I’m in bed with a bag of chips. The quinoa and black bean tortillas from Trader Joe’s if you’re wondering (so good!). Because today was a total shitshow.
My husband is away on a business trip. Totally cool, I think. This will be relaxing, in a way. Less help, yes but also one fewer person to consider. The whole bed to myself. I can feed the kids, then eat cheese and crackers and chocolate for dinner and no one will care. Not so bad.
Day One (yesterday). My 4.5 year-old is ecstatic for her first day of school. Like, forrest creatures are singing at her heels as she skips up the steps to greet her teachers. I have a new sitter for my 21-month-old because PS our beloved nanny had a baby last week. The sitter’s lovely and after a little crying when I leave for an early morning workout class, my son and she seem to hit it off. They go to the park. I manage to meditate for the first time in weeks (if you’re starting to hate me because I work out and meditate, just wait. The reality — which I believe is almost every mother’s reality if you scratch the surface of social media — will become clear soon). I plow through some work and eat some healthy leftovers for lunch.
My son, however, wakes up from his nap inconsolable. It takes me a solid ten minutes of sitting next to him while he screams like he’s being stabbed with red hot pokers before he calms down enough that he’ll allow me to pick him up. This is kind of a new thing, these tantrums. And I’ve been reading that I should just allow him to expel these big feelings while being patiently and lovingly attentive. Easier said than fucking done.
The afternoon goes pretty well. He has a good time with the sitter, I have a meeting and get a little more work done. I pick up my daughter. Everyone eats a frozen pizza and bedtime is a non-event. I’m feeling almost smug.
Day Two (today). I have no sitter lined up. What I do have is a therapy appointment all the way across town and a rockstar sister-in-law who lives near there and is going to watch my son for two hours while I talk about being overwhelmed and (literally) swing a large wooden paddle down onto a pillow while yelling ‘no’ over and over again, and a co-working space that offers childcare where I plan to take my son after his nap.
Things threaten to go off the rails when my son wakes up at 5am. But mercifully he goes back to bed until 6:30. We have a lovely morning together while my daughter sleeps in. I manage to get her to school. I get across town in rush hour traffic, drop my son at my SIL’s with a nicely prepped lunch, and I’m only 7 minutes late to my appointment. I am KILLING today.
I feel like several million bucks after therapy. I go get my son and we are on track for a nice early nap. But. My son does not want to get into his carseat. A few months ago, he would’ve squirmed and bitched and I would’ve gently stuffed him into his seat. But he weighs 25-pounds now and the little dude is strong. I try multiple times to muscle him in, but I am unsuccessful and obviously don’t want to hurt him.
I try listening, holding, cajoling, begging. I try being firm. I try waiting until “he’s ready.” I raise my voice. Then I apologize and soften it. I cuddle and kiss him. I try to explain why we have to go. I ask dumb rhetorical questions like “Do you want to stand in this parking lot all day?” To which he replies “Yes.” 40 minutes goes by. 40 fucking minutes, you guys. Finally I find a harmonica on the floor and he happily gets into his seat with it. Jesus fucking Christ.
He falls asleep listening to his favorite song, ‘I Like To Move It.’ I drive home in 30 minutes, no traffic. Everything’s going to be fine.
But no, he again wakes up from his nap in the grip of some sort of misery spiral. Afterward, he just wants to sit on my lap and snuggle in my office. I indulge this for many minutes. Then, he’s hungry. We sit at the table and he has a big snack. We talk and laugh. Good, I think. We’re spending some quality time. He’s eating. Surely he will be happy to go to the co-working space.
But. No. There’s a baby asleep in the playroom and my son will not let me leave him in there today without threat of monster tears. So there are two choices: leave, or sit on the floor of the playroom with my laptop and work while my son attempts to climb on me every five minutes. We do this for an hour. I revise ONE PAGE of my novel. I do consider crying myself, but it’s time to pick up my daughter at school. I soldier on.
We get home. I make dinner for them. We have a friend staying unexpectedly. The kids are eager to show off their couch-jumping moves for her. It’s all delightful. We go upstairs to get ready for bed. My husband calls on FaceTime and my son gets into his bath. I can see the finish line up ahead. Some books, an episode of something or other for my daughter while I get my son to sleep and then boom it will be 8pm and the evening will be my Goddamn oyster.
Something happens, though, on that FaceTime call. My daughter becomes suddenly overcome with despair about her dad being away. She is dancing toward full-on meltdown. I recall the things I’ve been reading: she needs to let this all out. It’s good. And it’s what I am not good at, releasing negative emotions so they don’t bloom into radioactive resentments and soul-crushing fears. So I hold her while she cries about missing her dad. I don’t try to comfort her to the point of halting her emoting.
When the tears naturally ebb, I offer her a movie while I finish her brother’s bedtime. We go in to brush her teeth and somehow while washing her hands, we get on the express to downtown Meltdown City. I finally get it. She’s exhausted AF.
There is kicking and hitting (her to me), there is the dramatic throwing to the ground of precious objects (headbands and a sequined dress). There are harsh words to the tune of “You are the worst mother ever!” There are moments when something simultaneously sets off my son and the two of them are screaming like they are on fire and I literally want to disappear from the earth, just for like five, maybe ten seconds. (Let’s not forget that my houseguest is one floor below on the phone wishing her grandmother a happy birthday).
These are the moments when I feel like I am standing on the bow of the Titanic, staring at the iceberg wedged between shards of decking. That sounds hyperbolic, but it feels THAT unmanageable to me. I feel THAT at a loss for what to do or how to help, them, myself, any of us. Every horrible and dark impulse and thought imaginable scrolls across my mind. Things I can’t write for anyone to see. And as quick as they come, those thoughts are replaced by flashes of compassion, guilt, and love. I imagine the nerve-endings inside me dissolving into dust.
The lights are turned off. Dolls are confiscated. Maudlin hugs and kisses are exchanged (because really, my daughter in this state is not at all dissimilar from your sweet, drunk Irish grandma). There is a threat made about other precious things being thrown in the trash. I am not proud of this, but it’s what finally shuts them up. And as I’m scrolling through Facebook in the blissful but still precarious silence of their darkened room, I come across a story posted in a mom group about a new mother who secretly battled post-partum depression and took her own life. With a 4.5-month-old daughter at home.
That’s when I godownstairs and get the chips (because for some idiotic reason I can’t quite remember, I have chosen a life free from drugs and alcohol). I know without a shadow of a doubt that I would never kill myself. I just know it as clearly as I know anything. Yet, there have been points over the past two years that were so trying, so unmanageable in my mind that I started to understand for the first time how someone could fall down that rabbit hole. What struck me most reading the story of this woman was that everyone thought she was doing great.
Ours is a culture that prizes success, strength, power, perfection (whatever the fuck that is). Women and moms are, in my opinion, the strongest and most powerful people on the planet, but we are also the most frequent victims of our own diabolically skillful inner-critic. We are the first to offer help and the last to say when we need it. We imagine ourselves alone on that ship’s bow, when in fact there are droves of scared, uncertain others right behind us — all of them wondering if they are the only ones who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of staying afloat.
I like to celebrate my successes. I’m proud of the mother I am. But I also have days like today. ALL THE TIME. And I don’t know if I’m typically as inclined to share that. But I must. We all must because we are all, all of us, in the same boat.