My daughter is four and a half and as the youngest child and only girl in my family, she exerts her will on her brothers by crying. Sobbing, weeping, screaming, in fact. Which makes my ears bleed and my head spin on my neck. Her brothers, ages 14, 14 and 9, cannot remember being four years old. They can’t remember being irrational or whiny or unreasonable. They demand that she act fairly, that she adhere to rules, that she not follow them around. They accuse me of letting her get away with everything. They critique my parenting and tell me how I ought to do it. And they cannot get get along with her. So she cries.
This dynamic is driving me nuts.
They whisper something to her just to get her goat. She wails. I holler. They protest. She sobs. I lecture. They comply. She stops. Until the next time.
I am a terrible mother, no doubt about it. As I mentioned to someone in an email, I thought I would be a dandy mother, a singing in the kitchen, humming under my breath, eye-crinkling, smiling at all times mother. But then again, I thought I’d give birth to Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy and we’d sit around embroidering, playing sonatas on the piano and conversing in quiet tones about Papa. (In lilting British accents.) I would have been a terrific mother to reasonable, sane, crafty, gentle girls. (I would. Don’t argue with me.)
But I am the mother of whiners and kids who stink. I am the mother of kids who have the temerity to point out my faults to me. I am the mother of children who sass me on a regular basis and question my authority on the basis of my flawed human judgment. I am the mother of boys who have devoted the spring to digging a coffin-sized hole in my backyard, the mother of a daughter who will not wear shoes outside even when it’s only forty-five degrees. I am the mother of children who demonstrate no interest in contemplation or meditation or quietness. And they leave wet towels and underpants turned inside out on the floor.
I am a mother with chipped edges and missing parts, a mother who lost the map and wonders if maybe she ought to turn around rather than forging ahead into the wilderness. I am a mother who has no clue if I’m doing all right or if I am destroying my children with my temper tantrums.
Tonight I thought of that sunny afternoon in September of 1989 when my dad called my sisters and I into his brown-toned living room. He sat in the rocking chair. Terror filled me because we were not a family who had family meetings or a family who sat around and chatted for no good reason. I knew this was a meeting with a purpose and that purpose would be bad. I knew in my thumping heart.
The sun shone through the blinds marking a horizontal pattern on the carpet. My dad took off his glasses, wiped his balding head and face with his hand. His hands were always rough, his fingertips so dry they cracked and sometimes, I’d say, “What did you do to your hand?” and he’d shrug and say, “I don’t know.” I couldn’t imagine that, not knowing where the blood came from, but now I’m a mother and my hands are worn, dry and sometimes, I find a streak of blood on my finger and I have absolutely no idea where it came from. I don’t even notice the pain.
He started at the beginning of the story, describing the time he noticed he couldn’t read some writing on a piece of paper. This puzzling event led him to the ophthalmologist, who sent him immediately to a neurologist who sent him for tests which revealed a brain tumor. That news led to a prognosis: four months to two years. As he told us this, he broke down and cried and I reached for him in an awkward hug–we were not a hugging family, but this news called for a hug, even an awkward one. Some time passed while we sobbed, and then we stopped.
Then he mentioned a hidden two-pound bag of M&Ms and we broke it open and ate M&Ms in defiance of the certainty of his impending death. Which is odd, but that’s the way it was.
I wondered for the first time tonight if he wasn’t actually crying for himself. I don’t think he feared death at all. But as a father, did he look at us and see orphans, victims of his cancer? He knew that we’d suffer the loss, that we’d be broken, that we’d have to find our way through his illness, his death, his funeral, the grieving, the unknown. He’d miss his grandchildren, his retirement, the vibrant changing colors of fall, Kringle at Christmas-time, hot-fudge sundaes, bratwurst you could only buy in Wisconsin . . . but he was a father and I think he cried because he knew that his death would cut us to the bone.
Almost twenty years later, that occurred to me. What’s shocking is how keenly I feel the loss of him the older I get. He was the guardrail, keeping me on the road, keeping me from fall off a cliff to certain doom below. And although I can stay on the road without a guardrail, I drive so much more carefully, I worry so much more, I fear sliding off the road entirely. I resent the fact that my father was taken from me when he was so young, while I was so young, just when we were getting the hang of being father and daughter.
I suppose that has nothing to do with the fact that I feel like a substandard mother on days like today when I said too often, “Please! Go play!” and rushed to judgment instead of walking down the stairs and investigating the crying. Being a parent is hard. I thought that my parents were just not very good at parenting, but as it turns out, they did the best they could under the circumstances. The job itself is just really difficult. Especially when you aren’t parenting little women but real kids who forget to brush their teeth unless you walk them into the bathroom and point at the toothbrush.