I expect myself to be a perfect Mother – to always be warm and loving and to unceasingly do and say the right things. I expect for the foods my children ingest to be organic and the words and images they experience to be pure and wholesome too. I plan for the time we spend together to always be rich and meaningful. And when I fall short, as I inevitably do, I suffer a feeling of failure beyond any that I have experienced before. After all, there is so very much at stake in being the very best mother that I can be.
These failures are most likely to occur when I have a lapse in mindfulness or presence. In fact, that is the only way that they can occur and even in those moments, I am my higher-self standing outside of my body as a witness, knowing all the while that the scene that has unfolded could have been avoided. My higher-self is also forgiving and feels a warmth toward me, knowing that even this imperfect way of being is so very perfect. I am on a journey toward living in the most mindful way that I can with my children and stumbling along the way only strengthens my resolve.
Six months or so ago our family went out for breakfast on a sunny, Sunday morning. In my head I had imagined pulling my chair close to my husband’s after breakfast, sipping my coffee snuggled up to him and marveling at our two beautiful boys. Instead we ended up packing up and leaving the restaurant in a huff, not even bussing our own table – an expectation of this establishment and an oversight I only later realized in horror.
The meal began sweetly enough with our baby Adrian sitting in a highchair joining us for the first time at the table at a restaurant and our (then) almost three year old Jonah generously sharing his food and nibbling off of our plates. When Jonah decided he was finished eating and ready to play in the children’s area it didn’t raise any red flags. He is usually an easy-going and well-behaved little guy and we are generally able to trust his behavior. At a point my husband needed to use the restroom so I walked over to be near Jonah who was now high up on a children’s play fort. Adrian was in my arms when Jonah leaned forward from the structure in a way that appeared dangerous to me. I asked him to step back and he chose this moment to test his boundaries – something all two year olds (he was still two at the time) will do. He kicked his foot out from the high ledge and it scared me. Looking back I see this was the turning point for me. Normally this scenario would not have rattled me and I would have handled it with flying colors. Even if I was annoyed, I would have breathed my way through it using calm language and getting myself intellectually out ahead of Jonah and redirecting him with ease. Instead, low on sleep, high on caffeine and a bit fearful because Adrian was in my arms and I felt a bit uncomfortable to physically deal with the situation, I made a mistake, wasn’t the perfect mother and acted out of frustration.
I demanded that Jonah get down, “right-now” which he didn’t. I have said “right-now” about twice in my life and I’m not sure what compelled me in that direction of communication in that moment. But there I went. Jonah did eventually make his way down the slide on his own volition. I was irritated and not present and what ensued was completely unnecessary. After coming down the slide, Jonah decided he wanted to play a game with the sugar packets on the tables – something he had played with his friends at the same restaurant only a few days before. For some unknown reason I decided it was acceptable for him to use one sugar packet container but not more than that. The scene that unfolded was one of me chasing Jonah around from table to table, dangling Adrian in my arms, telling Jonah “no” and Jonah screaming that he needed those sugar containers! In retrospect I feel so badly about the whole thing. Every toddler needs to be able to respond when told, “no” and on the spectrum of parenting I consider myself somewhat strict, however, toddlers also need understanding especially when they have a goal in mind and are just trying to actualize it. I’ve also learned since the importance of picking my battles. I could probably have completely avoided the whole scenario had I allowed Jonah to have one last container or if I had just breathed before telling him what to do, firmly grounded in myself. There are a hundred ways that I could have dealt with this scenario better.
Jonah didn’t want to leave the restaurant, but we did and he promised as we walked to the car that he would, “think about his behaver.” There is no single more endearing voice than a toddler in contrition. We salvaged the day pretty nicely with my husband and I putting our heads together and coming up with a way to serve each of our spirits in the remaining hours of the day – both of us disappointed in the way that our morning had ended. We played soccer, balloon baseball and danced in our living room. I called an old friend, Adrian got to have a bath with his big brother – an activity that he loves – and Josh and I watched a favorite HBO TV show before bed. But even days later I still felt guilty and sorry for how I acted. I realize upon reflection that the guilt does not even really come from wanting to be perfect in someone else’s eyes or to be some image of a perfect Mother but in not wanting to miss even a single moment with my children, wasted in frustration. I find a way to forgive myself though, knowing that these are actually valuable moments for me to continue my resolve toward mindfulness. These moments have benefit for our children as well. Later that Sunday afternoon, recumbent on his changing table, I leaned closely toward Jonah, looking deeply into his eyes and told him that I was sorry for how I had acted that morning and that I wanted to teach him in a better way. He said, “Mommy, I’m sorry too.” Although I do not wish to invite more experiences like this one, I do see that if we as mothers never failed, our children would never have the opportunity to learn about apology and forgiveness.
I am so grateful that toddlers have short memories of their emotions. Jonah can recall who gave him a stuffed animal that he received more than a year ago, but emotions that he felt yesterday seem to drift away into the ether moments after they occur. He is too wise to hold a grudge, too pure to feel resentment. Babies too move on so quickly from their pain. When Adrian was sick for several months, he received many oral medications and really disliked them, pursing his lips together and turning his head to the side anytime a syringe or dropper came near. Initially upon coming home from a hospital stay he wasn’t interested in solid foods at all. He believed that anything that came toward his mouth would be unpleasant. But within a week and with a little coaxing he was enjoying a wide array of foods again, gobbling them up eagerly. As adults we can take a negative experience and transform it into months or even years of adverse associations, but children, they live life much more in the moment and given a safe and generally happy home, suffer much less.
I am also grateful that miracles reveal themselves at the most unexpected of times and in the most unexpected of ways. Thinking back to an experience I had with Adrian a few weeks before the restaurant “incident” helped me to feel better about the way that I handled (or didn’t handle) Jonah that morning. After a long night of responding to frequent awakenings with Adrian, I found myself mid-morning sitting in a rocking chair cradling him in my arms, gazing out the window, admiring a summer scene and tired to the bone. A beam of light came from behind the clouds and landed on this perfect, sleepless child. My whole body, tired and weary, lightened at the sight of him basking in sunlight. I observed his skin so flawless and soft. I touched his fingers, his cheeks, his chubby thighs, enjoying his perfection, connecting with the miracle of his being. In my eyes he was an angel. This alone was not new. I have long known that touching and really seeing my children and witnessing them in their glorious perfection is an excellent means for bringing me into perspective. What I had not experienced is what happened (or seemed to happen) next. I suddenly felt the warmth of the sun open up and fall on my own cheek – a cheek I had recently begun to see as sagging and old-looking. When this happened, I witnessed Adrian transform. He lightened in the same way that I had before when looking at him. I could feel him observing me with sunlight gracing my face, dancing through my hair, glittering on my skin. It was then that I saw myself for the very first time through his young eyes as they darted across my face, smile forming. He took his time examining me, taking me in through his innocent perspective and at once I saw myself in the perfect, unflawed way that he saw me. I suddenly felt validated and seen for the mother I have tried to be to him and to Jonah. It turns out he hasn’t been critiquing my mothering in the way that I had been. He hadn’t noticed all of the many ways that I felt I had already failed him in his short seven months. I knew in that moment that I mattered to someone in a way that could never be matched and was not dependent on my being a perfect mother. He saw me for the deep love that I felt for him and that was all. I saw myself suddenly as beautiful in his eyes. I saw myself finally with the love I have always tried to show to both my children.
** This is a sitting in the sun meditation. Find a beam of sunlight where you can feel the warmth of the sun on your face.
**Sit quietly and experience the sun warming your face and your hair, enveloping all of you. Experience the sun revealing you, the real you, and your inner light rising out of your center to meet the sun. Take a moment to forgive yourself of any ways in which you feel you have let your children down.
** Place your child in a beam of light. Sit away and observe this precious being in all of their beauty, making your way slowly from the top of their head to their little toes. Experience them as separate from you and also as a part of the Oneness of all things.