How delightful it would be for everybody to be happy, all at once. In my mind’s eye I see each person content with what they have and what they are doing. And there I am at the centre of this peaceful dream, resting in the comforting thought that each person’s needs has been satisfied. I might even run my white-gloved finger across a surface of my home and smile in smug satisfaction that it is clean. (By the way, my hair looks nice too.)
I rouse myself from those daydreams and find that I am surrounded by children’s magazines, a partially-constructed telescope, a box of pencils with broken tips, a tiny plastic Bart Simpson riding a skateboard and a pirate cutlass constructed from cardboard and foil. I don’t bother with the white glove test. My hair? Let’s pretend I didn’t mention it. I look around me and wonder how to begin this day.
It is 6.30am. The challenges of the morning have left me sitting in my dressing gown and slippers, soiled apron tied over it, with my head in my hands. I think, “How did I ever think that I was up to this task?” I wonder when the intensity of parenting will abate. I wonder whether I will welcome that moment or recoil from it, when it comes.
In this moment I feel swept away by the spinning vortex that is family life. Surveying the chaos, I tune in to the sounds of the seven year old yelling angrily at her sister… the 10 year old bursting into sensitive tears and retreating up the stairs with wounded stomps… the three year old complaining that he doesn’t want the breakfast he has, and can he have something else…. They all want something: they come charging into the kitchen as I sit at the table in my semi-catatonic state and demand audience with me. Each child, filled with a sense of righteous indignation, anger, hurt, sadness, attention, need, each of these people expects me to do something for them.
Some days I want to plead, “Don’t you realise that I’m really not very good at this? Please go find someone who can do this better than me!” But I know that I am choosing every day to be a mother, to meet those needs and to draw deeply from my own internal resources to keep at it, even when I feel that I can do no more. Some days parenting is so hard.
I think many mothers wish that they could meet every one of her children’s needs, all at once. We ask, how can I help one with her violin practice, while also reading to the younger child? How can I make breakfast for the family when one of the children needs her hair put up in braids? How can I sit down to nurse my baby when I need to get my older children to school/sports practice/music lessons? How can I earn enough money to support my family and still give my children the time and attention they need?
Just this week, my eldest daughter (who is home educated) was inventing a cookie recipe for her baking project. “Could you please write down the method as I work, so I don’t forget anything?” And as her mentor on this learning journey, of course my answer is, “Yes, I will.” But like a whack-a-mole, the three year old keeps popping up:
“Muuuuummmmmy, please read me this boooook.”
“NO Muuuuuuummmmmy, not THAT booooook.”
“Muuuuuummmmmy, push me on the swing.”
“Muuuuuuuummmmy, can I have a snack?”
“Noooo, not THAT snack!”
Then, he sees that she is making cookies and the litany begins: “IWANTSOMEDOUGHIWANTSOMEDOUGHIWANTSOMEDOUGHIWANTSOMEDOUGH” (regardless of the dough he already has in his hand).
(I am calling this his Eeyore phase.)
So, in the end, I abandon my attempt to help my daughter, and take the three year old into the other room to give him what he clearly needs: attention. Later, I apologise to the 10 year old, but she is understanding and says that it all worked out fine anyway. But to me, it didn’t work out fine. I wanted to be there for her, and instead, someone else’s need took precedence. Yes, I gave her a quiet space in which to work by removing her brother, but I wasn’t able to help her as she needed.
Every day there is this balancing of needs. One child needs to be collected from school, so no, I cannot let you read one more chapter (bring the book with you!). Another child needs his bottom wiped, so no, I cannot get you a glass of water (you will need to fill your cup yourself). A third child has broken a glass jar on the floor, so no, I cannot carry on reading you this book as I have to go make the kitchen safe again (just look at the pictures for a while!).
Family life is full of these compromises. And in spite of my thoughts (“I’m not up to this! Their demands are too much! How did I get myself into this situation! HELP!”), as I write these words, it hits me like an epiphany…
In my inability to meet their every need, my children receive one of the greatest gifts I could hope to give them: an invitation toward independence.
No, I cannot do everything for them. But should I? That image of everyone’s needs being met: it’s an illusion. I can’t achieve it. That pipedream has only become yet another stick with which to beat myself.
We can all have our needs met, but it’s not necessarily my job. When I am unable to meet my children’s needs, when I can’t do for them what they request, I leave a void, and in this void they have the opportunity try to meet their own needs. They discover their own capabilities and they learn about compromise.
They find out:
I can reach the tap myself now and fill my own cup.
I can tie my own shoelaces.
I can wipe my own bottom.
I can put my hair up in a ponytail myself.
I can make my own breakfast.
As they get older, they can do more and more. They become independent. And instead of asking me to do it for them, they say, “Mummy look what I can do!”
Maybe I can get one of them to do something with my hair.
Words and photographs © Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.