Essays & Shorts

Why do my children have to teach me such unpleasant things about myself?

A woman got on the bus with her two children, visibly flustered, and dragging her get behind her. They were sternly being told they had misbehaved in some way. “I never want to go anywhere with you ever again!” the mother finished.

I was sitting a few rows away and thought to myself, “When I have children, I will never speak to them like that!”

Then I had children.

On a midwinter’s morning, I was standing in line at the grocery store. My jacket was chafing, and I was sweating, my arm furiously rocking the pram because I was worried the baby would wake up. My three-year-old was under my feet, and I was nagging at her to stay still.

“Don’t you dare touch those chocolate bars! Don’t wake your sister! Would you just stay put!” I barked, one thing after the other. When I noticed the long looks the other customers were giving me, I realised what I sounded like.

They say that every child is born into this world to teach their parents something. I have three of the most adorable, loveable, perfect creatures, but why do they have to teach me such unpleasant things about myself?

Lesson One: I’m not as fun or as fair as I thought.

Before having children, I imagined myself a pretty fair and calm person. In my opinion, I had a sense of relativity. I could laugh at myself and I could put myself in someone else’s shoes. I only wish I was like that as a mother.

Especially in the evenings, I become a short-tempered hothead. I don’t want to be the mother that barks and snaps at her little ones constantly. Nonetheless, in a less than kind and gentle voice, I find myself saying, “That’s enough! Stop this nonsense now! Eat your supper or go to bed without any! I’m counting to three and then!”

Look at me! Teaching my children how to talk to people.

The first one was at a disadvantage because she didn’t have anyone to stand up for her. Someone to remind me of how little she was. Now, when I’m about to lose it with the youngest one, her big sisters intervene, “Mummy, don’t raise your voice. You said yourself that the baby can’t be yelled at.”

If there had only been someone to defend my firstborn like that! The brain of a child is incomplete. And as a reasonable adult, I know that temper tantrums are a part of growing up. That it’s my role to offer help and support to my children.

The problem, as per psychologists, is that this kind of interaction pulls my adult brain into reacting according to the lower level of development. I’m genuinely surprised when I find myself yelling at my kids like a lunatic.

Another reason I lose my temper is precisely because I love my children. The strongest emotions well up between myself and those I hold dearest. Neither of these explanations makes my nagging any more desirable, though.

If every cloud has a silver lining, maybe there is an upside to mummy losing her temper? My children learn that handling emotions is a skill that mum is far from perfect at. They learn you can correct unacceptable behaviour and that you can always apologise.

I’ve learned that it’s essential I gather myself in the situation. Calm myself so that I can apologise and explain that I got agitated, that it isn’t the end of the world to be upset, and show them there’s a way back from getting swept away in powerful emotions. And believe me, I have plenty to apologise for.

Lesson two: Humans learn from their mistakes. Mummy doesn’t.

When my kids mess up, I comfort them: “Next time you’ll do better! People learn from their mistakes!”

What utter nonsense! I myself repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again. One of my weaknesses is that I abhor being late. When I’m alone, there is no problem: I leave on time, I’m usually early, and everything goes swimmingly. With three children it’s an entirely different story. Getting trousers on, finding missing gloves, last-minute loo visits, the “Mummmyyyyy, my pant legs are funny!” Huff, huff. Chop, chop! Get a move on or else!

We once ran to the bus stop half a minute late and arrived as the bus was pulling away. My children burst into tears, “We missed it!” they cried in utter desperation. I was mortified that I had instilled my fear of being late in my children.

Yes, we missed the bus, but so what? We waited for fifteen minutes and caught the next one. The world didn’t end, and I vowed to better my ways. Which, of course, I didn’t.

I suppose I should focus more on what goes right rather than what goes wrong. Easier said than done. No matter how capable I am of change, controlling or changing my emotions seems next to impossible.

I hope I still learn something from these situations. Maybe I understand myself a little better so that I can work to avoid trigger situations in the future. Perhaps I can explain my behaviour to my children a bit better.

Do I always have to be so hard on myself, though? Like many of my overworked, underpaid and poorly slept peers, I’m very self-critical. How else would I show I care? Prove that I know I’m doing an inadequate job, but soldier on anyway? If I were a girl scout, my badge for feeling guilty would attest to others that at least I’m trying to be a better mother.

Lesson three: I play the noble educator even though I’m actually very shallow.

I have all sorts of principles. One of them is that my children must be allowed to chose their own clothes because I want them to wear the kind of clothes they like. At the same time, I wish my children would express the same refined taste in clothing that I have.

In my secret fantasy, my daughters wear wool coats with pretty little leather boots and adorable knitted hats. The reality is that my daughters are happy outdoor-types who spend most of their time climbing trees and sitting in muddy puddles. They wear sneakers or wellies and weatherproof clothing.

My firstborn wants to wear her uniform consisting of a t-shirt and leggings every day. The middle one expresses herself by wearing mismatched socks. Mismatched both in colour and pattern. And she’s surprisingly strict with her level of mix-and-match, scoffing at anything that doesn’t qualify as “rainbow” in her estimation. The youngest one loves skirts and typically wears five skirts all on top of each other.

I’d love to say that I’m okay with this. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Whenever I see children in beautiful wool coats and smart shoes, I feel envy and embarrassment.

Am I really this shallow? Yes. Precisely this shallow.

I say it’s complete nonsense that parenthood refines you. I find the opposite to be true: parenthood reveals the roughest side of you. Isn’t that the whole point? If I ever have grandchildren, I’ll buy them wool coats and smart leather boots.

Lesson four: Fairness? What fairness?

“I think these number threes get, on average, a more uniform level of service than their older siblings,” another mother once noted as we both had toddlers hanging from our pant legs.

I partially agree. I have a more relaxed attitude towards temper tantrums than I used to. Now, I understand how small a two-year-old really is – unlike with my firstborn. It’s far from fair, though. Sometimes I just foster my youngest to keep up appearances.

Last week my youngest left the dinner table in the middle of supper, with a sandwich, and threw herself on the living room floor to read a comic. I watched with a tilted head and a full heart at how sweet she looked .

 And then woke up to the fact that I had an audience. The big sisters, whom I would never in a million years have allowed in the living room with a sandwich, were sitting at the table waiting for me to discipline the little darling.

Let me tell you a secret: when there’s no one around to see, I let her run free and do as she pleases. Part of this relaxed parenting attitude is due to the sense of relativity that years of doing it has bestowed upon me. Now, I pick my battles and don’t let the little stuff bother me.

But in the name of honesty, the other part of it is a selfish desire for comfort. I would never have let my firstborn eat sugary treats while she was still a baby. My youngest learned to eat treats before she learned how to walk because biscuit crumbs buy me time to have a cup of coffee in peace.

I’m not saying I’m proud of this, I’m saying I just fail to do better. I’ve discovered that learning how to tolerate incompleteness is a central part of being a parent. You raise your firstborn differently than your youngest, but which way is the better?

You have to accept that you will never know for sure. You just can’t know, so you do the best you can at that moment. If you can get your everyday life to work, you’ve already won half the battle, and can give yourself a pat on the back. And buy yourself a well-earned break with some biscuit crumbs.

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