What will they remember about their childhood?
Will they remember those happy, sunny days that didn’t end well, because Mommy could only hold it together so long, and then broke down at the very end, when we were almost at the finish line? Going to bed is supposed to be the peaceful, gentle end to days overflowing with activity. And usually it is.
But then there are some days – a few of them occurring lately – where the end is a crescendo of frustration, where tired Mommy, thin of patience, loses it. Why? Because I have already held it together and smoothed things over 535 times that day with a smile on my face. The time for smiles is over.
The girls are bickering, again. Our 4-year-old son with Down syndrome, in the early stages of potty training, has saved his daily “deposit” for his clean pull-up and fresh pajamas even though we just sat him on the potty, where he happily read for 15 minutes. I start to talk harshly, bark orders: “Put on your pants!” “Get in bed!” “Be quiet!” And so on. I hear a few sniffles, can feel the guilt creeping in. I apologize, give everyone sweet goodnight kisses, but I’m still furious, and I’m sure they know that. My husband comes in to see what is the matter because he hears me stomping around. I express my frustration with our son. “He’s not doing it on purpose,” he says. “Yes he is!” I retort, like a school child.
Something about having three children has brought out the worst in me. I cannot figure out if it’s our son’s special needs and stubbornness, the twins (he has a typically developing and equally stubborn sister) or just the combination of my hotheaded Italian genes and too many small kids at once.
ME, THEN: WITH ONE CHILD
With our first daughter, now 7, I felt like the proverbial good mom, or at least good enough. She had a nice routine and got to bed on time. I worked full time but weekends were ours. Our bond was – and is – incredibly strong and raising her was pleasant, especially once we got through the first year of sleepless nights. Both of us (toddler her and mommy me) had a few memorable temper tantrums where I thought the world was coming to an end, but for the most part, she did not need much discipline. When you told her something, she usually listened, and we were consistent about enforcing the rules of the house. Congratulations to us!
But we had to try for a sibling for our precious one. Instead, we got two – a blessing for sure. And now – wow!! Monster mommy best describes how I feel most days. Exhausted, haggard, yelling in anger, always trying to find a way to carve out space for myself, to shave some minutes off bedtime so I can enjoy a quiet house. I clung to my firstborn, but now it’s more like “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”
Don’t get me wrong; these adorable kids are my life, literally. My days are filled with wonderment and laughter. I also know all the “right” ways to discipline children and control myself, having read many books and been trained and counseled by the coterie of therapists that have been in and out of our lives since our son’s birth. But here’s a confession: sometimes I am just too tired to do the right thing.
I am the stay-at-home parent – a great privilege — and even if I hadn’t quit my job in New York because we had to relocate to another state, I would have been fired for taking too many days off. One or other of the twins was sick constantly the first two and a half years of life. There were hospital stays for pneumonia and asthma attacks. Our pharmacist knows all of us by first name because we were there so often to pick up medicines. We know practically every nurse at our busy pediatric practice. I still jump every time someone coughs because I dread the outcome. What I’m trying to say is, my nerves are fried! I have burnt the candle at both ends and now there is no more candle.
I’ve realized something important, though. I’m actually not the nice person I thought I was. Having been raised by strict Catholic parents, I had always prided myself at the very least on being a “good” person. Not in the sense of following every commandment, but of being well-mannered, kind, generous, moral and civic-minded. You know, the type of person who would whole-heartedly embrace my disabled child.
ME, NOW: WITH THREE KIDS
Only it did not come to pass that way. These four years have been the most challenging of my life emotionally. Do you know what it’s like to feel that maybe you don’t truly love your own child? I do. It’s perhaps the worst feeling I have ever experienced, like a vast darkness that swallows everything inside you. I don’t feel that way now (most days), but the road to accepting him and identifying my own flawed parent-self has been a long, winding one. We are not yet finished walking this path, nor I imagine will we ever be.
But at least I have some vague sense that we know where we are going. My son and me, both of us as human as human can be. Something interesting about the genetic anomaly of Down syndrome is that it manifests as humanity, writ large. My child with Down syndrome has stumbled more often than danced, resisted more than complied, been misunderstood more often than comprehended, and failed more often than succeeded.
This same description applies perfectly to me, and maybe to you too. Only for us, the fault would be our own, while my son is blameless. But let me ask this: have you let the beauty that is also your human birthright overtake you the way my son has let it overtake him? He has laughed more heartily than he has cried, felt and spread joy a thousand times more than sadness, let curiosity rather than fear rule his day and greeted every person who has crossed his path with a hearty embrace.
So no, I am not a good person and don’t say that I am. I am not quiet, gentle, patient and wise. I am angry, stormy, impatient and impulsive – just like my son! But I’m also strong, feisty, smart and tough. I will fight tooth and nail for what my kids need most. I will be hard on them if I have to for their own good and the good of society. I will not raise entitled children who think the world revolves around them, but neither will I tolerate people who try to pigeonhole my son into expecting less from himself because he has Down syndrome. My girls will learn manners of course, but I hope what they learn most of all is confidence. I want them to push back at the world in ways I was unable to do when I was younger, because I thought being nice meant being meek.
So the next time you get angry with your kids over small things, remember to apologize for the anger (not the consequences). Then remind yourself that it sometimes takes an angry woman to raise strong children.