Dear 12-year-old me

Actually, let me start with:

Dear parents,

What do you tell people who are considering having children — well, quite frankly, they’ve already decided they’re going to do it, but they just want you to bolster their nerves. But what do you say when they ask you, “Would you do it all again… honestly?”

Do you have a moment where you wonder, Should I tell them? Should I tell them how hard it is? Because really, what good does that do? Like the blogger says, they’re going to do it anyway; why take away this moment of happy anticipation? Maybe I should just smile and say, Sure. I’d do it again in an instant.

Not me, kids. I can’t lie to them. I smile wanly and say, “You know, I’m just not sure.”

Which invokes the recoil of horror. Which prompts me to self-correct: “Don’t get me wrong. I love my kid. I really, really love him, and I can’t imagine not having him in my life. It’s just that if I were right back at that moment, before he was a real flesh-and-blood human being, back when s/he was just an abstraction, and you told me — really told me — about what this was going to do to me…. Well, I just don’t know.”

When I was 11 years old and approaching my twelfth birthday, my mom asked me what I would like as a present. I asked her if I could get a hysterectomy. Also, I said, I would like steak, a baked potato, and asparagus for a birthday dinner.

But back to the hysterectomy.

I don’t quite recall exactly what was going through my mind when I asked for this gift, but I’m pretty sure it was some combination of knowing (or thinking I knew) that I didn’t want children and having endured a junior-high health class where we talked through the realities of menstruation. Good lord, I remember thinking, I’m not going through all that if I don’t even need the equipment.

Yeah, I was a weird child.

To her credit, my mother responded with her usual respectful sagacity that this was a serious decision, and we should think it over for a while. If I was still interested on my 13th birthday, we could discuss it again.

Yeah, I love my mom.

It never came up again, except as a funny story. By the time I was in my twenties, I was sure I wanted at least one child, possibly two. I went into pregnancy with near-total confidence that this was the right thing to do.

Without belaboring the details here — that’s a story for another day — suffice it to say that childbirth and the first four years of my son’s life were hard. I went from being a physically and mentally healthy person to being clinically depressed and 60 pounds overweight. Things have slowly gotten better, especially with the depression, but I feel permanently altered.

Again, granted, this permanent alteration has also brought with it a truly lovely, loving child whom I adore with every fiber of my being. OK, sometimes I want to strangle him, but sometimes I want to strangle everybody, and that’s people I don’t even have to see that often. So really, he’s fine.

But still, I find myself thinking often these days about that 12-year-old wish of mine. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. But I’m in it now and there’s nothing for it but to muddle ahead through this strange mixed-up soup of anger and unconditional love.

Kid reading, vol. 1: Jason and the Golden Fleece

One of my favorite parts of being a parent is reading books with my kid. How glorious to be able to revisit old favorites and discover unknown delicacies. And I love reading aloud. Someday someone is going to hire me to narrate audiobooks. Until such time, I happily read to my child.

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And yet, some of the books, they baffle me, and today’s pick is one of those head scratchers. That’s the book pictured above: Jason and the Golden Fleece, a 1990 book by Leonard Everett Fisher that I checked out of the library recently because Liam loves Greek mythology.

Do all children love Greek myths? (At least, all of them who grow up in a culture that cares about it?) I suspect so, and I have a theory about why: it’s a great metaphor for their own life. The gods (their parents) rule with the utmost arbitrariness. If you don’t thank them for every blasted thing — if you don’t fall in line — you will be torn apart by storms, transformed into lions, forced to wander aimlessly for a decade, frozen to stone by your mother’s deathly glare. 

So like life.

We have read nearly every conceivable book of Greek myths, so I was delighted recently to find one we hadn’t read. The book went along pleasantly enough at first: the illustrations are somehow spare and lush at the same time; the story vividly told.

There’s a moment in the middle that gives one pause: Heracles’ servant falls off the Argo (their ship) into the sea, and Heracles (in a fit of noblesse oblige) jumps in to save him. Jason’s all like, “Hey, we’ve gotta get a move on, Heracles. Can you hurry this up?” And when Heracles’ servant insists on sinking to the bottom, Jason’s all: “Yeah, I gotta go,” and leaves them both stranded in the middle of the Black Sea.

I may have misquoted the text a little, but you get the idea. What exactly is the reader supposed to think about this act by our hero? We are left to wonder for ourselves, which I suppose is fine.

But the most startling moment comes at the end. In the final paragraph — in a spare, matter-of-fact few sentences — we are told that Medea (Jason’s wife) kills their kids, then tries to kill Jason, commits suicide, and then Jason wanders the earth for the rest of his life alone and homeless. 

The end. Yes, just that abruptly.

OK, now perhaps this is a sign of my deprived high school education that I have never read Medea. A better-read person would have already known how this story ends.

But let’s just presume for the moment that not everyone knows/recalls that the Jason story is a tragedy. Could the author maybe, just perhaps, think about giving a teensy-weensy heads up to the unsuspecting parent reading dust jackets at the library or bookstore?

Something like this: “WARNING: In case, you have forgotten, Greek myths are seriously messed up. People die in all kinds of horrible ways, and in the end, there’s no good way to sugar-coat that for your precious, precious buttercup of a child. So make your choice now: are you up for discussing full-on gore and existential pain with your kid? Or should you just move on to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid shelves?”

You have been warned.

Not despite, but because

Remember that conversation with my son that I told you about recently? The one where I took the high road and told my son to shut his piehole, while he took the low road and told me I was “the nicest mom in the world”?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because his response was such a funny, unexpected reaction. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. My first thought was that he was being sarcastic. Would the nicest mom in the world ever use the word “piehole” anywhere near her seven-year-old’s delicate ears? No, no, she would not.

But later, I had a stunning realization. What if he actually meant it?

Right after he said I was the nicest mom in the world, I laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t think so.”

“Well, who’s a nicer mom than you?” he says with utterly sincere incredulity.

“Lots of people.” And I start naming them. Whole legions of nicer moms. “I’m cranky. And irritable. But I do love you a lot.”

And he hugged me.

And it occurred to me in a flash of blinding, glorious insight days later that my son doesn’t love me despite the fact that I’m cranky and irritable. He loves me partly because I am those things. The word “piehole” is just inherently funny. So is a mom who tells you to shut yours. Most people don’t get to have moms who say shit like that. If you’re lucky, you get a mom who is kind and loving and cuts the crusts off your PB&J and smiles at you warmly while you fart in her lap.

And if you’re really, really lucky, you get a mom who is a bit rude and inappropriate, tells you to make your own lunch some mornings, and flies off the handle sometimes when you ask her to wipe your nearly-eight-year-old butt. And loves you insanely muchly.

Bitter child loves his bitter mama

The scene: little dude and I are lying in his bed earlier tonight, lights off, and I’m getting exasperated because he won’t be still or quiet while I’m singing him his usual lullabies.

Finally, feeling 80% irritated, 20% joking around, I say, “Liam. Shut. Your. Piehole.”

Peals of giggles from his side of the bed. He replies, 80% sincere, 20% teasing: “Mommy, you’re the nicest mom in the whole wide world.” And then I got a kiss.

And he shut his piehole.

Off to an ignominious start

I’m just going to say this right off the bat: I am a terrible mother.

All right, actually I’m a pretty amazing mother in some very specific ways: I am funny and imaginative and in a weird sort of way I get kids and I take them seriously in ways that most adults don’t.

But with very little provocation, I can also be as mean as a snake. And even less patient. I feel terrible about it mere seconds later, but by then, the damage is already done.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not abusive. In fact, one of the reasons that I’m writing this blog is that I suspect a lot of you fellow parents out there know exactly what I’m talking about, and you’re thankful to know someone else who will admit to it.

Welcome; stick around. Let’s be asshole parents together. Asshole parents who love our kids but sometimes wish we could send them off to Hogwarts so we could have the whole Dursley house to ourselves.

* * *

I used to be a historian by trade, so I will usually speak by way of example.

Let’s take Mother’s Day. It was yesterday, and it was one of the worst days I’ve had in a long time.

Things started beautifully enough. A few days beforehand, my son (who’s 7) brought home the most amazingly sweet Mother’s Day card, filled with such charming sentiments as this (the teacher’s prompts are in bold, my son’s responses in plain text):

  • I like it when my Mom sings, it fills my heart with love.
  • I’d like to tell my Mom how much I love her, which is to much for me to explain.
  • My Mom has a pretty smile! I like to make her smile by saying “I’m sexy & I know it.”

Adorable, right? Funny and sincere and utterly tear-worthy. I wept. Which pleased him.

Then on Saturday, he had a sleepover at a friend’s house. I got to go see a movie and go out for a cocktail with my husband. They had squirt-gun fights and stayed up late.

And it’s that last thing that turned the whole of Mother’s Day on its ear. The boy was about five hours short of his usual sleep quota when he came home that morning. A good mother would recognize this and dial up her patience meter to 11. A perceptive but bad mother like me would recognize this but still fly off the handle when her 7-year-old son comes butt-naked into her home office, says he needs his ass wiped, and then proceeds to sit down on her office chair.

In his defense, he says, as I angrily wipe poop stains off my office chair, “you’ve never really taught me how to wipe. So it’s not my fault.”

Yeah. It all went downhill from there. An hour later, when my husband returned from church, we were both seething and Mother’s Day brunch wasn’t going to be happening.

* * *

It got better. Later.

But my point — in this first blog post — is this: motherhood is some seriously exhausting shit that will never completely wipe off of your office chair, no matter how much you scrub it and spray it with Febreze. There are profoundly redeeming qualities to being a parent, but those gorgeous moments we experience with our kids also come at great cost.

I’m done with pretending it’s all sweetness and light. It is bittersweet — a flavor that frankly is less cloying.