I knew something was up when I could hear water rushing upstairs. I wondered whether Aidan had turned on the taps in the bathtub, and at worst, I thought I would have to go upstairs to turn them off and bring him downstairs. What did I find? He’d managed to plug the sink with a towel, turn both taps on full and overflow the sink. Water flowed over the sides, down to the floor, and the flood had nearly reached the hall carpet. Quickly! Turn off those taps. Quickly! Out comes every bath towel to mop up the water. Quickly! Close the door before every child comes running to see what the commotion is all about and we all get wet.
In one of my earliest memories I am a two year old flushing a cloth diaper down the toilet. My mother had put it there to soak, and thinking that I was being helpful, I flushed it. I can remember standing in front of the toilet as water flowed over the sides, down to the floor and towards the hall carpet. I can remember the shock and wondering, “does this happen when mommy does it?”
Today I wonder, in nearly 40 years will Aidan remember flooding the bathroom one Thursday morning? What will he remember from his childhood?
Like many mothers, I fear that my children will grow up mainly remembering the times when I have been truly incompetent at being a mother. Will they mostly remember how I have shouted, said the first vitriolic words that have come into my head, the times when I have been unjust, when I haven’t listened to them or treated them with respect? What will they make of my parenting failures? Have I doomed my children to hours and hours on a therapist’s couch because I am not the mother I wish I could be? Will they hold it against me?
When I was in the depths of postnatal depression I can remember thinking that I had no positive memories of my own childhood. But as I emerged from that depression and found myself again, I began to pick up those good memories like little beads from a broken necklace. The time when my dad taught me how to ride a bike, running alongside me in his jogging clothes, massive afro and headband… the water balloon fights I had with my cousins (filling them with shaving foam was an ingenious innovation)… making cookies for Christmas with my mother… standing at my mother’s bedside as a toddler and watching her sleep, then her stirring and lifting up the covers so I could get in too…
When I was depressed I grieved for those happy memories and couldn’t understand why I was unable to access them. Did they not exist? Or was the depression a wall that had been built between me and my former happiness? Finding those memories was one of the first signs that I was well again.
Today I hold in my hand that fear of giving my children bad memories and I look at it carefully. I ask myself whether most other people have good and bad memories of childhood. What purpose could those bad memories possibly serve? My mother and father made plenty of mistakes, but rather than being irreparably harmed by them, I feel I have learned from them. Like me, my parents are human. Like me, they struggled with parenting. Like me, sometimes their anger got the better of them. Like me, they were under pressure to provide a home, food, clothing and education for their children. Like me, they loved their children and tried to do what was best for them. Like me, they made mistakes.
Making mistakes is not unforgivable. It is human.
When my children are grown, I hope they will remember looking up at me in the dark when they nursed and seeing the love in my eyes before we dropped off to sleep together. I hope they will remember how I rocked them to sleep in tired arms and sang them songs when they could do nothing but cry. I hope they will remember the touch of my hand on their cheeks, or as I stroked their hair, or as I held their soft little hands as we crossed the road. I hope they will remember me saying yes, stopping what I was doing, and turning to give them my full attention. I hope they will remember days on the beach, walks in the woods, snuggling up together in a bedraggled tent on a wet and windy campsite. I hope they will remember games of Uno and Scrabble, long car journeys playing I Spy and My Father Owns a Grocery Store, planting seeds in the garden, picking strawberries together. I hope they will remember family meals, birthday cakes, my face in a crowd of parents with tears in my eyes I watched them perform. I hope they will remember my fierce embrace when they were threatened, the soothing, enveloping pressure of my arms around them when they have been frightened, the sensation of my nose pressing against the top of their heads to smell their smell just one more time. I hope they will remember the times I have listened, when I have been the only one to understand, when I have forgiven them and moved on. I hope they will remember how I have loved them not in spite of everything but because of everything. How I loved them totally, completely for who they were, who they are and who they will be. And perhaps when they have their own children they will know that this is a love that has no beginning and no end. I was awakened to it when the idea of them came into my head, but the love was always there, ready for the taking. In being born they seized it and made it their own, and no matter what they do or say, nothing can ever nullify this everlasting love.
When I think that this is the way that my parents love me, I am humbled and awestruck.
And when (not if) my children remember my mistakes, I hope they will accept me for the fallible human being that I am: fallible, yet full of love for them. Ready to admit that I was wrong, ready to say sorry. I reach out to myself in compassion and empathy, and hope my efforts to reach that authentic place inside me will give my children permission to make mistakes with their own children without beating themselves up about it. They will know that love is more powerful than the little parenting blunders they make each day. And I pray that they will forgive me, but more importantly, when it happens to them, that they will forgive themselves. In this way, the fear I hold in my hand is transformed into an imperfect gift that I offer to them in humility and love.
Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons.