Like many of you, I did my best parenting before I had children. I was the one sitting on a plane by a harried mother with a cranky toddler, pursing my lips and thinking "can't she see how annoying her kid is being? It's really irritating the rest of us and it pisses me off that she doesn't even look upset!"
I was the one behind you in the grocery store, hoping my stare of disapproval was boring holes in your back as your 3-year old screamed "But I want to SEEEEEEEEE the bathroom!!!! Why can't I SEEEEEE the bathroom?" If that was MY kid, I'd give him a lesson he wouldn't forget!!!!"
And yes, that also was me thinking that if MY teenager acted that sullen, I'd ground her for a month. HELLO.
I could have given you so much good advice, if only you'd asked. Sometimes you didn't even have to ask, but seemed really offended when I offered a nugget of wisdom such as "why don't you hit him?"
My first nugget of understanding came when a friend told me about taking her young daughter shopping for a comforter. They spent some time window shopping and by the time they came to the comforters, sweet, loving daughter had morphed into the Bad Seed. "Well," I said indignantly, "I hope you didn't buy her a comforter!"
She said "Of course I bought her a comforter -- she NEEDED one. It would punish me, not her, if I took her home without one." Wow -- what a concept.
It wasn't until the summer of 1999 that I really understood the concept of "if you threaten your kids, prepare to follow through." My 2-year old daughter and I were at a pool as guests of another friend, who was raising three boys. We live in different towns so being together, was a real treat. (It still is.)
Everything was going swimmingly (get it? aren't I the punster!!!!!) until my daughter got tired and started whining and complaining. Instead of finding her some shade, comforting her and encouraging her to rest on a cozy towel in a lawn chair, I shouted at her "Do you want to go home?"
"Yes," she cried in a tiny, exhausted voice - TOTALLY the wrong answer -- she was supposed to beg to stay! This was not going the way I planned. I said in a mean voice, "Well, I don't! You better behave!"
As her face crumpled, so did I. In shame and guilt and remorse and mortification -- you get the gist. I was being a bully and threatening my baby. Good mommy took the reins, and I took her in my arms, begged forgiveness, found a nice spot where I could cuddle her to sleep, and we had a lovely day that stretched into evening.
When I have done something dreadful like that, I call or email my sisters and girlfriends and tell them what a horrible mother I've been. And they all e-mail me back with their stories. In this way, we know we're going to be okay, and our shameful actions don't fester inside us, causing us to feel even more inept than we sometimes feel. As one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott says, kids don't come with operating instructions. They are the best thing to happen to us, but their care and feeding is unrelenting and we sometimes crack.
One day I called a girlfriend and sobbed that I felt I yelled at my kids every day. The mother of four, she said "I feel good when I don't beat mine every day." Just the tone of her voice cheered me immensely -- she obviously didn't feel the need to call child protective services. (For the record, she does not beat her children. Although she thinks about it sometimes.)
One of my sisters had the best offering after some particularly bad parenting/martyrdom. I saved the emails.
My note to my sisters read: