Monday, December 20, 2010

Mistakes and Atonement

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.

Me: Cringe.

Boy: "It's a scratch."

Teacher: "Who scratched you?"

Me: Cringe

Boy: "Mommy."

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.


KLM said...

We've all been there, my friend. And I know all too well the maternal self-flagellation afterward.

Remember a few years ago, when Alec Baldwin reamed out his teenaged daughter on that answering machine message, and it got blasted all over the media? At the time I remember thinking what he said was crappy, of course, but I also had some sympathy for the guy because nobody would want to be judged by their worst moment as a parent.

The thing is, everybody has her limits. And sometimes your kid finds that limit. (And btw, nothing pushes a mom to the breaking point like foot-draggin' before school. I've had some atomic freak outs myself for just that reason.) You just apologize to your kids and to yourself. Forgive, learn, move on. Just as you say. If perfection is the standard, we're all in trouble.

Jamie Grey said...

Awww...this must have been such a hard post to write - thank you so much for sharing with us. We all have moments where things just happen that aren't anyone's fault - and all we can do is try to do better. You have to be kind to yourself - it was just a mistake. Forgive yourself, give your little guy another hug, and do your best to forget. If nothing else, these moments sure do serve as life-lessons, don't they? LOL

Teri Anne Stanley said...

My kids are 13, 15, and 17, and only one of them is an axe murderer. JUST KIDDING. I hope.
That stuff is so hard. I have been to the point where I actually had sympathy for that woman who drowned all 63 of her kids in the bathtub.
But yes: we do the best we can most of the time, and sometimes we freaking lose it and bad stuff happens. And then we deal with it and put another dollar in the therapy fund.

Anne R. Allen said...

Wow. What a tough thing. And we can understand exactly how/why it happened. (There's also some great fodder for a Sue Miller type novel here.)

What is it about four year olds? They talk about the terrible twos, but it's the fours that seem to have the most powerful tantrums and control issues. I remember a four year old nephew who had been screaming for a good half hour, but wouldn't say what he wanted. Finally he got out the words, "I want to stop screaming, but I don't know how!" Big insight into being four, I think.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I admire your honesty here, Sierra. And, honey, if that's the worse thing you ever do to your kids? Then you're up for Model Mother of the Century.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Kristen - so basically you're saying I pulled an Alec Baldwin? Oh God you're not helping! I thought Alec was a hideous beast for that phone call, and he didn't say those things on accident! Oh dear. Oh dear.

Jamie, thank you for hearing that it was an accident!! Now that a week has gone by and my boy has picked off the scab and Neosporin has NOTHING to reduce the scratch faster in 4 days as expected, I can say that it's interesting that I felt obliged to feel it was less of an accident and more of an I'm-at-fault thing because I knew I was pissed when it happened, regardless of whether it truly was an accident. I think it's the fact that I was pissed is what freaked me out so much.

Teri Anne and Kristen -- thanks for sharing your own feelings or ragey mothering, you make me feel better.

Anne, You are SO RIGHT about 4 year olds. So right. And I think it sucks because I can actually remember being 4 and I want desperately to understand how it is for him, because I was there, too.

Jeffe-- Okay, I will accept that award :) thanks.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

This is very much in my mind as my wife and I contemplate kids. You are only human and bound to make some mistakes or occasionally lose your cool. What else can you do besides be apologetic and genuinely try to learn from your mistake?

In a professional situation, I have found there is little more effective (and disarming) than taking responsibility for your actions. So if someone runs into my office upset about something I did, and it's clear I screwed up, I apologize. I then watch an amazing transformation as the person relaxes and deflates. They came in expecting defensiveness, because most people are.

Then you can ask how you can help fix the problem and if the answer is "don't do anything" your punishment is you have to accept that!

DL Hammons said...

A fathers approach...rub some dirt on it, it'll be okay. We all "lose it" from time to time. We're human after all. If your not losing it, then your raising an undisciplined hell-spawn. Our kids need to learn that their behavior has consequences, and one of those consequences is having mom or dad go ballistic on them from time to time. How else will they they learn how to tread lightly? :)

Suzi McGowen said...

I think you handled it just right. And you know what? You're teaching your son that everyone (even mommies) makes mistakes. And that when you make a mistake, you apologize.

It may not seem like it now, but that lesson will be longer lasting than the scratch :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

I have stories of my own like this one. My kids are a bit older, 12 and 10, but as the 12 year old begins to assert his independence while adopting the most annoying practice of adolescent back-talk, I find myself counting to 10 more often than usual. When I lose my cool, I have to remind myself: No one behaves best when they're angry or frustrated, and everyone is angry or frustrated at times. I think the most important lesson we can demonstrate to our children is that people make mistakes, and when we make them, we should acknowledge them and ask for forgiveness. My parents acted like grown-ups don't make mistakes. And they never, NEVER apologized when they did me wrong. But hey, it happens. Everyone screws up. Even grown-ups, even parents. Saying your sorry to your kids for having a human, I-screwed-up moment will teach and reinforce a valuable life lesson.

Wishing you and your whole family a wonderful holiday season! ((hugs))

Penelope said...

Oh no! But it's universal and happens to all of us mothers. The scratch will fade soon enough, but the lesson that all actions have consequences will live on with him. You sound like a great mom!

demery bader-saye said...

Hi Sierra, I'm with the others here in saying that this kind of thing happens to all of us as parents. Your little whippersnapper is going to turn out wonderfully :) From this experience he's learned much about regret and compassion - having been on the receiving end of your heartfelt apology and kind concern. How many parents might have blamed the banshee for what happened... "If you hadn't been screaming like a banshee..." My littlest one often says "You're the best mama in the world..." - somehow he's figured out how much guilt that induces if he says it to me when I lose my temper. I've started saying, "Probably not, but I love you and I'm doing my best." :) In terms of writing - that last sentence kinda sums it up as well I guess!

Sierra said...

Thanks, guys. Your comments mean a lot to me. You're all so right that admitting mistakes is the way to go.

The silver lining here is that when my mother in law saw the scratch and asked him what happened, and he said Mommy did it, she said, "Bad Mommmy." And do you know what my darling said? He said, "No." That's my boy.

Roni Loren said...

Oh, I so feel you. We're going through a major shrieking/tantruming three-year old stage. And I'm home with him ALL DAY LONG and many times since hubs travels a lot ALL NIGHT LONG. By tantrum number three in the day, I'm on the verge of my own tantrum.

I remember a few months ago, I was changing his diaper and he was having a fit about it. He started kicking and caught me hard in the chest. My instant reaction was to smack his thigh, which of course lit up with a bright red handprint and made him cry harder. (quickly followed by a "mommy, hug?" request which made me feel even MORE terrible. I'm such the anti-spanking, don't teach kids that violence is the answer when someone makes you angry, yadda yadda yadda person and there I'd gone and done it.

I felt terrible and like horrible mommy. But it's just a fact of life--we're all going to get pushed over our limit some days and act like toddlers ourselves.

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