On the day my husband, Scott, and I came home from adopting our 11-month-old son in Ethiopia, I thought I had walked into someone else’s house. The elaborate baby preparations were my own handiwork, but they still startled me. It looked like Martha Stewart had popped by to rearrange my kitchen pantry. A friend had painted the walls of my son’s room with a whimsical woodland mural; custom-sewn green gingham curtains framed the windows. The crib bedding alone cost more than we had paid for our entire bed. A precarious stack of parenting books—about baby sign language and baby knitting patterns and organic gardening with your baby—threatened to topple off my bedside table. I had a list of lovingly prepared playlists: Baby Mellow Morning Mix! Baby Bedtime! Baby Mandarin! Baby Mozart!
This may sound neurotic, but I had a lot to compensate for, including a slutty past involving, among other things, foreign royalty and high quality narcotics. Never mind all that. This mothering thing was going to turn me from sour cream back into milk, from whore to virgin mother, in one gigantic step.
I wasn’t going for perfection. I’d read the spate of recent articles lambasting supermoms, helicopter moms, tiger moms, anorexic celebrities walking red carpets three days after giving birth, Pinterest queens and their precision crafting. Perfection was so two years ago.
I didn’t need to be perfect. Just really, really good. And by good, I meant not competent so much as virtuous.
My list of qualities that determined a good mother was composed mostly of nots. Not selfish, certainly. Not vain. Not humorless. Not mean. And that oldie but goodie: not my father. I was going to be good, mostly in contrast to my “bad dad,” who had criticized us relentlessly as kids, and when that didn’t produce the desired result resorted to more direct methods of persuasion, like throwing shoes at our heads. I loved my father, and I knew he’d worked hard to change over the years, but I still looked forward to showing him some more enlightened parenting. For starters, how could you hit a child?
As those early months of parenthood wore on, our everyday life began to diverge more and more from the adorable Facebook pictures I insistently posted. Something was going on with my son. By the time he was 2, he ate little, slept less, banged his head on anything that made a loud noise, and had violent and prolonged tantrums at least 10 times a day. The fat tears that rolled down his cheeks were far worse than the high-decibel assault on my ears. My child was suffering, and I couldn’t seem to find anything to soothe him, with the exception of his bottle, which he sucked on it as if he was suffocating and it contained not milk but air.
Friends dismissed my concerns. It’s a boy thing, they said. Or, it’s a stage. Or, all new parents go through that.
I’m sure they meant to comfort me, but I was left feeling lonely and inadequate. If everyone went through this, why did it feel so insurmountable? If everyone went through this, why was I the only mom I knew who couldn’t take my child out in public without a scene that turned every head in the room? Was every mother really sitting at home Googling: “How to safely restrain a child”?
Through every tantrum, I’d hold him and rock him and say, “We’ll get through this, honey. It’s going to be OK.” But I believed it less and less. At the end of every day, I’d sob as I wiped hydrogen peroxide over the angry bite marks on my arms and chest. Scott, worried by my increasingly distraught and fragile state, asked me to see a therapist. I dismissed the suggestion. Who had the time? And besides, we’d need to save our money for the military schools and rehabs our future surely held.
One night, bleary-eyed, I plopped my son into his bath. He colored with his bath crayons all over the walls and I snapped pictures of the masterpiece, charmed by his exuberant creativity, relieved to have a moment of calm and cuteness. Then he used the last of his favorite red crayon and I didn’t have another.
“I hate you!” he screamed.
In a rage, he splashed as hard as he could, displacing most of the bathwater onto the floor. I pulled up the drain and let out the little water that remained. He was none too pleased with this turn of events, so he leaned over and fastened his teeth on my arm, like a pit bull with a locked jaw.
With the hand at the end of the arm that wasn’t in a teeth-vise, I smacked my child across the face.
Chubby arms, twinkling eyes, swirl of soft, curly hair, the love of my life. I hit my 2-year-old son so hard my palm stung.
“Goddammit, stop biting me!” I yelled.
My son looked at me, stunned and betrayed, silent for a heartbeat. And then he wailed, crying out for daddy, who was out of town on business.
Strangely calm, I picked him up and wrapped him with a towel into what I call a “baby burrito.” I rocked him in my arms, sitting in a puddle of water on the floor. “I’m sorry,” I said again and again. “Mommy’s so sorry.”
Robotically I moved through the rest of our nighttime routine: pajamas, bathroom, bedtime story, bed. When I heard his breathing deepen, his sweet little snores, I got up and went into the dining room, where I sat at the table and put my head into my hands. I wanted to vomit up the black ball that was swirling in my chest.
What kind of monster hits their kid? Now I knew exactly what kind of monster.
“Please, God,” I prayed, “help me be a better mother. Please God or Jesus or Krishna or Allah or Mary or Moses or Grandma or whoever is on the other end of this line right now. Please throw me a bone here. I need help.”
The next morning, I called my closest friend and asked her to come watch my son while I escaped to a yoga class. I wasn’t entirely certain that I wouldn’t walk out of that class and keep walking all the way to Mexico. I was pretty sure my child would be better off without me. I should leave. Leave now and let Scott find a better wife. A good wife. A good mother. As I moved through my asanas and sun salutations, my limbs felt like they weighed a thousand pounds each. Shame burned in my belly through the whole class. During the final meditation, the teacher gave us a mantra.
I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.
She instructed us to use it for our enemies, but who has enemies? I’m not a politician or a gangster or even the president of the PTA. So I decided to use it for my complicated and sometimes violent grandfather. Then for my father. And then, for good measure, I used it for myself.
With my father, the Thank You was the easiest part. After everything, I knew I was fiercely loved by my family. I had always known that and I was truly grateful for it. People are often surprised when they hear about my turbulent personal history and find me at least relatively intact, generally goofy and optimistic. I count the love I received as the reason. There were so many failings in my childhood home, but also so much love.
I might not have been a very, very good mother, but I love that kid with every cell in my body. I understood then what I never could before. You can love someone and still smack them in the face. You can try and try, and still be unknowable to yourself. I got it. Maybe I would find a way to tell my father someday.
At the end of that class, the teacher told us to set an intention for our day. Mine was less of an intention and more of a promise to God: I would never hit my child again. I would aim not so much for goodness, because what is that anyway, but for persistence and hope. I would keep trying and somehow we would figure out how to heal together.
My own violence humbled me and propelled my family into the counseling we badly needed. We identified and are treating my son’s sensory integration issues and trauma history, with remarkable results. And while hitting my son was an egregious mistake, it ultimately made me a better mother. It showed me the futility of the binary notion of good and bad parenting. It made me reexamine questions like, what really makes us worthy of motherhood? Of love and belonging and family? Just how very, very good does a mother have to be to be a good mother?
Motherhood is a gift, not a reward for good behavior. Part of the gift my son gives me is the opportunity to mother myself. To hold myself tenderly, flaws and all, and tell myself, “We all make mistakes, honey. We’ll get through this. It’s going to be OK.”