My sister-in-law hates Chiff Chaffs. These little migratory birds arrive in the UK in April or May, perching in the tops of trees, calling out a repetitive CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF sound that seems to go on and on. She says that the call is incessantly annoying. I’d never thought of it that way: to me it’s a welcome sign of spring, and I delight when I hear my first Chiff Chaff of the year. It makes me feel as though all is right with the world: in spite of everything that’s happened in the year, the migrants have returned. The Earth continues to turn. It’s reassuring.
A few days ago I was gardening, trying to eradicate those ferocious weeds that grow up between the pavers behind the house. It’s hot, unhappy work. Glancing up to draw the back of my hand across my forehead, I saw the children playing with the running hosepipe. It was fun water play. I turned my back, and when I turned again and walked toward the house I saw something that made me drop everything and run. The hose had been trailed in through the back door and water was running all over the kitchen.
Throwing down my hoe and dashing to the flood, I called for towels. Mopping it up I shouted for the children, asking them in turn who’d brought the hosepipe into the house. It was the usual culprits, Not Me and I Didn’t.
I used every towel in the house to soak up that water. I stood at the sink, wringing them out with shaking hands. I felt cross that there was no one to blame. I wanted to shout at someone, to make them clean it up, to teach them a lesson! I got all my anger out on those towels, and threw them into the washing machine, slamming the door.
It is a hard truth to swallow but I admit that I simply wanted to blame someone because I was mad. I wasn’t thinking about grasping that teaching moment. At that point discipline equalled punishment, not teaching. No. I was in a rage. Dinner was ready, now growing cold. In my mind I was the victim: I’d been interrupted yet again by someone being inconsiderate. I was on my hands and knees, cleaning up yet another mess that I didn’t create. No one helped. No one said sorry. No one even cares, I told myself. In self-pity and desperation, the hot tears sprang to my eyes as I silently screamed, “This is not why I was put on this earth!”
Prior to becoming a mother I had little idea of how much control over my life I would have to release. I cannot just decide to weed the garden then walk calmly indoors to serve dinner. Maybe some mothers’ lives are like that, but in the whirlwind of chaos that is mine, no such reality exists. An interruption like a flood is the norm.
And yet it still makes me angry. I still sometimes feel trapped. I still wallow in victim-hood and wonder why the stars are crossed against me. I still keep my hands clenched tightly on the idea that I can be in control and in charge, and when I’m not, the anger follows.
The flood scenario is not unique. In the past two weeks my toddler has peed in several shoes (not his own, notably), poured oats all over the floor, overflowed the bathroom sink, spread toothpaste on the floor, drawn on the new hall wallpaper and climbed on the kitchen countertops to reach inside the cupboards for whatever goodies he could find. His curious little fingers unravel my knitting when I’m not looking, rip up pages of newspapers I haven’t read yet, dip into the butter dish to scoop out a blob then make a bee-line to his mouth then his hair (his wiping surface of choice). He spends most of his time wearing a monkey suit and wellies, and the outfit is appropriate to his busy, cheeky nature.
It’s a blessing that my hair is less than 1cm in length, or I’d be pulling it out when I grasp it and tug in frustration several times a day.
This week my husband and I were discussing all of the extra jobs this little one creates for us. We’ve been feeling cross that we’ve had so much to do. What little free time we have is spent tidying up whatever mayhem he’s created. But my memory is long, and I can remember that my other children were like this, and they eventually grew out of it. I can’t be too angry for too long at this small person, for part of the reason he does these things is due to my own (inevitable) inability to give every child all of the attention s/he needs every day. So while I’m doing his sister’s hair, he scrawls across the wall. When I’m helping the other with her violin practice, he’s busy emptying the marble box across the floor. It’s curiosity, it’s attention-seeking, it’s experimentation. Others might call him naughty. But I, as his mother, see these behaviours as attempts to communicate. I know his motivations and I see his potential. I stroke his chin and know one day there will be stubble. I hold his hand and know that soon it will be larger than mine. I look down to him and know that one day I will be looking up to him. And inside, his goodness, his essence, is unchanging.
I’ve been wondering if it’s a bit like my sister-in-law and those Chiff Chaffs. One person’s annoyance is another person’s sign of spring. Maybe these ‘extra jobs’ we have to do because of our youngest child’s curiosity are actually just The Work of Parenting. Parenting’s not just about reading bedtime stories and sharing butterfly kisses. The Work of Parenting includes cleaning up flooded kitchen floors, scraping concrete-like dried Weetabix off the table, waiting while a little one chatters away on a café toilet while your coffee is getting cold. The Work of Parenting is moderating the arguments of older children, putting a load of laundry in several times a day only to have the clothes soiled within minutes, packing lunches that hardly get eaten. The Work of Parenting is sewing up holes in a monkey suit while the three year old is still wearing it. The Work of Parenting is shining a torch down a child’s throat so you can see where it’s sore, just because she wants you to. The Work of Parenting is holding the sick bowl and rubbing a small child’s back in the middle of the night. The Work of Parenting is mopping up flooded kitchen floors.
It’s not always wonderful. It’s not always fun. For me, how I choose to respond to it makes all the difference. I could see all these things as annoyances like the Chiff Chaff or I could see them as just The Work of Parenting. Another sign that all is right with the world. I might even allow myself to be reassured. The Earth continues to turn.
Words and photos ©Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.