Have you ever screwed up with your kid? Lost your temper and thrown a big fit even though you knew it wasn’t doing the kid or you any good and that — even worse — you might be causing some sort of long-term emotional damage in your offspring?
If so, you can join my club.
Peace, happiness, and self-control reign in our house probably 95% of the time. I am content and thankful in my work as a stay-at-home mom, and you know what they say: if Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy. My husband and I believe strongly that efforts made toward a gentle, respectful, forgiving, and loving home life not only shape our kids’ behavior now but will help them develop into healthy adults. We strive to make our home a place of nurturing and learning. We believe that parenting is an enormously important job — probably the most important job. Not a job for the simple or the hourly worker or the salaried, but a job for a Family.
Still, I’m not perfect. And sometimes I lose it with my kids, even though I know it’s pointless and damaging and self-centered. Here’s what happened yesterday:
I took the three kids to the barn to do some quick chores. I was in a hurry because I needed to be starting lunch back at the house simultaneously. (How many times a day do we moms need to be doing two entirely separate things at once?) But first there was pen-shuffling to do: the geldings needed to be locked in the corral and the mare and the bum calf needed to be turned out to grass.
Our sweet, beautiful 3-year-old daughter, Emi, loves to dress up like a cowgirl and play cowgirl and, basically, talk the cowgirl talk. She has horsey bedding, stuffed horses, a rocking horse, little toy horse trailers and toy horses with saddles, spurs and chinks and hat and the whole rest of the costume. She loves to watch Sheriff Callie’s Wild West. But she doesn’t exactly enjoy real, live animals. In fact, she’s going through a stage where she’s actually quite frightened around horses and cattle. She is especially alarmed if animals make any sort of loud noise. Her fear tests my patience; I’m not a real understanding person when it comes to fear. I try to be tolerant with her — after all, she is very tiny and horses and cows are very big. I would love to put her on my back and give her a bird’s-eye view of the barn just to prevent that diminutive feeling for her. But the baby, Emi’s little sister, is already in the backpack on my back. (Another side effect of having three small kids… there are moments when all three need to be held… but I can only do so much with two arms.) So the best I can do is hold Emi’s hand at the barn and/or pack her around on my shoe as she clings to my leg.
Yesterday our son, a 5-year-old, complicated the barn visit by declaring he wanted to ride bareback on one of the horses. I hated to tell him no because he, too, has struggled with his confidence around animals and I want to run with the ball when he’s ready to play. So — somewhat annoyed because I had a pile of dirty dishes at home and, again, needed to be fixing lunch — I caught a horse and helped the boy jump on bareback. He begged for a bridle but I convinced him a halter with a looped lead rope would work just fine.
I don’t know about yours, but our 5-year-old still needs a lot of instruction and assistance when he’s riding sans lead-line. Has a hard time turning his ol’ pony out of the corner closest to the other horses. So I was trying to instruct him with the baby on my back while Emi, the scared 3-year-old, clung to the fence… unwillingly. She’d been jumpy and whimpering ever since we’d gotten to the barn five minutes before, and a couple times I’d crouched before her to explain, gently as possible and yet again, that horses and cattle do not want to hurt us. That we teach them to behave just like a mommy and daddy teach a kid to behave. That, once they are trained like our horses are trained, they can be wonderful friends and helpers for little girls.
Still, she was letting her fear get the best of her as she held tight to that fence. In the pen in front of her was Asher on his quiet horse, and out on grass behind her were the mare — who was off grazing and minding her own business — and last year’s bum calf, now a shiny-slick yearling heifer. This heifer is curious but not rude and was trying to lick Emi’s shoe between the fence rails. Last year Emi and this calf were best friends. This year, though, Emi’s terrified, tiny-voiced response went like this: “Ah! Ah! AH! AH! AAAAHHH! Moooommmmy!”
My nerves were about shot anyhow, and I could only take so much of this before I snapped. “EMI!” I hollered, hoping to scare her into fearlessness (because that always works). “You’re going to have to BUCK UP! If you’re going to be a real cowgirl, you have to BE TOUGH!”
Her wailing only grew louder as she realized that I, her confidant and best chance at surviving the obstacle course of the barn, was pushing her away. So I — knowing full well it was stupid and wrong in every way — assumed my Sarcastic Mommy voice. “We have to go, Asher,” I announced loudly to the 5-year-old. “Emi’s being a big baby.” I ripped her off the fence, carried her to the Polaris Ranger, and threw her in. Her volume increased as I left her alone in the vehicle and bustled about the barn wrapping up chores. Then, with all the kids loaded, I roared back to the house in the Ranger, driving much faster than I usually do. The kids were petrified — all three of ’em.
Parked in front of the house, I pointed to the door and growled at Emi, as though she was despicable, to “Get in the house and… ______!” (You’ll have to read to the end to find out what else I said.) I spanked her on the bottom as she scurried up the sidewalk. Then I paced outside for a while trying to figure out why I was so ridiculously angry. Low on sleep? Of course. Hungry? Definitely hadn’t had a Snickers bar yet today. But why did her fear of animals — obviously, most likely just a short jaunt in the journey of her upbringing — seem as magnified as a grave character flaw right now? Her fear was irrational, yes, but also expected, because 3-year-olds are irrational at best. Were some of the lessons I’d caught rather than been taught when I was a youngster reverberating inside me now? Like this: don’t talk the talk if you won’t walk the walk. And this: never give your problem the power that comes from acknowledging it’s there. Growing up in my parents’ family, we just plain didn’t talk about trivial things… and fear would be considered trivial. A choice.
So was I uncomfortable seeing in Emi a feeling I couldn’t allow for my 34-year-old, full-grown self? A mommy friend has commented that having a daughter is like having a heart beating outside of your body. Maybe that’s why some moms (like me, apparently) push their girls so hard. But if that was my little heart beating inside the house, it was doubtlessly breaking… and I wasn’t there to help.
Back in the house, I decide to completely ignore her. She was curled up in the recliner with a pale, stone face. I stalked around trying to get lunch going. And then I heard her say something that sounded big — but in her tiny voice. “What did you say?” I asked, still hinting at sarcasm. I walked over to her and she said it again, bravely, because I’m sure my stance was threatening, but I still couldn’t hear it. “Say it again,” I said, my voice softening. This is what I finally heard:
“Not. Be. My mama. Anymore.”
She wasn’t asking. She wasn’t begging me to be her mommy. She wasn’t defiant, either; her face wasn’t angry and it was apparent that she knew she could not defend herself from me physically. Yet she wasn’t defeated. Her self-worth remained intact, and she wanted me to know that she knew what I’d done wasn’t right. That she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. That I might be her parent right now, but I didn’t deserve to be called her mama. That I had come dangerously close to losing her confidence permanently. I was overwhelmed by the great depth of understanding of the situation visible in my little girl’s face.
And I lost it again — this time in a different way. Tears sprung to my eyes and I gathered her into my arms. “Oh, Emi,” I finally sobbed, “I have been a bad mama. I am so sorry. I don’t know why I made such a big deal out of that.”
Relief flooded through her gangly little body as we hugged and cried and kissed. Then she pulled back, licking the snot from her upper lip and looking at me with red eyes, and said this: “I still love you.”
Oh, my heart! “I love you too, Emi. I’m sorry I wasn’t acting like it. I hope you can forgive me.”
“I forgive you,” she assured me.
Interested in the psychological side of things, I enjoy reading articles and listening to radio programs that discuss faith-based approaches to family life. (Three of my favorite sources are Focus on the Family, FamilyLife Today, and No Greater Joy Ministries.) The experts all agree: it’s good for parents to admit to their kids when they’re wrong. It’s healthy for parents to make it clear that they’re not perfect and that they mess up too. And it’s important for parents to ask their kids for forgiveness. Not only do discussions like this help kids to develop a realistic view of the unattainability of perfection and the limitations of humanness, but they also help them to lay a foundation for honest, humble relationships for their future adult selves.
But most importantly: demonstrating forgiveness to other mortals provides for kids a real-time example of how the forgiveness offered by a loving God is pertinent.
After we hugged and kissed and made up, Emi ran around the rest of the day like nothing had happened at all. Anxious to cause no further trauma, I too let the subject drop. But then, at bedtime, she asked this out of the blue: “Mama, why did you say to me, ‘Take off your damn shoes’?” (I told you I’d spill the beans!)
I had to grin with embarrassment. We don’t swear often in the Blake house; when I do swear, I’m probably making fun of somebody, because to me swearing indicates a limited vocabulary and/or lack of self-control. But I had indeed used the D Word this time in anger as I spanked her into the house; clearly my brain wasn’t working right. And she had, of course, picked right up on it.
“Because I was being a naughty mama,” I replied carefully. “I messed up today and that’s why I asked you to forgive me. I had to ask God to forgive me, too. Do you know why?” She shook her head. “Because God gave you, Emi, to me as a gift, and today I didn’t take very good care of the gift he gave me. There are women everywhere who would give anything to have a little girl like you. And you know what? God picked me to be your mama. That makes me feel so special, and I want God to know I appreciate it.”
I went on to tell her a story that I’ve already told my kids many times:
We live in a fallen world where yucky things happen. Where people act yucky, just as I did when I mistreated Emi. Our only hope is that there is a better place to live after we finish our lives here on earth. There is a real Heaven, where there is no sickness, no pain, no sadness or anything else bad. Where we will be with God and realize exactly what he made each of us for. Things are so perfect in Heaven that I’m not good enough to go. Oh, sure, I’m not a terribly terrible person… but inevitably, just when I think I’m doing pretty good in life, I always mess up and holler at my kids or kick a dog.
Nope, I’m definitely not going to Heaven. Unless… unless I ask God’s forgiveness for the bad stuff I do. That’s it. Right away God says, “I’m so glad you asked! Of course I forgive you. I want you up here! I’ve got a spot waiting!” (You see, even though I’m not perfect enough to go to Heaven, God wants me up there so bad that a long time ago he arranged for Jesus to take all the punishment for the naughty stuff I do so I can still get in.)
So. That’s the story we tell our kids, give or take a few pronouns every time. Only it’s not a story. It’s our lives, it’s what we believe wholeheartedly, and it’s what we’re educating ourselves and our kids on. And the lesson sure doesn’t apply only to us Blakes. It applies to everyone. To you! Truly, all you have to do is ask God about it.
You know what? Back here on earth today, I think Emi’s going to be okay. She, as a 3-year-old, might not even remember what happened yesterday. Yet I, as an adult aware of subconscious, am aware that if I lose self-control and jump off the deep end with her under my arm too many more times, I will lose her.
Here’s what I know: that I do not have unlimited chances with her; that every time I mistreat her and choose to be less-than-a-leader for her, I am gambling with the chances that I will not only shatter our fellowship but also make adolescence and adulthood difficult for her. Additionally, I certainly do not want to sour her on being around animals and barn chores because of bad experiences at a tender age. And, honestly, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it turned out horses and cows are just not her thing. Finally: I know I’m a middlin’ to good mom most days, but I need to take steps to protect her from myself on the days the Monster Mom comes out. I know all that. I’m not stupid.
Yet sometimes I still do stupid stuff. No matter how hard I try to be good, no matter how definitely I know better, I still make mistakes with these cute little Blake kids. Because I am a sinner living in a fallen world that can’t be perfect.
I am a sinner — but I am also forgiven. By my Savior… and by my little daughter too.
© Tami Blake