for each spill and stain until Mom finally loses it and yells. And then Harriet cries. And then her mom apologizes. And they clean up the mess together, and laugh.
Like the mom in the book, I apologized to Jo. I owned up to my bad behavior, cuddled her, assured her that I loved her. It’s good for Josie to know that mommies make mistakes, too, and that big people as well as little people sometimes have to say that they’re sorry. But I still know that I made her world a little less safe. And that kills me.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.