Being a mother is harder than I thought.

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.

24 thoughts on “Being a mother is harder than I thought.

  1. Mel,
    This post has moved me beyond words..there have been so many things that strike true in my life too (except for the anti-toothbrush boys) are in my thoughts and prayers. I do hope you don’t feel like this too long cos you are the best mom your kids can have!!They’ll just take another decade or so to understand that..So don’t lose heart..I myself would not have liked to be mom to Meg or Amy, they’re just too much. Beth would do alright, and Jo would be ok too. They’re all too goody-goody to be actually tolerable.


  2. I miss my guardrail like crazy too.

    I often wonder how badly I’m screwing up my kids. I imagine them in therapy as adults trying to fix that damage. I just hope they get to laugh at me during those sessions and not just sob.


  3. My children ALL have great memories, yet they do NOT recall my temper tantrums. My daughter is SURE that I never yelled at her.

    I don’t know if that makes me feel good, or serves to reinforce just how ineffective I was…

    Such a beautiful post, Mel. NOBODY writes like you.


  4. Yes, it is the last paragraph that I felt. Parenting is HARD. Harder than anything ever. The constant vigil we have to keep is just exhausting. I am beginning to understand why old people are the way they are!


  5. Yep. Hard job. Just now I don’t feel like a very enlightened mother either. (My son is 4 1/2 too it might be the age…)

    Your father sure would appreciate that you finally understand.


  6. When I contemplate my death, which I hope is not imminent, I am sad because I feel as though I miss my loved ones. It’s odd because I will be gone, oblivious, but that’s how I feel and possibly how your dad felt.


  7. Mel, this post has me in tears. At first I was smiling and nodding — once again, you have written what’s on my heart with this parenting thing. And then about your dad. . .I SO miss my mom, and so often it’s when I’m at the end of my spool with my kids, that I think of her and get angry that she’s gone. It’s the guardrail. If she were here, I just know I would be a better parent.


  8. I feel you on this one. All the way. My dad died when I was 9 and I just took my mom to the Dr. yesterday (drove 200 miles to Dallas) and when I wasn’t separating nitpicking kids in the back seat, we talked about these very issues. She swears I did not do these things…I can’t imagine that I didn’t…all I know is that time is a wonderful band-aid.


  9. I am quite moved as well….such a touchingly true assessment. I too respect my parents SO much more now and my kiddo is only 2 and hasn’t gotten to the sassy stage yet!


  10. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

    This parenting job is not for sissies. And it’s amazing how far the reality is from what I imagined before i had kids. It’s amazing how far I am from who I thought I was before kids.

    {{{ HUGS }}}



  11. I also nodded my head when I read your post. My boys are the same age as yours, and I have a 9 year old girl, and boy/girl twins age 5, and a 3 year old boy. I get SO weary of being constantly criticized by the two boys about my parenting the younger ones, and SO tired of the fighting/crying that goes on between the big boys and everyone else. I really can relate to what you are going through!!!


  12. Mel, thank God for you. I’ve been in sorrow over my poor parenting today. In fact, my daughter asked me whether I thought Nana (my mom) is a better mom than me, since she makes better breakfasts and keeps things more organized than I do. And the baby would rather be with daddy than mommy. It’s crummy to feel ineffective when you pour your soul out being a mother. Today I’m wallowing. I’m comforted to know we all have wallow days. (For the record, I look up to you as a mom. You’re wonderful.)


  13. Even though my kids are 26 and 24 now, your post certainly took me back in time. I remember those days all too well. “Mom, Matt looked at me”. I thought those days would never end. Now I wish I had them all back. Motherhood is a thankless task when the kids are young, that’s a fact.

    I love your writing Mel. When you wrote about your dad I felt as though I was standing in the room with you, I could picture it so vividly in my mind. My guardrails were my grandparents. I’ll never get over missing them.


  14. Both of my parents are gone now and, no matter WHAT kind of parents we had growing up, the absence of them in our lives leaves a void like no other. When my Dad died a year ago, as I cried in my husband’s arms, the first thing I said was, “I’m an orphan now.” And that’s exactly how I felt. On a lighter note, I was also a little girl who ran around barefoot even in freezing weather…I sat on damp, cold ground even tho my mother threatened I’d suffer from “piles.” At 53, I’m still guilty of both offenses, but I’m still here and I never DID get piles, haha! 😉


  15. I enjoy reading your words. You’re inspiring, even without ‘sugar coating’ motherhood, and life’s issues. Thank you.


  16. Mel,
    I personally think you are a great mom. Just the fact that you worry about it makes me know that you are trying. Of course the older kids think they know how to be a better parent – that’s the way they all are! In fact I think that what you are dealing with is quite normal. My oldest son has continually stepped in and tried to parent his younger 3 siblings every since he was 6 or 7 years old!

    I remember being a teenager and thinking that my parents were way too lenient on the younger kids. I knew exactly how I was going to parent my kids! Now that I’m the mom of 4 ranging from ages 11 – 21, I can see some mistakes that I made with the oldest that I’m not repeating with the younger ones but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I am a push-over. I don’t yell nearly as much as my mother did, which was a goal of mine, but my mom was a push-over, which is something I didn’t want to be. lol I am nothing like the mother I thought I would be before I had children… and that’s probably a good thing at times.

    I am fortunate to have both of my parents still living. They are not in the best of health and I know that some day they won’t be there when I want to call and chat. Your story about your dad touched my heart. But you know… his example and his love still stand as a guardrail. I know so many people who don’t want to have anything to do with their own parents because they were abused… emotionally and/or physically. We are the lucky ones. The ones who love and respect our parents and know that we were loved no matter what happened… even when our parents made mistakes.

    By the way, I mentioned something especially for you in my post yesterday (Sunday, May 6). It’s towards the very end of the post.


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