The chocolate cookie was the last straw. My 5-year-old rejected the plain cookie. Before that, she decided she had to stage two things in the dollhouse. And just before that, she’d delayed our departure–she to her friend’s house down the street, me to the Y for Zumba class–by three apple slices. Although the only thing at stake was my on-time arrival to class, at that moment, I felt as if the sole request I’d made on behalf of myself all morning was strategically being buried by a conniving small girl out to get me with each of her extremely urgent, immediate needs. One minute late to class, even that, felt way too late. The cookie took me right over the edge.
The mother I’ve aspired to be these last 18 years is not just one able to put my needs aside for the children’s needs; I’ve worked–hard–to be one who kept her cool. Yelling is bad. Anger, in fact, seemed to me, a negative emotion–one I especially wanted to avoid in a particular direction, from me toward my kids. I guess I equated endless selflessness with good parenting. Even more so, I equated endless patience with good parenting. And I desperately wanted to be a good parent.
Well, I handed her the chocolate cookie. A moment later, I tossed the plain cookie in the sink (tossed might be a slight euphemism). Barely a moment after that, I yelled. The litany included my outrage at her request for the chocolate cookie straight to the fact that I’d asked for one thing all morning–to leave the house in time for Zumba class. “You could listen to me for once,” I scolded. I marched outside. I did not wait for her to go first down the mudroom stairs. She was crying, but she followed me. She’d been, she clearly understood now, pissing me off. She was, I understood, shaken by my inappropriate outburst. I was, I understood, supposed to be the adult.
What a set-up this idea that to be an adult (slash parent) is successful only when you cease to display anger or frustration. You are doomed to fail; if you stuff every single negative feeling inside it’s going to come out somehow. Usually, like my meltdown over the plain versus chocolate cookie, the result isn’t pretty–and doesn’t feel good, and certainly doesn’t appear mature.
Tempted to dive into a deep puddle of guilt at that very moment, instead I did exactly what I tell her to do when she blows a gasket. I took a deep breath. A song she learned at preschool goes: “When you’re mad and you want to slam the door, take a deep breath and count to four: one-two-three-four.”
After the fourth count, I apologized. Sincerely. “I overreacted. I shouldn’t have gotten so mad,” I told her. “That was scary and it wasn’t OK for me to frighten you.” I added, “I really want to get to my class on time.”
She’d stopped crying. “It’s OK, mama,” she replied. We walked toward her friend’s house. We were friends again, and chatted about neighborhood cats and New York and kindergarten. At her friend’s house, she hugged me and walked in without a moment’s clinginess or fuss. I made it to class during the warm-up and stepped onto the floor just before the first song ended.
The endorphins kicked in. During the end of class cool down, I thought I’d done wrong to get mad. But then, as I walked back from class to her friend’s house, I replayed the episode once more. I realized two important things (not for the first time). One, I am human so I get mad, too (or, parents have feelings). Two, to model the whole thing–I got mad, I calmed myself down, I realized I overreacted, and then I apologized–is actually more useful than to never reveal you’re in possession of feelings. After all, love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. Au contraire, the ability to apologize–sincerely and well–is a critical one. Love–and family life–allows you to practice, often.