At the bathroom sink, I stand motionless, my toothbrush poised mid-air. Minty foam slides down from the bristles onto my hand, ignored as a silent sob catches in my throat, pulling at my chest and stealing my breath. I stare hard at my reflection as tears inevitably spill from my red-rimmed eyes. Anger and shame take hold. “Shit, shit shit,” I hiss at my tired face. What the hell had I done?!
Behind me, Blake casually saunters in, nudging me aside for real estate at the sink. “What’s up with you?” he mumbles, brushing his teeth. “Why are you crying now?!” he teases. I abandon my toothbrush and cover my face with my hands, sobbing fully now. “I fucked up, Blake. I’m such a shit parent,” I bawl. “I snapped at Alice tonight, putting her to sleep. She was screaming at me and refusing to get into bed. I yelled back at her. In her face!” I cry harder. There is more, but I can hardly bring myself to form the words. I feel nauseous.
Blake pulls me towards him and I bury my face in his chest. “I yell at Alice all the time!” he laughs jokingly. “It’s fine. She’ll be fine!” I grimace, forcing the words. “There’s more though… fuck, Blake. She hit me and I… I swatted her back. In the face. Not hard, but I hit her! In the face! On her birthday! I’ve never done that before. I don’t know what happened. I just snapped! And now I’m going to have to live with this forever! What a fuck up I am!” I’m sobbing again, streaming muffled words into the refuge of Blake’s now damp hoodie.
“It’s ok,” Blake reassures me gently. Without looking at him, I can tell he’s holding back a smile. “Man, kids will do that to you. Push you so hard, so hard until you break. It’s ok, Celia. She’ll be ok. But yeah, that’s bad. On her birthday!” he laughs teasingly. I smile fleetingly, rolling my eyes before spilling tears anew.
Today was Alice’s birthday. My charismatic, obstinate, fierce, rough and tumble force of a daughter is a baby no longer – a milestone pushing Blake and I officially out of the baby/toddler/preschool parenting phase forever. Her fifth birthday – an occasion I had now royally messed up. As usual, my expectations of a fun-filled, relaxed family birthday night had resulted in two overtired, screaming kids complete with the slamming of doors, the stomping of feet and the refusal of any cooperation whatsoever in the late-night, post-movie bedtime hustle. Typical. All the best laid plans…
Later that night, in the darkness of Alice’s room, I lie on the floor, resting my cheek next to hers watching her chest rise and fall. Silently, I apologize to her relaxed, chubby face. “I’m sorry Alice. I lost my temper. I ruined your birthday. I’m so sorry”. I fight the urge to fall down the hole of self-shame and, instead, repeat my well-worn mantra: “You’re good enough parent. Today, you messed up, but give yourself grace. Alice is resilient, she will be ok.” As always, like a beacon of light during a storm, I hold tight to the idea that as parents, we simply cannot be perfect. Mistakes will happen and as long as we reach for self-forgiveness rather than self-shame while showing our children how to make amends, they will not be forever broken.
Laying there in the purple glow of her nightlight my mind wanders through the haziness of the past five years of Alice’s life. It’s hard to comprehend – the compression of infinitely long, lonely, sleepless nights, nursing Alice hourly through weeks of colic, the slow days of parenting two littles under 18 months, the elation and anguish of returning to full-time work leaving a four month-old and a twenty month-old home with Blake. Those early years, so dear yet so incredibly difficult all melded together in my mind. It scares me, truthfully, how little I distinctly remember.
Recently, as I prepared a lecture for my colleagues, I had come across a photo of myself with baby Alice at work. It caught me off-guard – the overwhelm of emotion for that young woman in the photo. I wish I could reach back through time to reassure her she was a good mom, to hold her and tell her that she would get through. I wish I could grab her by the shoulders fiercely and say, “You’re doing it! You ARE doing it!” Grinding through those long workdays to stay established in her practice, balancing the demands of a young family, navigating a marriage through a tough, long season of parenting of littles – there was so so much on that young woman’s shoulders. So, so much.
‘Hang onto your kids, the years, they go so fast,’ they say.
”The days are long, but the years are short. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it all’
Back in Alice’s bedroom, dripping silent tears onto Alice’s sweet face, I hold that photo in my mind realizing that although it was anger that forced its way to the surface tonight, it was truthfully the result of immense grief simmering just below. Had I blinked? Had I missed it all? Had I done it right? Those cherished first years of my child’s life – had I lost them forever? Never would I hold my baby to my breast. Never would I celebrate those precious firsts – first steps, first word, first day of school, first tooth. Never would I feel the weight of my sleeping babe on my chest, rocking softly in the wee hours of the night. I was a parent of littles no longer.
Yet, although the days of sweet toddler kisses and newborn snuggles may be through, like the change of seasons, a new stage of life, of parenting, of marriage is upon us. When the days are consumed with the demands of keeping two energetic, wild, red-headed toddlers alive, there simply is little time for anything else. Within those early years, I have lost so much of myself – sucked into the vortex of parenting and just keeping afloat. Parenting through those young years has also been the most difficult season of our marriage, without question. There is good reason that they say to never consider divorce until everyone is sleeping through the night and all kids are over the age of five. Before that, can you even hear what your partner is saying to you above the constant barrage of ‘Mommmmmmmmmmms!!!’, endless crying, constant whining and seemingly incessant meltdowns?
These days, although the meltdowns are still ever-present, Blake and I find time to enjoy each other’s company, to play, to become friends again. I also have slowly and deliberately carved out more time for myself to figure out who I am and what brings me joy. Losing myself in my book, learning to strengthen my body at the gym, grounding myself in nature, connecting with girlfriends and often just sitting alone have been novelties for me as our kids grow and need me less. Recently, I even began playing the piano – something I haven’t done in twenty years!
In moving through this parenting milestone, although I feel the loss of those early years so heavily, I look towards the next journey as a mother, a wife and as a person with more self-compassion, empathy and forgiveness. I am not a perfect parent, but I can be good enough. And tonight, that will just have to be enough.