I wasn’t a good mom [today]. I mean I was, but I wasn’t who I wanted to be. As a mother we try to be so many things. We try to be the best imaginable role model for our kids. I’ve read article after article about how when they are overwhelmed by emotions that we are supposed to be the calm before the storm. To spread our patience and easy energy to them so they can handle it. But what happens when you are the storm?
This week had been one to test my limits. I have written before about how I struggle with anxiety and depression. I’ve learned ways to deal with it, through my art, exercise and dance. I go to therapy and make sure I do the things that keep my pain in check from my fibromyalgia. This week I did none of those things.
“But what happens when you are the storm?”
The day I usually go to therapy my husband had asked if he could go hunting, he hadn’t been in weeks and it’s his way to get in a good place. It’s his version of therapy in some ways. Ways I don’t understand but, I try to respect. I sacrificed for him, because I could tell he needed it. The previous weeks he had been studying like crazy for his Real Estate exams. He had passed and now he needed to let off some steam.
That same day my dance class I usually take was cancelled, and we would be away for any of the other classes that were available. We were preparing to go on our first trip away from our baby for two nights and three long days. I was scared to leave her. She has been struggling with communication. We are a bilingual household which often delays speech and her melt downs have been of epic proportions. Sometimes even hitting herself or pulling her own hair. I had been feeling overwhelmed by my inability to calm and soothe her. I had talked to every single mom I trusted about it, including my own. I needed a break, but feared leaving her. However our wonderful friend, was getting married to the love of her life, that specific weekend in Michigan. So our plan was to make it a romantic getaway, if at all possible. After all, it’s so rare we are alone.
I always get anxious before trips, but to top it off, my lack of self-care, and too many social engagements had left me drained physically and emotionally. I had been trying to take our daughter somewhere fun every morning that week, so that I could give her more one on one positive interactions. I wanted to be the fun parent like her Daddy is. He always gets to take her to the park, I always get the melt down times before and after naps and meals. People often think I’m an extrovert since I’m appear very social but I’m not really. When you add in my fibromyalgia and pain levels, plus the lack of time alone, it had me on edge.
Thursday after he went hunting and I went to another playdate at a loud location, I told my husband I needed help getting the house cleaned before we left for our trip Saturday morning. His parents would be staying there with the baby while we were gone, and I am always embarrassed by our messy house around his very very tidy mom. He agreed happily. You know, after he worked for a few hours of course. “Of course, it’s work. It’s fine. I’m fine.” Then when he was done work it was after he ran some errands since the baby was asleep and I seemed too tired to do any cleaning right then anyway. Once again I said “of course that’s fine. I’m fine.” but it wasn’t really fine. I was tired, so tired. Before I knew it the day was over, I was spent. Time for bed.
The next day I said “we need to get the cleaning started”. He said sure, what should I do. I took a deep sigh. I wanted him to be able to see it. But that’s not how his brain works. So together we prepared the guest room and he took out the trash, and did a few other small chores. Then I left for a photo shoot of my daughter for her birthday pictures (did I say I overbooked myself yet?). When I got home, he was gone at work. I talked to him on the phone saying “we need to get so much done” and he said it was okay, that we would do it once he got home around 4. Yes, packing, cleaning and dinner and bedtime ritual all done during the witching hour. Great right?
As soon as he got home our daughter demanded he play with her. She was so sweet and funny and the perfect charming little girl she usually is for him. Gone was the little girl at the indoor playground who laid on the ground and screamed. The one he only saw pictures of when I didn’t know what else to do to let him know how my day was. While they went on a walk the gate was left open and our two large dogs got out. Our kind older gentleman next door neighbor tried to put them back in and our dog nipped at him. Leaving no mark but terrifying him and me. I was so scared so full to the brim of emotions I didn’t know what to do. I called my husband crying. He tried to reassure me but he kept saying “it’s okay!”. But I wasn’t okay. Not even a little bit.
I needed something, ANYTHING to feel calm and under control.
I could feel it bubbling up, my annoyance, anxiety and frustration. I’d been on the edge all week, the lack of self-care plucking away my self control. I also had been constantly worried due to some major household changes financially and the developmental issues I was having with my daughter. I needed some control over my life and surroundings, I needed the house to be clean. I needed some time alone. I needed something, ANYTHING to feel calm and under control.
But we see things differently me and my husband. He didn’t see the house crumbling around us like some Gothic novel. He saw some clutter and the need to do dishes and mop, but to him it didn’t feel like pressure. It did to me. It felt like I was going to explode. I got snappier and snappier. I tried to tell him I was on edge and why. He said “It’s ONLY a few things to get done”. Even as I write this I can feel my heartbeat faster. I knew I was about to lose it, with my toddler trailing behind me; I went to the bedroom to hide. Maybe I could cry it out a little and pack. It was dinner time. I thought he would be cooking but he decided to come in and pack too; unknowingly while I was in there trying to get a hold of my immense emotions.
I just needed to breathe but I felt like my chest was going to burst. I tried to tell him I needed help but it came out as “YOU AREN’T DOING ANYTHING”. Which then put him on the defense. He had helped that morning after all. Changing the sheets in the guest room with me, done some laundry, cleaned the toilets. He had taken the baby out to play so I could be alone for an hour. You know the hour that the dogs got out and tried to bite our elderly neighbor (who luckily is super nice and was just concerned that the dogs might be hit by a car). “Oh really I haven’t done ANYTHING??” he said sarcastically.
It felt like I was drowning. It became a me against him when really inside it was just me feeling alone, feeling helpless.
I said “I CAN’T CALM DOWN AND YOU MINIMIZING THIS AND MAKING FUN OF MY REACTIONS ISN’T THE FUCKING BEST WAY TO HANDLE ME”. He said “You’re an adult, you shouldn’t need to be handled. Get your shit together.” I could tell he was exhausted and just as out of spoons in some ways as I was. He had no idea what to do with me. The way he looked at me broke me completely. Of course I wanted to get my shit together. I was trying so hard!
That was when I lost it. That was when I became the person I hate. The anxiety attack had been brewing since the dogs got out, or maybe more truthfully it had been coming all week. I became the woman who screams and cries and tears at her hair. The one who beats the pillows on the bed and tears her clothes. I was acting “crazy”. What kind of mother has a tantrum just the way toddler does? Literally the exact way that I’ve expressed concern over to my friends and doctor, about my two year old child. I couldn’t stop. I was screaming “I CAN’T STOP. I NEED HELP, HELP ME, HELP ME.”
This is what mental illness looks like. Mental illness and motherhood do end up in the same life sometimes. It’s nice to think that once we become parents we are so much better of people that those issues go away. But often they just become magnified. So this happened. All in front of my baby. She started crying. She was scared. Scared of ME. He was yelling at me to get a hold of myself. Once I heard my baby cry I stopped the pulling of my hair. I was shaking but I picked her up and held her in my arms.
“Mommy is sorry, mommy isn’t mad at you. Mommy is sorry she scared you. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” Tears streaming down both of our faces.
How on earth could I teach her to control her emotions and not feel so overwhelmed and frustrated at 2, when I couldn’t at 32. I felt like I had failed. Not only that but I felt like I had scarred her forever. That this would be the moment she would say to her therapist “My mom was crazy, she screamed and cried in front of me starting when I was only 2 years old”.
I obviously couldn’t get the help I needed from my husband. Unfortunately, comfort is something he’s still trying to learn how to do. After a life growing up with a family who just doesn’t do emotional labor (to put it in the kindest terms) he just wasn’t given the skill set. He’d been taught emotions are shameful. Hide them. I guess in some ways we’ve all been taught that. It’s why I tried to hide in the bedroom after all.
After I calmed down enough to hold my baby while we both just cried a bit, and read a book, I handed her off to my husband and said “I NEED HELP”. He finally said what I needed to hear “what do you need me to do?”. I said “take her” and handed her to her Daddy. A man who can comfort her even if he isn’t great at comforting me. I went to the shower closed all the doors and sobbed at my lack of self-control and failure as a mother. I curled into a ball at the bottom of the shower and I hated myself deeply. I smacked myself and said all the cruelest things I could say to myself. Then I said what he had said “Get your shit together”, pulled myself up off the floor and went to find my baby.
I came back and picked her up from the floor where she was cuddling her favorite blanket. Self soothing. I was so proud I had at least been able to teach her that. I said to her this.
“I’m sorry baby. Sometimes even Mommy gets upset. Sometimes mommy’s and daddy’s get mad and sad and they are louder than they want to be. I wasn’t mad at you, I love you and I’m sorry I scared you. I promise I’m going to try to be better and not scare you again.”
She laid her head on my shoulder and took a deep breath, trusting me that I was going to protect her and be okay. Then we went to finger paint and have dinner. It was a very quiet dinner. Me hiccup breathing through it, trying to figure out what to say. Who to talk to. I felt such immense shame.
Then I went to my bedroom and saw a chunk of my own hair laying on my bed. That’s when I decided to ask for help from people more experienced than I, in the ups and downs of motherhood. I vented this whole story to my mom’s group. I told them how I felt I was a terrible mother. That I had failed. Tearful and afraid that someone may call CPS or tell me that I shouldn’t be allowed around children, I spilled it out onto the internet. I hoped the women whom I consider friends, from new mothers to grandmothers, would tell me what to do. Maybe tell me how I can be better in the future. But they didn’t do that. They gave me something better. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
“We’ve all done this. Everyone loses their shit in front of their kids every once and while. It’s good for them to see it because once you recover it lets them know that even big emotions can be dealt with and come back from.”
“You are not a bad mom. At all. I feel like this is something you need to hear a bunch of times.”
“You are not a terrible mother. You did not mess up your child forever. You are human and showed her what it is like to display emotions when you are all out of spoons and the filters are gone. I have nothing but hugs for you. Maybe a swift kick in the nuts for your husband”
“I hit myself in the arms when I have an anxiety attack, it releases the energy. My husband cries when he sees it which isn’t really that helpful either. I’m so sorry. I’ve been there. You are not a failure. You were overloaded. And you know that—look, you laid it all out in this post. It was a lot of overwhelming shit. Can you take a bath or something to reset?”
“This will not have fucked your sweet kid up forever. She’s two, she won’t really remember it later. In the long term she will remember the way you handled it after and in the future. Sometimes it’s okay to not just say “it’s okay” or “I’m okay” and pretend like it’s always sunshine to smooth it over, but to be realistic and admit you’re having a hard time with big emotions and that it’s something your working on, and then reassure them it has nothing to do with them and you’re always there for them. My family has an odd sense of humor, and my mom and aunt joke about how many minutes/hours of therapy they owe because of something that happened or that they did. You can add this to your tab and start saving.”
“Oh honey I know you feel like the worst mother but women who think that about themselves generally aren’t. It’s the ones who don’t care and think they are awesome no matter what they do, who fuck it up.”
“You aren’t a bad mom. Girl I wish I could give you a hug. You’re amazing. You had a bad day. We’ve ALL had those days. We love you”.
Literally I had dozens of moms saying that they’ve been there. I wasn’t alone. That he could have been kinder and yeah was acting like an asshole but also their husbands have been awful about it in the past until they told them directly what to do when they melt down. Or that their husbands were good at it because they knew they had to model that behavior for their kids. I had over 60 comments all with stories saying that it’s happened to them and I shouldn’t hate myself. If anything I should be proud of myself for using it as a teaching moment afterwards. It didn’t heal me, but it did help me. It helped me see that there is no version of motherhood that never has a melt-down in its rearview.
You still ARE a good mom. You didn’t fail, you grew
I’ve been writing about imperfect motherhood for a year. A year of me admitting to my flaws and saying HEY GIRL IT’S OKAY! We don’t need to be perfect we just need to love our kids and try. And yet faced with my own lowest moment, I couldn’t tell myself that. I hope that this doesn’t happen again. Or at least if it does I’m able to communicate that I’m needing something specific so that I can calm down before I pull out a chunk of my own hair. That the only way to teach her how to manage her own emotions is to learn to manage mine… in front of her, not hiding away.
I hope that if you got this far, it’s because you’ve been there. Or you are afraid you will. Maybe you fear motherhood because of your mental illness. But I also hope that you feel the love that I was ensconced in by my group. The love of community and of womanhood. The village that we have to create in order to survive. That you know that I’m saying to you, you are a good mom. You had a bad day. It’ll be okay. You won’t ruin your child because you have a mental illness that took the reins for a minute. You can still be a good mom. You still ARE a good mom. You didn’t fail, you grew.
Update: We went on that trip. We loved on each other. I told him what I need when I’m scared of myself and overwhelmed. We talked about it in therapy. And we slept for two full nights uninterrupted and I highly recommend getting through the stress of leaving in order to enjoy the weight of parenthood being lifted for just a few nights.