The Difficult Empathy Of Parenthood

Being OK with imperfection — in ourselves and others.

I wouldn't have even noticed the family in the next car if their windows and mine weren't slightly rolled down.

"Ugh! Why is your mouth so fucking dirty?" the mother yelled. I jumped and turned just long enough to realize she wasn't talking to me. She was glaring into her rearview mirror. My head snapped back toward the red light. I didn't look over again, but my heart started pounding.

The child answered in a voice just audible enough not to evoke further wrath, using words too low for me to decipher.

"Oh, like you don't know how to go get a paper towel and wipe your own mouth?" the mother retorted.

I cringed, tightening my grip on the steering wheel, willing the light to change. Her tone was sending me a signal, pitched as it was at a frequency only other mothers who'd ever found themselves at the peak of frustration could register.

I never glimpsed at the child, never discovered gender or age, but I guessed that he or she was within a reasonable mommy-still-wipes-me age range.

The light changed. I sped off and the other car lagged back. I don't know if that mother saw me look over when she cursed at her kid. If she did, she may have read my initial jump and quick look-away as judgment. It wouldn’t have been too off-base an assumption; before I had a child of my own, I most certainly would’ve snap-judged her. I would’ve silently tone-policed and spent hours speculating about the quality of her mothering.

I used to think one of the marks of a horrible mother was cursing at her child. I was raised in the kind of Judeo-Christian household that prided itself on avoiding profanity at all cost. But I also thought using too harsh or berating a tone with a child was an unquestionable form of verbal abuse, whether that tone was peppered with obscenities or not. This was not a gray area; there was no moral quandary. I couldn't think of any reason a child too small to care for themselves should be made to feel burdensome or annoying for needing care.

I still feel that way. But by that reasoning, I have also had my own flashes of horrible mothering, and those flashes have muddled the black-and-white of it all. Those flashes have atrophied the reflexes of my disapproval.

I don't curse at my daughter, who is 4, but that's because I don't often curse out loud at all, and I don't curse at people, in particular. I have certainly snapped at her for long blocks of nonstop chatter. I've said "Move!" instead of “Excuse me,” when I needed her to step aside. I've wondered aloud, "Why can't you just do this? Just this?" when I've asked her to complete a small task she simply will not attempt: picking up her toys, blowing her nose, wiping a small spill. My face has contorted into most monstrous expressions after my name has been called too many times while I'm trying to type out an elusive thought. "Whaaaaat?!" I'll hiss in a tone I regret the moment I hear it, the moment before her expression turns from hopeful to crestfallen.

I always open my arms at the sight of her then, horror and tears darkening her own bright face. I try to envelop her before the shock of my most irritable tone becomes a long-term heartbreak. In those moments, we just hold each other until we are both less feral. We feel to each other like Sendak's Wild Things in their dog pile after long days spent wreaking havoc. We cling to one another till our pulses have synced and quieted far beneath our fur.

People say you parent the way you were parented — and to some primal degree, that will always be true. That mimicry is what happens by rote and without intention. I was parented impatiently, spoken to in tones that often made me feel as though I was annoying, as though my presence, my movement, any unfavorable behavior served to make life harder for everyone else. Mine wasn't an abusive household, just a short-fused one. So many little offenses seemed to set our inner lights flickering. So many irritants threatened to dim our daily joy. I know now that we were all stretched taut with stress. I’ve learned what it is to be a parent nearly drawn and quartered by life's pressures. It’s the kind of lesson that rewrites the role my mother plays in my memories. I can revisit any one, with the distance of decades and all the wisdom and shame attendant to raising a child, and I’m hard-pressed to decide who was right or wrong, what was fair or unfair.

By the time I'd become a mother at the age of 30, I'd forgotten what it was like to be that child, the one ever striving to make herself smaller, less inconvenient, brighter. It was a curious amnesia, as I still find myself, at nearly 35, actively fighting an impulse to shrink. I see that urge growing in my daughter whenever I lose my temper.

If I were the type to curse at people in anger, and if I were also cursed at as a little girl, it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility that I'd thoughtlessly mimic that with my child. That's the thing about parenting: When the awe of caring for a tiny, new, and helpless life wears off, too many of us treat our children like we treat everyone else when we are at our most impatient with them — or worse, in our most terrible moments, we treat our children like we wish could treat other people who've frustrated or infuriated us. Parenting quickly teaches us our capacity for cruelty, the limits of instinctive self-control. If we are wise, we are afraid enough of our worst selves to tighten our own reins. We tuck in our baser impulses, let our coolest heads prevail.

Other times, we are in our cars, barely holding it together. We are anxious about any number of things — debt, health, our children’s development or grades or behavior, our relationships with their fathers — and we have wiped and fed and shod and spent our last disposable penny on them, to ensure that they look loved and well-tended. Usually, they are, but it comes at a psychic cost. It costs us our calmness; we are expending more of it than we are replenishing. And if we look in our rearview mirrors just then, depleted as we so often are, the most terrible-sounding things might come out.

It is then that the glance — and sometimes the word — of a startled onlooker is also needed. It recalibrates us. More than once, I’ve found myself apologizing for blocking a doorway while trying to rush my glacial-paced kid or found my cheeks flushing hot with embarrassment as she squeals or sings loudly in a quiet place. “Sorry,” I’ll mutter to the stranger waiting or watching patiently. The stranger then stares flatly at me, then smiles down at my child, just long enough for me to discover that it isn’t her behavior that warrants apology. It’s mine.

Children don't deserve our worst selves. It is neither fair nor their fault that we haven't mastered our frustrations as parents. And it certainly isn’t their responsibility to compel us to be more patient, more empathetic, or more competent. Because of this, I felt horrible for the kid whose mother cursed at them in that car.

But because I know how interminable the mommy-still-wipes-me years can be, how long the time stretches wherein mothers are expected to groom and dress and feed and lull and entertain and coo and gently correct and educate their children without much help and without complaint, I didn't blame that mother for her momentary resentment.

I just hoped that it was, in fact, momentary. I hoped that she would be quick to recall the right places to redirect her rage.

Having a child is a series of tiny successes and failures, all microscopic to the onlooker, all specific to our households alone in ways that cannot quite be explained. We are luckiest as parents when there is no audience to our failures. Failures are the hardest to explain, and yet those are the very instances when we are most desperate for a little understanding, a little empathy.

An hour after I witnessed that mother and child at the red light, I was due back at school to pick up my own daughter. She emerged with a slightly runny nose, her crumb-laden lips puckered for a hello kiss. I resisted the urge to fish a tissue out of her backpack and let her use my cheek as her napkin. The stickiness dried on our faces. We were messy, smudged, imperfect. That day, especially, I needed her to know just how happy we could be that way.

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