One recent morning, my little boy, age 4, was whining his usual "I don't wanna to go to school" song. He has to go to preschool, because I have to work, and him being at home while I work doesn't compute. As well, he gets pretty vital stimulation from preschool, including lots of prep for the big K. We all get that. But he makes it very difficult when he pulls the I don't wanna go crap.
So I left the room to go get my shoes and he burst into tears--he's a great dramatist. He screamed and cried in agony over having to go to school. This crying and wailing went on for several minutes until I came back in the room and told him to stop. His response was to emit a loud banshee scream of anger and upset. The kind of scream that scatters flocks of birds half way down the block.
I lost my nut.
I threw my shoes down and marched over to him, intending to take him by the shoulders and have an eye-level discussion on what, exactly, this screaming was about, and why we didn't need it.
But funny things happen when you're reaching to grab your kid because you're pissed and not being careful.
On the way to grabbing his shoulder, the inside of my thumb nail slid across his cheek--leaving an ugly, awful red trail. He screamed more, of course, shocked by the pain of an unexpected gouging by his own mother, and I stared, shocked that I had just scratched my baby's cheek enough to make it bleed.
And the horrid thing is that I had just earlier that morning admired how thick and long my nails were getting due to pregnancy hormones.
It was just awful.
More tears resulted, of course, and then I had to explain that in no way whatsoever did Mommy intend to scratch him (and oh God the blood!), and that yes, she was angry that he had screamed, which we would discuss in just a moment, but that first he should understand that I would not hurt him on purpose and would never go and try to scratch him on purpose. (By now the scratch was swelling into a nasty welt that almost certainly would not fade anytime soon, probably not before Christmas.)
I don't know if he understood or was able to separate out the scratch from the trouble he knew he was getting in for screaming like a banshee, but I did my best to explain things several times, including why banshee-screaming over going to preschool (an inevitable destination, since we were, in fact, going) was not cool.
After a while, we calmed and he asked for a bandaid for his face. I cringed. The scratch was completely hideous, and maybe a bandaid would look better than the red welt on his cheek. Plus, he loves picking out bandaids. So we went up and he picked a lovely Transformers bandaid, so bright in its colors that it would call attention to his face from three streets away, and on to preschool we went.
As soon as we walked in--the entry mind you, not even the classroom--a teacher saw, said hello, and asked what happened to his face.
Boy: "It's a scratch."
Teacher: "Who scratched you?"
Me: Cringe, cringe.
We get to his classroom and immediately his little friends crowded around him, fascinated by the bright Transformers bandaid on his face, as though it freaking glowed and dispensed candy or something. They asked my boy what happened, and by then the boy was warming to his subject and told them all,"Mommy scratched me."
Not the best mothering moment.
I felt horrible, and I deserved to feel horrible, because after all, I'd done it. Worst of all would be when Mr. Sierra saw it and realized what his wife had done to his son. To his credit, Mr. Sierra was understanding and didn't mention at all divorce or restraining orders and little to no visitation rights. But he could have thought them. I would have, had I been him.
I hate it when these things happen. In the whippersnapper's four years, I've had to learn patience the hard way--when I had very little to begin with--and it hasn't been easy. I've lost it many times (although I'd never managed to maim my child before now). For a long time, I questioned having another child because I felt like I could barely get a handle on this mothering thing with the first one. How could I be so selfish as to have another one and subject him to the same frustration and un-model-mothering?
A lot of times, I go down what I feel like is the wrong path in mothering. I do this while I'm drafting stories, too. I make a mistake, and back out. When I'm writing, this is easy because you can just hit the backspace key or select large offending paragraphs and hit delete, like it never happened. But real life is different. I have never figured out how to "undo" mistakes I've made, especially ones as a mother. I'm fascinated by the whole concept of atonement for things you know you've screwed up on. How do you do it? What do you do? I'm not sure anyone has the answer, but I've known for several months that I'll be exploring that theme in my next novel.
(The current WIP theme is about how our parents affect us as adults.)
The only answer I've ever been able to come up with is to just do my best going forward and keep in mind the mistake I made (although accidentally scratching wasn't a mistake so much as an accident; but I could have tried the calm approach and then perhaps my hand wouldn't have gone toward his face at such velocity).
Any thoughts? I'd love to know what you do to rectify mistakes, and what you think about atonement. Have any good books for me to read on the subject?
The day I wrote this post, Carrie Heim Binas wrote her post on trying better. It really came at a good time, as you can see, and I kind of get that you screw up as a parent, or as anything--a person, a spouse, a friend, a writer. Or, not even that you screw up--but that you don't do the best job, but the next time you do it better. I didn't scratch my boy on purpose God knows, but what could I have done differently? Definitely I should work on staying calmer, because if I hadn't rushed at him, my thumbnail wouldn't have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I get that you try better next time. It didn't erase me feeling like a hideous monster, but it helped a lot.