He was only 22 months old when he quietly said it. And it was the second time it happened. The words were simple and slid easily out of his little mouth. “Sorry, Mommy.” That was it. Nothing more.
All of my brood were busy sloppily slurping soup one weekend afternoon while I tinkered around the kitchen, wiping up, putting away, washing clean. That’s when my littlest picked up his soup bowl and started drinking out of it, spilling it all over his chair and the floor. While I wasn’t thrilled about it, I had expected it. He wants desperately to do as the older two do but still lacks the necessary coordination. So cleaning up behind him, especially when he’s eating, is par for the course.
These words stopped me mid-wipe. Why, exactly, was he sorry? Why did he even think to respond to a simple accident with that gentle statement? A grown-up sentiment from a little being whose biggest concern should be when his bowl is getting refilled. Then I knew, and it felt like a punch to the most tender part of my stomach: he expected me to be angry. He confirmed for me what I had been both fearful of and ashamed of for months. I was angry. Really angry. Set off by the smallest of happenings.
My memories of myself are not of this angry person. The me I remember rarely feels anger at people and does not expect the worst. She doesn’t cringe when meeting new people or get aggravated when she thinks someone moves too slowly. She doesn’t mind helping find lost shoes, will come to the rescue without an eye roll, and delights in listening to stories told by both the old and the young.
But that morning, I found myself wondering where she was? What happened to her? And who was this, here in my kitchen, listening to my sweet baby apologize for simply spilling his soup?
Why was I angry enough that my anger was an expectation?
It seems it had permeated everywhere. It was there in my lack of enthusiasm, in my dull eyes, and my slow responses. My anger was not anger at them but at myself. The more I saw myself straying from who I once was, the more I became angry. I was angry not at the obvious freedoms I had given up to happily become their mother (I could never regret those). I was angry at having so willingly given up so many tiny bits of myself.
I had a tired anger. I was angry that I was always cleaning. I was angry that the mail was piling up. I was angry that the pets were shedding, the kids were calling, and I had to do bedtime alone. I was angry that I couldn’t simultaneously keep the house clean; shuttle the little people to their myriad of preschools, swim lessons, soccer practices, and play dates; and keep them all from being sick, tired, unhappy, or hurt. I was angry I no longer worked. I was angry because I was failing at the one job I had left.
In a society that still largely distinguishes a person’s worth by their ability to make money, I found myself questioning my value once I left my job to become a stay-at-home mom. It was as if to be worthy in this new role. I had to be only this person, 100% dedicated to the job at all moments. If the end goal of any action was not to the obvious betterment of my children, then I let it fade from my life. Being a mother was my sole identity. I wasn’t a teacher and a mother. I wasn’t a scholar and a mother. I was not a runner, a hiker, a writer, or a reader. I was just a mother.
I, unknowingly, let go of the things that helped me be the best version of myself, the version my children would need me to be.
I imagine it was a slow creep, really, rather than a conscious decision. As I became more consumed in the world of being at home, the more I lost contact with former colleagues, lunch dates faded to the occasional text. I forgot what it was like to be an expert in a field in front of a classroom. I forgot how to conduct research or to read a text closely. I had no idea, any longer, how to begin a poem. The soundtrack of my life shifted subtly, at first, then full-force into nursery rhymes and cartoon theme songs.
Suddenly that is who I was. And that was it. My “job” consumed me. (And, as any working or stay-at-home mother knows, it can be a thankless job). Of the multitude of people I encountered each day, none of them knew who I was beyond [insert any one of my children’s name]’s mom. My name may have been forgotten, but my role as a mother never was. I no longer had conversations that strayed from my little people. I had become one of those people who talked about the weather because beyond my children, it was all I had. I wavered between being elated at being able to spend this time with my little loves and resentful that I had spent years upon years upon years pursuing degree after degree after degree to discuss the weather. And I was becoming angry.
The words of my almost-two-year-old reminded me that no, I was not angry at my children. I was angry at myself.
My impatience with them was really just a manifestation of this unsettled feeling that being a stay-at-home mother had created within me. I was always searching for some…thing, some answer. I found I could not “just” be a mom, and it took me too long to realize I never really had to. I had to find those bits and pieces of myself I had let fade. I needed to meld these worlds of “mom” and “me” into one. If not for my own sake, then clearly for the sake of my children.
I started small. Introducing my past to my little people a bit at a time. I love that now, if my oldest were asked what it is that her mother loves, her list would, as usual, begin with “snuggling with her babies,” but it wouldn’t end there. Now, once a week, I take my tiniest little person, the one who so gently apologized to me, out into the woods for a morning hike. It is quiet, and we listen to birds. We talk, and we stay silent. We move slowly, but we move slowly in my world. In a world that is now his.
Unwrapping the pieces of myself, I had tucked away has made my children look at me differently. They know me better. I know myself better. And I don’t feel so angry.
It took two simple worlds to slip from the mouth of a 22-month-old to teach me a lesson in mothering: motherhood may ask of us to lose ourselves for a time, but our children need us to bring ourselves back.