Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bad Mommy Scares Children

"This is a picture of me at a Halloween party with my daughter and her friend. This was shortly before I began to get the feeling that not everyone appreciated my elaborate face paint. First, it was the funny looks from the other moms, all of whom, without exception, were dressed as witches. Not scary witches. Generic witches with pointy black hats and black or purple dresses. Their looks askance didn't bother me too much. I thought, Maybe they're jealous because their costumes aren't as interesting. 

"It was when three-and-a-half year old Romeo saw me from across the room and collapsed in tears on the floor that I thought, Hmm. Maybe I've overdone it a bit. When little Charley Mae, not yet two years old, began to visibly shake from the safety of her mother's lap, and yell, summoning her limited vocabulary, "GO 'WAY! GO 'WAY!" I had to face facts. I had seriously misjudged the situation. I had gone too far. These mothers were looking at me, not with envy, but with justified concern. I was scaring the children."

That's an excerpt from an essay I wrote, The Other Mother, and posted on my blog, Advanced Studies in Inner Work, in 2009. I reposted it last Halloween, and am posting it again this year with some additional follow up thoughts. 

Now, if you've ever actually really scared a child, you know it doesn't feel good. For example, I have a friend who found himself outside his living room window one night after taking the trash out. He saw his young son inside, playing, completely unaware that he was being watched. In an impulsive moment, he thought it would be funny to press his face up against the window, thus distorting his features in a ghastly way, and knock. His child looked up, turned white as sheet and then broke down sobbing helplessly. It took more than a few minutes to restore the child's central nervous system to health. The horror! For the dad!  Right? 

It's difficult to explain what I think happened on the Halloween of my embarrassing miscalculation, but I do mark it as the moment Bad Mommy was born, and I wanted to share the memory and the essay itself as a way of saying 1. Happy Halloween! and 2. Have you ever scared the crap out of your child accidentally? Please share. Finally, 3. Do you have a costume idea that would pay some homage to your worst fears of what you could be if you were the worst mom ever? (Drunk, mean, scary?)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

We All Fall Down

When my husband and I first separated, I went through a dark period. I remember being with my five year old daughter at that time, and inside my head, my inner critic was on a tear. It was so loud, I couldn't hear anything else. I felt panicked at the awareness that I couldn't even hear the words my child was saying to me as she chatted on about her day at school.

I wasn't lying on the floor with a bottle of gin, in the dark, or anything like that. I was just having a hard time listening to her many words, and employing the appropriate maternal responses such as the ever popular "smiling" and that good parenting classic, "looking interested." Outside my head, everything was going "blahblahblahblahblahblahblah," including my daughter. Inside my head, the voice was crisp and clear: You are a failure at marriage and relationships and now, because you feel so terrible about that, you can't even listen to your daughter. In addition to dealing with divorced parents, she is going to have to deal with you, her depressed, vacant mother. 

I was in so much pain I had to write down what I was thinking, to externalize it, in the hopes of clearing it out to create space for my actual self. When Elva asked me what I was writing, I shared an extremely watered down version of my pain so as not to scare her. I said something like, "I'll bet you wish you had a different mom right now." She said, "Mom, your head is wrong." I asked her what she meant. She said, "Your head is not right. That's not how I feel." Aside from the fact that I had just been diagnosed by my five year old daughter (see page 47 in the DSM V: Head Not Right), it also struck me as interesting that she wasn't thinking of getting rid of me and replacing me with (enter name of your favorite idealized mom here).

That was my projection. She just wanted me to come back and be the halfway normal mom she's gotten used to over the years. Which reminded me to remember for myself that even though right then I felt like Julianne Moore in The Hours, it would pass. It would absolutely pass. And I would be funny again, and present, and sane. On a good day, I would even be vaguely wise.

I also felt a sweet kind of heartache that even though I was kind of sucking at the moment, my daughter still wanted me. Me. Imperfect, occasionally pathetic, sometimes scary me. My inner critic prods,  What choice does she have? She's stuck with you. She doesn't have her driver's license. Yet.

Okay, yeah, that's true, but then again, driver's license or no driver's license, what choice do any of us have? We're all stuck with ourselves, for certain, and in many cases, each other. Many of us choose to be stuck with our mothers, no matter how screwed up they were or are. We even love them, as our children love us. This is a real blow to perfectionism, and I welcome it with open arms.

However, I don't want to be misconstrued as giving myself permission to be screwed up as a mother; nor am I suggesting that you shouldn't set healthy boundaries with your mother. We've all got to do our best to take good care of our inner children and our outer ones. But we all fall down from time to time, and it is then we must remember that being inspired by our children, and loving ourselves anyway, is the only sensible thing to do. Children who love themselves come from parents who show them how. So if you can't do it for yourself, do it for them.