I yelled at my daughter today. I mean, I really yelled.
Generally speaking, I am a pretty gentle disciplinarian and it takes a lot for me to lose my cool. I believe in talking to my kids and being affectionate and loving with them, even when I'm seething. I do this because I want to build trust, not instill fear, and luckily it has worked well for our family so far.
It's really not a big deal that this morning I had to be somewhere smack in the middle of when we're usually taking the girls to their schools. That happens. But instead of asking Johnny to handle the kids by himself like I usually do when I have an early morning obligation, I tried to figure out exactly who had to be where by when so that I could do absolutely everything. I planned it down to the minute. Looking back, it was pretty unrealistic of me to think that we'd be able to make that work. Especially since we got up at the same time as usual, drank our coffee sitting around the table like usual, had the same amount of breakfasts and lunches to prepare as usual, and so on. I know, I know, there are a million things I could have done differently or prepared the night before. But we didn't do them. I didn't plan well. I wanted to do it all and be perfect at it.
When we were finally ready, we were already late. And if I hate when my kids are late for school, I hate even more when I'm late for an appointment or a meeting. So we were scrambling and I was stressed. I was grabbing things I needed but hadn't yet packed: keys, phone, earbuds. Oh wait, I need my water bottle. Okay I'm ready. Let's go. Oh, wait, I forgot my wallet too. And oy, my hair! Just one second. And so on. Johnny was tapping his foot and rolling his eyes at me, and Freyja was beckoning me to the doorway, murmuring "Mama, come!" And in the middle of this, Bee announced "Mama, I'm not comfortable in this outfit." Again.
The first time she said this, about fifteen minutes earlier, both Johnny and I had tried to reassure her that she looked great. I'd launched into my almost-daily speech about how she's beautiful no matter what she's wearing. I usually joke that she could wear a towel or a paper bag and still be beautiful and she usually laughs and says "What about if I wore my pajamas? Or one of Daddy's t-shirts?" and we get sillier and sillier, collapsing into giggles. Not today. She had been wearing a pink hand-me-down tennis dress and I had thought she was as cute as a button. More importantly for me at that moment, she had been dressed and ready to go. The end. But before I had even replied, she was in her underwear again. She had been very specific that she wanted to wear her blue tank top. The only trouble is that she doesn't own a blue tank top. So we had gone through everything in her shirt drawer and I had pulled out a few alternatives. She had selected a striped tank and had been happy with that and the shorts I'd grabbed to go with it. Then as I was collecting my keys and phone and wallet and water bottle, discombobulated and rushed, I noticed her standing there, staring at me. "Mama, I'm not comfortable in this outfit either. I want to wear the other tank top." I sighed. And then, even though I knew better, I said the worst thing I could possibly say in this situation. "Bee, we don't have time. Can't you just wear it tomorrow?"
Bee crumpled, sobbing hysterically. Any hope of making my appointment on time was gone, but it didn't matter. I had made my baby cry. I knelt and hugged her. "Bee, I'm sorry," I said. "I love you and I should not have talked to you that way. Let's go change." She took my hand and in five minutes it was over and we were in the car, on our way.
She was all smiles until she asked why we weren't doing what we planned. She didn't understand why she was going to school first instead of dropping me at my appointment. "Remember when I got really upset because you wanted to change your clothes again?" I reminded her gently. She nodded. "Well, I got really mad not because of you but because we were late and I didn't want to miss the appointment. Changing your clothes again took time I didn't want to take, and now I'm not going to my appointment because I'm too late for it." Her eyes got big and she nodded again. "Ohhhh," she said in a soft voice. "I'm sorry, Mama." I blew her a kiss and told her everything was fine. She smiled and said "You're my best Mama. I love you." And it was over.
I realize Bee's behavior isn't all about me and my horrible influence. I really do get that she's four and a half and that this sort of thing is more or less age appropriate behavior. I have heard stories about four-year-olds who wear the same Batman shirt every day for months despite their parents' protests, only to wake up one morning and fling it across the room, refusing to wear it ever again. Bee has been dressing herself for months and when I worry that she doesn't match or look well put together, I remember all the kids in her classroom I see in all kinds of crazily put together outfits every day. When I come home from work, she's rarely wearing what she had on when I brought her to school. Most of the time this is fun for her. She loves to dress up. But other times I think it can be fairly painful for her. I know that there is very little about a preschooler's life that they can control. And I know food, sleep and clothes are just some examples of how they exert their control in tiny ways. Bee is a well-adjusted kid whose tantrums are few and far between, and when they surface they are always related to one or the other of these and nine times out of ten they happen when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere. I swear it's as if saying "Let's go, we're late" is the magic spell to turn a dawdling four-year-old kid into a veritable bag of cement.
She does this when we're going to a restaurant. She gets excited about the food, the company, the newness. We study the menu together and I get her to agree to try X dish. It arrives and she instantly pushes the plate away. It's not what she thought it would be and in a flash, she refuses to even try it, and I'm cranky because I ordered and have to pay for something no one is going to eat. I've since learned to feed her first, or pack a snack. She does this at bedtime. She played the nightly I'M NOT TIRED game followed by the BUT I DON'T HAVE TO PEE game until we got into a game-changing groove. Now we have a new ritual: I fill her heart with kisses and she fills mine. We make ding noises when we're full of love and that seems to be exactly what she needs to conk out quickly and effortlessly. And similarly, she does this with her ridiculous and stubborn insistence on wearing at all times possible her cheap-ass H&M Hello Kitty flats. I hate them and regret ever buying them but she loves them because they make her feel like a princess. She wants to wear them all the time. All. The. Time. I realized she was going to argue with me about this every time I said no. Maybe this was a battle not worth fighting? Now I let her wear them pretty much anytime she wants. On the occasions I say no because she's riding her bike or going to the playground, she asks to put them in her backpack to change into afterward. She will bring them to playdates and to overnights at Nana's. And I don't care anymore. I stopped caring. What difference does it make if she wears shoes I don't like? Does it hurt me to send her to school in shoes that make her happy?
So why didn't I think about all of that this morning? After I raised my voice, I gave in anyway and let her change. That is something that one the one hand I'm not proud of because I prefer to be consistent the whole way through and I can't help but think that was like giving her a clear message that tantrums work and that she'll get her way if she just argues hard enough and wears me down. But on the other hand, who really cares if she changes three times? I was tired of fighting. I know I would have saved the rest of the family tears and aggravation if I'd just let her change again when she asked. Instead, I had a meltdown that topped her meltdown. And when I heard myself scream the way I did, I looked up at Teeny waiting at the door in Johnny's arms and saw she had her fingers in her ears. I felt a thousand times worse.
The lesson for me here isn't that I have to flog myself into being a perfect parent. I'm not one, and I can't become one. This morning was not the first time I raised my voice, and it won't be the last. I know I can't just vow never to yell at my kids again. I also can't commit to being able to let go of all my body-image garbage, much as I would like to. I try, especially because I am very conscious of being the mother of two daughters in a society that is not kind to girls and young women who don't fit a particular mold. I want my girls to grow up with healthy self-esteem and a positive body image. I want to give them the tools they need to develop into brave and confident women. And of course I don't want to model the opposite for them, hating what I see every time I look in the mirror at my big butt or my greying hair or the wrinkles I keep seeing appear on my face and wondering when I'm going to wake up six feet tall, skinny and 25.
The moral of this story is that I am imperfect in general. My big butt, my greying hair, my wrinkles, the volume of my voice, my instinctive desire to fix and to plan and to get it all right and get it all done. I set myself up to fail by trying to make the impossible happen this morning and I let Bee take the brunt of my frustration. I couldn't work the magic I planned to by adding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back into an already packed morning, and I took it out on her. Maybe it's just that I need to admit that mornings are not our best time. Maybe my schedule is still too full. Maybe I am mentally taxed enough by two kids and a full-time job and blah blah blah to try to add anything else to my plate -- however small -- without ensuring that something else comes off. Maybe it's saying yes to Bee's silly requests more because I am the kind of parent who wants to say yes whenever I can. And maybe it's saying no to everything else more often because I just can't handle another thing if I want to move through my day being the best version of myself that I can be. Maybe accepting my imperfection in all its ugly glory is the best -- and the hardest -- thing I can do as a parent.