The Kids Are Broken...and It's Only 11 am
a flashback to the early years of parenting and how I muddled through
Recently my kids unearthed a video from the archives of my phone (where dwell countless unbacked-up photos of my life). “Mom, what is this?” they asked, horrified at what they found.
In the video, consisting of 26 seconds, my oldest, four years old at the time, is crying uncontrollably, a cry that is part moan, part whine, and 100% grating on your nerves. She is coming towards me with her hands outstretched like she wants me to pick her up. It is unclear what the problem is. (For those who want to subject themselves to these potentially triggering noises, I have included the audio below). My youngest, two years old, is in her eating chair. She is strapped in and cannot move but evidently is too far from the table. “Scoot me in!” she demands at the top of her lungs, as her older sister clings to my legs, still wanting to be picked up. Because I do not immediately push her in, she too starts crying as she thrashes about in her chair. Life is so, so very hard.
In the video, which I presumably sent to my husband, I narrate in a voice of calm bewilderment: “They’re falling apart. They're broken. They’re crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason. I just wanted to let you know that they’re broken. They’re broken.” Then the video cuts off. It was taken at 11:30 am.
Oh my gosh, my kids and I laughed as we watched the video over and over, in awe of how utterly ridiculous they were being. They didn’t remember being terrors like that. And they didn’t mean to push me to the brink. It was 11:30. That means it was lunchtime (why my youngest was strapped into her seat) so they were hungry. I too fall apart when I am hungry. But also, it was 11:30. I had six or seven hours until my husband would get home to relieve me of my duties (or at least start to share them). I was clearly at my wits end, with no recourse. Yes, maybe, one of them would take a nap after lunch, though I seem to remember that my youngest refused to nap after she turned two, probably because she knew her older sister was somewhere in the house NOT having to nap and she refused the nap out of spite and comparison and because it wasn’t fair!
Man. Those twenty six seconds reminded me that those years were brutal.
I am so glad to have those years behind me. My children are nine and eleven now. We can watch shows like “Modern Family,” “Gilmore Girls” and “The Office.” No longer does the “Sofia the First” soundtrack play on repeat in my car (plus my car no longer has a CD player). They can pretty much put themselves to bed, though I still do a nightly tuck in and goodnight kiss.
But those years when they were little, before anyone went to school of any kind, were a very long slog.
Here were the things that kept me sane:
Story time at the library. This was free! Someone else entertained them for a while and then we would stay and check out books and play with the probably germ infested blocks the library provided in the children’s area.
My Gym! Oh my gosh, we spent so much time at the local My Gym (just a short walk from our house ) when they were little. I enrolled them in the “siblings” class once a week so they both could go at the same time and while they often wanted me to watch them as they jumped on the trampoline or climbed a wall or danced in the bubbles, I didn’t have to be on. I was no longer the provider of the entertainment. Later, we took them to Parents Night Out where they served pizza and played a movie while my husband and I ducked out for a quick dinner at a restaurant nearby.
The park! So many hours at the park. Making friends with other moms on the sidelines. Letting them tire themselves out until we’d go home for an early dinner.
But between all those sanity saving endeavors were days when there was nowhere to go. No class, or playdate, the day rainy or the schedule constantly shifting meaning I couldn’t quite get them packed up to go to the park between meals and snacks and naps. Days that felt endless. Days that I felt done and it wasn’t even noon.
Recently I’ve been learning about Internal Family Systems or IFS, created by Richard Schwartz. We Can Do Hard Things just had a primer course on it thanks to Dr. Becky. I have learned that one of my most dominant parts (i.e. one who is often in the driver's seat) is who I call my soldier. This is the part of me that feels like I have to keep going, to soldier on, keep my head down focused on the ground in front of me, trudging along, continuing to make progress. When my soldier is online, I don’t have time to feel. I have blinders on so that I stay focused on the road ahead of me. I am disconnected from my emotions so that I am not distracted, so that I can turn into a person made of armor, all hard edges, no give, but able to withstand the torment. My soldier often partners with my productive one (a part of me that is so so so dominant I cannot even tell you!). Look at all I am doing, as I feed the children, and tidy the house. As they nap I work, and when they wake I’m available to them. I read, I snuggle, I offer myself readily. My life is an endless parade of endless tasks that I do over and over and over again.
I understand now why I was so absent to myself during the years that my children were little. I had brought my soldier online and she was getting shit done. A soldier does the task asked of them, takes orders, does not disobey, but is diligent in their servitude. If a soldier questions their role, or why they are being asked to do all of this, what happens? The whole system breaks down. There can be no insubordination or everything falls apart.
Now, I’m not entirely sure who my commanding officer is in this scenario. It wasn’t my husband. Perhaps it was my inner patriarchy or the part of me that had conceptualized what it means to be a good mother or the culture that told me that this was the job and if I didn’t like it, why had I chosen to have kids in the first place? But either way, I felt like I had to just keep doing the job. There was no agency. I had signed up for this. I had to just keep going. (To read more about my thoughts about this brainwashing read this or this or this.)
My soldier still shows up even though I’m not in the trenches of early motherhood (see the analogies we use are even war-based!). She comes online when I have a lot to do and I’m feeling overwhelmed. She steps in and says: I’ve got this. She does not ask for help. If you offer it, she will say no. She has a job to do and she was trained to do it. Carry on. All is fine here.
I’ve tried to become more aware of her now. She has served me well in many ways. She is protective, she is productive, she is loyal and she gets shit done. But she also forces me to abandon myself in service of others. And I am trying to stop doing that. (More writing about that here).
“I find your negativity very troubling, Frida. There is no can’t….Take can’t out of your vocabulary. A good mother can do anything.”
The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan
Recently I was going through a time when I needed her. And I let her do her job. But I also recognized what she was doing and that I wasn’t going to let her drive the bus indefinitely. At some point, it would be time to thank her and let her sit down and rest. At some point, it would be time to feel the emotions that she had kept at bay to stay productive. At some point, I would want to disarmour myself so that I could let others in.
I’m not really sure how you get through motherhood without become a soldier of some sort. Our society still refuses to step in in any real way with paid family leave or subsidized child care or even ensuring enough food to feed our babies. So instead, we mothers do the impossible tasks asked of us. We fall in line and perform our duties and keep ourselves sane with the mantra that it won’t always be like this. And it won’t. It gets better. But I just wish there was another way. I wish that we did not have to soldier on. I wish there was a solution for the days when the kids are broken before it is even noon.
This beautiful reflection on the invisibility of care by Courtney Martin.
Where’d I Go?: A Lift-the-Flap Book for Moms by Raquel Kelly.
For comic relief: A Few Math Problems for Mothers by Kate Tellers. The New Yorker.
Open Wide from Evil Witches by Claire Zulkey. I really appreciated this advice and solidarity as some of my worst moments of motherhood come from dentist appointments and shots.
Everyone’s still talking about “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” See here, and here, and here.
I just celebrated my 43rd birthday! To help me celebrate, please consider becoming a paid subscriber of this newsletter.