Of course I have loved my children since the moment of their birth. When Celeste made me a mother, I loved her at once just for having all that hair, for those red lips, for that solid scream so unquestionably healthy. She was disturbingly gifted even as a newborn. But from the start, her temperament was more than a bit unrecognizable to me. I hadn’t planned it that way: I had planned to have a low key child. I was fearless about entering motherhood and I thought that fearlessness would grant me a carefree and laid back infant. Celeste has never been carefree or laid back. And yet in many ways she has allowed me to be: I could trust her around fire, knives, high places, to leave my sight and then return to it without being called. She is careful and sensitive. We often associate sensitivity with children who are demure, shy and quiet. Celeste, on the other hand, is confident and loud about her sensitivity: she fully expects the world to bend to her delicate whims. And the world is often willing. I am always stunned by her sheer power. But I’ve had plenty of days when that intensity has seemed insurmountable, exhausting, deafening. And yet of course I have loved her.
When Rosa Maeve was born, I was worried she was too small in every way: seven pounds seemed breakable compared to the near ten pound baby that Celeste had been at birth. A second daughter- would Celeste eat her alive, would Rosa ever have a chance? Ah, but Rosa isn’t so small after all: like the Fey folk, her bigness is in heart and humor. There was something in Rosa that was recognizable to me from the moment I saw her. Rosa Maeve is dark-eyed, warm, industrious and amicable. She has survived being the second-born, the baby surrounded by noise and yelling and stress. Rosa is bronze. Celeste may be a towering image in our household and yet she can be knocked down by the touch of a feather. Then, whenever she is done enacting her beautiful tragedy, Celeste still has to rest and recover from it like an old fashioned movie star. In the meantime, Rosa has procured a snack for herself from the kitchen and is on to the next thing. She has great survival instincts. In fact, Destiny’s Child should just reissue the Survivor video with a series of clips of Rosa getting knocked over, screamed at by her older sister and getting back up every time. Rosa is scrappy and content. Of course, she is equally as demanding as Celeste, a fact I may just have to accept as part of their natural inheritance with me as their mother.
And so as you can see, I love my children. I could bore you by going on about my daughters; you would rightfully be bored because you could never fully share in that love. I love them so deeply that I even like the smell of their morning breath. And my love for them is an unending call to arms.
And still, even with all that love firmly in place, more love will always be necessary. On the hardest days, more love would have to be found. And apart from loving them, I would also have to grow to like them and to like being with them.
You see, I’ve had to examine some of my unconscious assumptions about motherhood. I stress the word unconscious here: bringing these assumptions to light has taken a great deal of self-awareness and a willingness to see the unpretty in myself. These thoughts were never intentionally formed, they never reverberated in my mind. And yet I came to notice that they formed the root structure for a variety of what I would now label negative habits.
I always felt called to be a mother and assumed it would come naturally to me since I had spent much of my childhood mothering other beings, including my peers and my younger siblings and cousins. I felt it only natural that I would be granted children, healthy and beautiful children at that, because I was very obviously entitled to them. Fertility issues were unknown among the women in my family. My husband and I were young and strong, so children were simply guaranteed to us. They were not a gift given from some outside plane but rather a sure-fire entitlement of our own making. Tim and I had only ourselves to congratulate for a job well done. Yes, I was entitled to however many children I decided to have (or not have) and they would become a lovely extension of my identity, enriching my own sense of self with their existence, their ability to reflect my particular gifts and quirks. I would easily pass onto them my moral and cultural values and they would be obliging and receptive containers for my overflowing, ever-blossoming personhood. Yes, they would over time become full persons in their own right, but they would maintain that lifeline to me, me, me, me, me, me. Without being conscious of it, I evidently envisioned myself as some sort of uppity mother from a bygone era: a mother painted in the center of a giant gilded frame, smiling eternally with just a bit of smugness, as each additional child was painted next to me in their finest dress, along with a couple of royally bred hounds and maybe a pheasant or some other wild game hanging in the background.
There are so many layers of bullshit to unpack in the above paragraph that it is difficult to know where to begin. As you may have assumed, there is no gilded frame. I do have a soul and I am fully aware that my children don’t exist as beautiful accessories to my life. Their job is not to stand at my side like decorations frozen in time, forever well-mannered, clean, impressive. Their job is not merely to receive whatever good teachings I hope to pass to them. I know this. And yet I frequently react or operate as if I do not know it. I regularly wish my children to be very unlike children. Actually, I regularly wish them to be small and tidy thrifting companions. After thrifting, they could sip tiny cups of tea and read tiny books next to me on the couch, perhaps saying things like, “Mother, weren’t you clever to find such a handsome frock at the Goodwill today!” or “Mother, shall I retire to my chamber for a nap?” or “You tell only the most splendid jokes, Mother, if that cashier didn’t laugh it was only because he was a simpleton!”
Loving my children is cake. Liking them can be more of a task- and it is generally a task known only to whichever parent spends the majority of her/his time with the children. Because while my husband lights up to see our girls at the end of his work day, I can’t conjure that same light in myself because somebody already peed on it or spilled jelly all over it or zapped it by singing at the top of their lungs for hours.
I have young children (17 months and 3.5 years old) and they are my constant companions. My days would surely pass more sweetly if I could enjoy my kids, delight in them, like them in the very same way that I like my closest of friends. And I know the rhetoric, I know this is a “season” and that my children will only become increasingly likable as they age and gain the ability to tend to their own emotions and bodies. I know this too shall pass and yet this is where I am today. I have to do this again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Knowing that I have to do this for many more days until my girls develop self-sufficiency, I believe it would be admirable for me to try. To try, that is, liking my children as much as I can. My favorite mothers to be around are the ones that not only love but genuinely like their children. (Not to be confused with those freaks who rabidly brag about their kids. Omg, worst. Escape from those ghouls post-haste! Seriously, wear a chain of garlic around your neck if you must.)
So what does liking my children look like? Well, for me it means being careful not to fall into default foul moods simply because something somewhat foul has occurred. Small kids do foul things. Small kids are annoying and gross, its okay to admit that. In fact, it would be healthy for me to acknowledge that my kids are probably going to do something annoying or gross today and to challenge myself to a speedy recovery from that annoying or gross moment whenever it happens. For me, learning to like being with my children means putting a cork in the whine and doing my best not to complain about my kids or my circumstances. It basically has everything to do with avoiding slipping into patterns of irritability that are conditioned and easy.
This past Lent, I figured I should try to give up some things. I failed in giving up all the things I intended to sacrifice from my daily life (grains, sugar, anything delicious). I failed at all except one of my Lenten promises. I successfully gave up being a bitch for Lent. Don’t get me wrong- it’s not like my bitchiness was entirely out of hand or that I had earned a reputation for being a bitch in the public sphere. Actually I think I have a good track record for being fun and nice in that arena. No, instead I’m the type that is bitchy in the safe zone: I’m not bitchy to friends or strangers but I am needlessly bitchy to my husband and kids. “Thanks for all that unconditional love, honey, now I feel completely safe letting my bitchiest self roam free through the corridors of our home!” It’s really like a super power to be so bitchy out of the clear blue, I’m not even sure how I do it. Did someone eat ALL THE BUTTER? Bitchtime. We are running late to Mass again? Bitchtime. Oh, is someone daring to touch me right now? Bitchtime. My particular brand of bitchiness involves a great deal of impatience, lots of curt responses, a tendency to overact to minor offenses, and a generally dramatic performance in which I star as the most overwhelmed mother on Earth.
Liking my children comes a whole lot easier when these default patterns are noticed and avoided. It takes a lot of practice and the practice is ongoing- I haven’t mastered it yet. Sometimes it takes all the maturity I can muster to refrain from being a bitch to my family. And yeah, I will wholeheartedly admit that on occasion being a bitch can be a very useful tool. A chainsaw is also a useful tool but it is not one that I need to carry with me all the time. That shits heavy.
The remedy for my bitchiness brings us right back to those not-so-flattering beliefs I shared about entitlement. When I stopped seeing myself as entitled to everything, entitled to these little souls entrusted to me, entitled to a kind and loving husband, entitled to a tin roof over my head that makes the most romantic sound when it rains, I started to experience a shift in my outlook that allowed me to be a whole lot nicer to myself and to my family. When I practiced believing that my children and husband and messy home were all gifts that had indeed been given to me by a force that I would call God (you can call it whatever you like), I was able to chill out and say thank you. I’ve written before on this blog that even if faith is a huge farce, the habits of faith could never do anything but enrich one’s life. The habit of gratitude has been lost on the younger generations that haven’t had to sweat very hard for our lot in life. We have to really work at it, we have to work at it just as hard as we work on all those Pinterest plank challenges. I personally have to work at being grateful every day. But when I pull it off, when I manage to hold to the belief that I am blessed to have these little sticky, shouting beings in my care, that belief can carry me through an afternoon that feels like Hell. And no, it doesn’t mean that I am surrounded by chaos and forcing a smile. It means that even when I lose my patience, even if I have a day that makes me yell or cry, even if I find my children extremely unlikeable on that particular Hellish afternoon, I can still finish that day with the smallest prayer: thank you. Thank God I have you because yes, I really, really like you.