You know that handbook they give you in the hospital after you’ve had a baby? The one they include with your discharge papers that lays out in detail how to perfectly raise the little life cradled in your arms? I didn’t get that book, but I sure thought I knew what that book should include before I brought my first precious handful home.
I was an ideal mother -- a perfect domestic nurturer -- before I had kids. I knew what I’d do and how I’d respond in all situations. In my pre-parent parenting, my house was organized, spotless, and sanitary. My à la Norman-Rockwell-family ate whole grains, organic vegetables, and I, the mother goddess, prepared them from scratch. My kids never sassed because they always revered me. They read more than they watched television, and they never, ever caused scenes in public.
Damn, was I good back then.
It isn’t just parenting where I earned a gold star for before I actually started. And this blog isn’t just about parenting either. But it does begin with a story that involves my oldest child--a Golden Boy if ever there was, and one whose patience and understanding of my faults consistently astounds me, making it that much worse when my shortcomings affect him.
It was one of those energizing December mid-mornings when the air is crisp with holiday weather and the day is free of all outside obligations -- perfect timing to haul out the holly, hang the wreaths, deck the halls, and most importantly, trim the tree. By my estimations, if I stayed on task, at sundown I would be able to adorn my feet with fuzzy socks and sip a cold rosé in a house ready for the season.
My daughter, eight-years-old and giddy with Christmas wishes, was my helper. My boys -- Golden Boy, who recently became a golden teenager, and my Middle Man, eleven and who basically had the coolness of a teenager the day they gave me his discharge papers sans the parenting handbook -- were playing their umpteenth game of Madden. Decorations were hung and placed all around them, but in their bubble, it was Superbowl Sunday. For the briefest moment, I allowed my heart to feel the pangs of my children having grown a year older and that I was down to just one bright-eyed tot upon whom I could share Santa and Christmas magic. But I muscled up, and the girl and I continued our merry way through the house.
By the time I got to the tree, having fought the battle of which lights work and are their wires hidden, the boys were in the backyard, Madden was off the television, and Bing Crosby was "Dreaming of a White Christmas” on the Alexa. It was when we had finished, the girl having meticulously hung each ornament, and I having meticulously decided to which branch I would move them, that the boys returned, sweaty, smelly, and breathless.
And it was also then that I realized I had officially ruined Christmas.
“You decorated the tree already?!” The Golden Boy’s usually bright complexion was red and his eyes welled with tears that he fought back.
“Geez, Mom, I can’t believe you guys did the tree without us.”
Even Middle Man was bummed. He dropped his football and sulked into the kitchen while Golden Boy remained locked in a heartbroken stare at the twinkling Christmas tree and a start to Christmas without him.
I felt as far from perfect as I could get. Annie, you really screwed up this time. Of all the things, you messed with a Christmas tradition. Of course that didn’t prevent me from tugging on the tiniest shred of dignity I could find.
“But, you guys didn’t seem to care. You were playing Madden and then got up and left.”
“Mom, you know us. Half the time we don’t know what’s going on.” Middle Man has always been rather direct.
“Well, I didn’t think you’d do the tree without us,” Golden Boy bemoaned. “We always do the tree together...”
And then he said the words that drove the nails directly into my horrible Mom heart.
“...You know, as a family.”
AS A FAMILY?!
That’s all it took. I held back my tears as I pulled my giant, 13-year-old baby into my arms. I was more than horrible, I was guilty -- as guilty as they come and well aware that what was coming was overcompensation and a holiday season of “making it up,” even though they’d probably be over it by the next day.
What they don’t tell us when we don’t get life handbooks is that there isn’t always a “they” to guide us. There is only ourselves and the capabilities we choose to utilize. I was not just a perfect mother before I was a mother. Based on my judgements of others, I was a perfect wife, a perfect friend, a perfect volunteer, a perfect entrepreneur, and so on, knowing exactly what I would and wouldn’t do and how I would handle challenges better than others. But what’s lacking in all of our fabulous assumptions of ourselves is a question I’m really good at ignoring: If I’ve got such a good grip on life, why do I feel so incompetent?
And it is there, at the overlooked crossroads of choices and their consequences, that guilt -- that know-it-all, nagging thorn -- pierces our side and reminds us just how far from perfect we have always been and will continue to be.
I am no stranger to guilt. Rather, it plagues me. I am constantly reminded by social media posts that my children are only children once and I’d better make the most of their childhood. I hate those posts because all they do is tell me what I already know: I waste time. The skinny jeans I bought ten years ago when my weight reached an all-time low ogle me at the top of my closet. I hate those jeans, too. They recall each time I’ve sat on my ass. When I read an article about someone who caught their cancer early, I’m enraged. I’m reminded that I wasn’t proactive enough when I knew my father was sick. Twenty-somethings who make six figure salaries make me fume because they didn’t miss an opportunity and maybe I did. What all the examples have in common is that they trigger anger and regret -- anger at myself and regret for my actions.
But if I peel back the anger, layer by layer, am I really angry?
I’m not mad that my kids’ childhood is flashing by my eyes. I’m not pissed off that I can’t wear a size 2 anymore. I’m not enraged that I didn’t move quicker when my father got sick, and I don’t hate successful young people. I’m disappointed. I made choices that failed me. It may feel like anger, but it’s far more affecting. How many times as kids did our parents say, “I’m not angry. I’m disappointed in you.” And how many times would we have rathered them be angry because their disappointment felt worse? The same can be said of our effects on ourselves. It’s easier to process anger than internal disappointment because that guilt points the finger at one person and one person only: you. It brings up the fact that we are flawed with inexperience and lack better judgement. And isn’t that altogether infuriating?
Perhaps that’s how disappointment masks as anger. That perfection we try so hard to embody is a fraud. We’re no more perfect than those we judge. And though I may continue to make assumptions and mistakes, I know enough to know there is a silver lining to all of this: remorse. Remorse paves the way for experience. And experience knows that perfection is total bullshit.
The day after the great Christmas tree fiasco, I surprised the kids with three ornaments, each reflecting their personalities--a fisherman, a football star, and a ballerina. Then I unveiled a tiny tree with even tinier ornaments, lights, and beads--the tree for the dogs the kids had been begging for. My obliviousness to their wants the day before, while under the influence of having-a-perfectly-decorated-house-by-sundown, and the boys' obliviousness to the world, while under the influence of video games, led to an awful moment, but sparked a new tradition. After dinner they put on their pajamas, hung their special ornaments, and we decorated the dog tree together for the first time—as a family.
The kids have dubbed the big Christmas tree “The Tree of Shame.“ “See how it twinkles with Mom’s shame!” they laugh.
My husband and I are raising three not-so-little-anymore children, destined for a lifetime of smart-assery.
But three days later, the Golden Boy squeezed into the chair I was sitting upon as I sipped rosé beside the twinkling lights of “The Tree of Shame.” He put his head on my shoulder and snuggled in, neither of us concerned about the past.
That’s another thing about guilt. It’s no match for forgiveness from others -- and ourselves.