Transcendence and terror: A morality play set in two scenes

Scene One: Transcendence

It is bedtime and then some. I am up, trying to work, again, always. The Man, exhausted, declared his intention for sleep twenty minutes ago, setting off a twenty minute melt down in the Boychick, that is only getting louder and more violent as The Man gets more ready for bed.

I get up from where I have been waiting for calm and quiet to start my work, waiting and listening and cringing and despairing. I get up and head down the hall, the assault on my ears getting louder still, the pullings at my heart stronger still. There is my child, sweat and tears streaming down his face, screaming his anger and impotence at the world, pulling at blankets, striking out with intent, if not strength or accuracy, at his father’s legs, striving to dump baskets — anything, anything to keep The Man out of bed, keep him playing, keep himself from the terrifying inactivity of sleep.

I kneel behind him, bring my body, my being, down to his level. I block his arms, but otherwise give him space, and sympathy, and murmured repetitions “of course, of course”. I learn he wants to blow up the bed, so his father can’t get in it, and blow up his father while he’s at it, and then put them back together and tape his dad’s head back on and toss the bed in the street. (We’ll have a think and a talk about our child’s chosen expressions of anger later, his dad and I.) Now, I just go with it, and despite his protestations that we have to go to the store to buy real bombs (maybe not that much later) soon we are tossing pretend bombs and real laughter at the bed, the sheets, the frame, the blankets, the nightstand, the dressers, and yes, his dad, and everything, everything goes boom, boom, BOOM! We count down, of course (no suicide grenades these), use the count to ten — one two three four sixteen nineteen TEN! he shouts — to hide, his hands over his face, his head in my shoulder, my arms around him, holding him: no matter how violent you are, how much you destroy, I will embrace you, protect you, say these arms, even as my mouth shouts gleeful destruction. Soon, he agrees, everything is rubble — wait, the curtains! his father’s legs! his father’s shoes! you toss one there, I’ll toss one here. Ten, nine, eight… BOOM! — nothing remains standing, everyone is smiling, and we begin the work of rebuilding. Because this is a child’s reality, the building goes so much faster than the bombing.

Then it’s make the bed, fold the sheets back, let his dad get in. Find a book, no a different book, yes, that one, have a hug, and another, and another, and help me get naked, and goodnight mommy, and wait! wave me goodbye, and I love you, and I turn off the light, and walk back down the hall again, the giggles in my ears getting softer and softer still, the soarings of my heart stronger still.

From screaming to snuggled in bed in twenty minutes. Yeah. I’m just that good.


Scene Two: Terror

We are playing after dinner, laughing, indulging his current favorite game of steal-the-baby; I have him and his dad tries to steal him, and when he wins, I steal him back, and we all laugh and his ears are filled with “my baby! no, my baby!” — exclamations of belonging, of family and tribe and yes-I-will-fight-for-you, and his body is held tight and pulled and swung and he loves it so and he needs it so, so we indulge.

But I am done, feeling now the earliest hints of hesitancy from my back, and I give him warning, give him happy, joyful one-last-time and enormous hugs, and go to set him down — and he grabs, and clings, and now these are not hints these are memos, picket signs of protest, what are you doing??, unbalanced, unhappy, and I am firm now, “let go. let go. you have to let go. Get off of me get off GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME NOW“, and these are screams and this is anger and there just a one-more-touch away is the urge to hurt, to beat, to protect the self even at the cost of the child, and his father is pulling him off me, and I am running, and he is following and I panic, I panic and shove chairs between us, trying to overlay terror with rationality “I need space, I need my space now, please leave me alone just leave me alone leave me the fuck alone!” I fail at the appearance of calm, but I manage to keep my distance, keep my fists away from him, keep my hands even from forming fists, for all they feel the urge. My partner picks him up, plucks him off his attempted climb over the chairs toward me, and he screams for me, and he reaches for me, and all he wants is me, and all I can think is no, no, no, stay away, get away! and I flee, and slam a door between us, slam a pillow over my head, and block his vocalized agony, and shove down mine.

From laughing connection to screaming obscenities in less than twenty seconds. Yeah. I am that bad.


The Moral

The moments of transcendence and the moments of terror are equally rare in most lives. We strive to skew the proportion, fear its skewal the other way, but the bulk of our lives are spent somewhere in the imperfect middle. What makes us good or bad as parents isn’t the inhuman ability to spend all our time in transcendence, nor the equally inhuman ability to completely avoid the terror. I do not win medals because of the first scene; I do not become the devil because of the second.

What makes me know I am as flawed as anyone is not just the second scene but the one where I played half-hearted, the one where I showed my irritation, the one where I asked too much, the one where I give too little. What makes me know my child will thrive is not just the first scene but the apology and reconciliation and half hour of play after the second, the time I filled him up with love and kisses until he slid off my lap of his own accord, the time I got him dressed with laughter and pants on our heads, the time I held him and kissed him and didn’t laugh when he fell back and hit his head. What determines the grace of our parenting, fills the memoirs of our children-grown-up isn’t the transcendence or the terror, but the thousands of interactions in between; it is those mundane moments, collected, that shape our relationship and our legacy — for better or for worse — far more than the worst we do, or the best.

We see others only in moments, only in the stories they tell about themselves, only in the glimpses we steal when they are unguarded, and we form images based on what we see: this one is The Good Mother, the one we will never be as good as; that one is The Bad Mother, the one whose children would be better off without her. We make these judgments, carve these idols, cast these stones based on the smallest moments — if she does this she must be ideal, if she does that she must be awful — so often forgetting our own highs, our own lows. Or we judge ourselves based on those outliers alone, whichever we remember most vividly at the time, and we forget all the many, many more moments spent struggling between.

We cannot see the shape of another’s parenting from glimpses, from moments, from stories loudly bragged nor gossiped in happily horrified whispers. Nor can we, in the thick of it, in the mess and minutiae of its creation, see the shape of our own. Not all shapes would be equally pleasing, if we could see all; there are, alas and indeed, parents who need more help than others, parents for whom patience and play come easier than others. But we cannot see. We cannot see all the moments of another’s parenting, cannot see with clarity all the moments even of our own. So tell your stories, and lend your ear to others’; but remember always that they might be true,  these stories we tell, these stories we hear, these stories we invent with so little evidence, but they are not the truth.

The truth is life is not transcendence or terror, life is and. Life is the and between transcendence and terror, mundanities and miracles, spit up and toothless smiles, tickled giggles and trudging for groceries. You are and and I am and: good and bad, worthless and wonderful. We are the scenes that do not make it into the morality plays. And as hard as it might be to believe, our children are all the better off for it.

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18 Responses to Transcendence and terror: A morality play set in two scenes

  1. Oh, Arwyn. This is maybe your best work yet, to me anyway. Incredible. It reverberates for me so intensely that I cannot express it.

    I have recently been almost overwhelmed by that sense, that you have captured so completely, that the shape of anyone’s parenting cannot be fully seen in the here-and-now, if ever at all; that extreme moments (or either kind) do not tell the story, or even hint at it; that judgements, of others and of ourselves, are built on the flimsiest of evidences, and cruelly so. I have become so reluctant to express “opinions” about the parenting of others that my peers are telling me I lack the courage to have convictions. Some parents are just better for their kids than others, they say; what’s wrong with acknowledging that?

    Nothing, I suppose. Except, I can’t see. I can’t see the layers and the time and the AND. So how can I, why would I, gain from asserting that I can?

  2. April (MamaSaysYes)

    Arwyn, I think I love you.
    Heck yes I do. And after this post, I really REALLY wanna buy you a book – that one about becoming a paid author before you die. Because these words, they reach in and squeeze my heart, wrench my stomach, pull tears from my eyes. And. I am and.

  3. thankyou!
    I have to share, just as I was reading this post my biggest one(7yrs) came in and said “Mum, what would you do if you lost me and G forever?”
    I answered ” I’d be devastated.I think my heart would break into lots of tiny peices,” While wondering in my head, was that the right reaction? should I have convinced her of my emotional stability so she feels safer or would it make her feel less important to me?
    And then I tapped into that place, that feeling of what it would be like to have lost them, and the tears came.
    And that was answer enough. She saw the tears running down my face and she launched herself at me for a hug, and the little one followed. And we had a that good moment.
    But just an hour before we had a that bad moment too.:(
    So now I am gonna stop wallowing in my guilt and live in my AND. And it’s all your fault. :) Thankyou. xoxo

  4. I already told you this but I thought I should give you some public comment love too: I fucking love this post. Thank you.

  5. “We see others only in moments, only in the stories they tell about themselves, only in the glimpses we steal when they are unguarded, and we form images based on what we see”

    This phrase will change my world. I love you. What you have written here is indeed unguarded and brilliant.

  6. @ April (MamaSaysYes) I agree with your comment. Do you mean “How to become an author; a practical guide [Paperback] Arnold Bennett (Author)” (random result on Amazon) or something else?

    @ Arwyn Shades of memories: A mother who refused to ever hit me (+) even when I needed a spanking, same mother screaming that I was a failure (-), same mother needing nursing when her disease got out of control (+-), same mother acting like she would defend me with her life like a mother bear (+++), same mother coming up with money she really didn’t have to support her children (+).

    But most of the memories are so ordinary and unremarkable as to be indescribable.

    Being a mother is a lifetime commitment, and you are doing quite well at it from everything I can tell.

  7. “We are the scenes that do not make it to the morality plays”. Very well-said.

  8. “We see others only in moments, only in the stories they tell about themselves, only in the glimpses we steal when they are unguarded, and we form images based on what we see”

    Yes! Also, we tend to compare our insides (inside our heads, homes) to others’ outsides (public persona). I try to remember that when I’m feeling horrified at some perceived parental failing.

  9. Wow. I agree that this is perhaps your best work yet. Wow.

  10. You made me cry. That is all.

  11. Thank you. I really needed this tonight. This is one of those posts that will stay with me – one of those posts that is going to change the way I think about parenting. You’re amazing. Thank you.

  12. Wow. I second Brooke – I really needed this post too. It’s made me feel a whole lot better about myself as a parent, aided me in my frequent attempts to convince myself that the ‘bad’ moments don’t make me an undeserving parent.

  13. I’m so, so late to the party. But I just had to say yes AND thank you AND I’ve been there AND there AND there.

  14. Pingback: Reading list | Reproductive Rites

  15. Yeah, I totally get that.

    So glad I’m not the only human mother out there. Sometimes I worry.

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