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 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.