When I was a kid, my three siblings and I knew when we needed to leave our mom alone. Someone would get into a tangle with her, seemingly over something small and banal, and walk around the house warning the others—“Whoa, stay away from Mom.” We’d all lay low for a few hours, until the storm passed. At the time, I remember thinking, “What is up with her?”
And then I had kids. And now I think, “How did she not lose her shit every single day?”
It’s not like I have wild, uncontrollable children. People tell me my two daughters—Sophie, 7, and Juliette, 4—are a delight; that they listen well and do as they’re told, even if they aren’t always like this at home.
(By the way, someone once told me that how your kids behave for other adults is the best barometer of your parenting, and let me tell you, sometimes I cling to that.)
But there are moments when I. Just. Can’t.
When I’ve repeated the same instructions 4,000 times. When they’re so wound up that all of my tried-and-true, kid-wrangling tactics fail. When things are happening in my own personal and professional life and I don’t have the ability to deal with another temper tantrum. When I’m drowning in cortisol without a life preserver. Those are the times I picture myself stuck in an old-timey cartoon, one in which I’m the stick of dynamite with a lit fuse.
I recently found myself in that place—on the verge of a complete mom meltdown, that is—at pickup in the elementary school parking lot. I had been in endless meetings all day, with no break for lunch, and my nerves were quickly fraying. But it was a beautiful afternoon, so even though the kids knew we had to rush home to get ready for that night’s extracurricular activities, they dropped their knapsacks at my feet the minute they saw me, and took off running. No “Hi, Mom!” or, “Can we please play for a few minutes?” And definitely no “Can you please carry my backpack?” But I didn’t even have a chance to call them back to correct them before they started fighting. And then I watched as the little one smacked the big one.
I want to say I didn’t stamp my foot, but I’m pretty sure I did.
“Get back here NOW!” I screamed across the playground, hands on hips. “RIGHT THIS SECOND!”
My girls both stopped dead in their tracks, turned and looked at me—and so did all of the other students and teachers loading the nearby school buses. Then Sophie called out, exasperated, “What is it, Mom?” (Sassy seven-year-old, party of one.) And that was it. I’d had it.
“You need to pick your bags up and MARCH to the car. Immediately,” I said loudly, pointing at the pavement in front of me.
And then, transitioning from Hollering Across the Yard Mom to Scarily Quiet Mom, which is way more terrifying, I hissed, “And do not even THINK about arguing with me about ANYTHING from now until bedtime.” (Which was hours away, and not at all realistic, and I knew it, but I was not in a place to be reasonable at that point.)
The girls quietly walked to the car, buckled their belts and sat in silence for the ride home. Then they went inside the house, unpacked their school bags and quietly coloured while I hid in my office and cried.
I’m not entirely sure why I was crying, to be honest. Yes, I’d disciplined my kids in front of a lot of people, and I was both ashamed and regretful of how I’d acted. (I did, eventually, apologize to the girls for embarrassing them.) It was not my finest parenting moment; I definitely could have been calmer and cooler under the circumstances. But at the end of a very long day, in what is also proving to be a very long year, I just had no capacity left. As a parent, I can usually roll with many, many punches, and I generally consider myself pretty easy-going, but this time, the overwhelming stress really got to me.
Looking back on my meltdown, I think I’ve decided that it’s OK to be overwhelmed—and to show it. Everyone loses it a little, from time to time. (And I maintain that we all need a moment to shut the door on the world and work through all the crap that comes with parenting and adulting.)
I’m sure my girls will eventually do what my siblings and I did and forewarn each other when “Mommy’s in a mood,” and that’s fine. Because eventually they will also come to the same realization as I have: Moms and dads have limited bandwidth, and sometimes bandwidth and parenting don’t match up. It’s in those moments that we yell across the school parking lot, or the grocery store, or at that birthday party, sure. But is that such a bad lesson for our littles to learn? That there is a limit to our patience? No.
Because someday, they’ll be in the same boat, and they’ll know it doesn’t make them a bad parent either. It just makes them human.