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Parenting High Horse

August 30, 2012

Last week a blogger, Issa Waters, posted “No Excuses: Parenting Isn’t Hard” on BlogHer. I love the premise of her piece, but her judgemental stance was pretty confronting, and she used some strong language that got a few people pretty wound up. Including me. She called parents who shout at their children, drag their children, punish their children and so forth, abusive. A pretty powerful word, you have to agree. I was quite angry, until I realised that the reaction her article really should have generated in me was empathy.

You see, she is me. She is me, ten years and two children ago.

Back when it was just hubby, one baby and I, I was very comfortably perched on that very same high-horse she is on now. I looked at that little, miraculous person in my arms and couldn’t fathom ever raising my voice at her, let alone feeling angry or frustrated. Resentful? Never ever! Just like Issa is, right now.

When I saw parents of older kids losing their tempers and yelling or dragging their naughty kids away, I’d shake my head and think to myself, “I will never be that kind of mother. I will always speak gently to my child. I will teach her lessons with love and compassion. There is no need to yell. Ever.”

When I saw toddlers tantruming in shopping centres, I’d immediately put it down to bad parenting. That parent obviously doesn’t have good structure, that child clearly needs to sleep, she is selfish…tut tut. If I saw a child in grubby clothes, I’d smugly acknowledge my child’s immaculate onesie and pat myself on the back for the two changes of clothes in my nappy bag.

That high-horse was a mighty lofty seat. It made me feel like I was a really excellent parent. It was also completely unstable. The thing to remember about high-horses is this–we tend to come crashing down off them with a mighty thud.

You see, Issa, your baby is going to grow up and maybe have some siblings. He is going to fight with his siblings relentlessly, no matter how much you teach them that they need to love one another. He is going to tell you “no.” He is going to throw tantrums. He is going to be defiant. He is going to test you and push you and poke you and prod you and see how much he can push the boundaries until one day, without warning, you are going to lose your patience and snap. You will yell at him. You will feel terrible and you will hug your child and say sorry.

In that moment, you will realize that the mum you saw yelling in McDonalds–the one you judged as abusive–may have just had a bad day. Just like you. You will acknowledge that she probably is not the demonic woman you made her out to be. You’ll muse that, in fact, she is probably every bit as loving to her child as you are.

That morning, she may have woken up and made scrambled eggs for her kids and mopped up a spill as her child knocked over her milk. She may have reminded that child to please be careful and not put her glass on the edge of the table (an instruction she has given that child at every. single. mealtime.) She may have watched as that child knocked the refilled glass of milk on the floor immediately afterwards and, suppressing an angry remark, mopped it up. For the second time.

She maybe struggled to get three children to school on time, in laundered clothes with brushed hair and teeth and packed lunches. After a day of excellent mothering, she maybe decided to treat her kids to McDonalds.

Maybe they fought all the way there over who crossed the imaginary Backseat Line of Doom.

Maybe they kicked the back of her seat the whole way there, even though she repeatedly told them not to.

Maybe as soon as their happy meal arrived, her daughter put the cup on the edge of the table and then knocked it over. Again.

Maybe at that point, she lost her patience and yelled.

Maybe she yanked her child out of the way and angrily shrieked at her to sit still and think about her actions.

Maybe the child looked sad, just like you said.

Maybe.

I can bet that she didn’t feel proud of the yelling and yanking. I can bet that, that night, when she tucked her daughter in bed, she looked at her little face and wished she had been gentler in that McDonalds moment.

I know that, on days when I’ve lost my cool with my kids, the condemnation I rain upon myself is far heavier than any condemnation anyone else could aim at me.

Each and every night, as I go into my kids’ bedrooms and kiss them goodnight, I look at those innocent, sleeping faces and wish I had been a better mother to them that day.

I am always striving to be a perfect mother–so far, in nearly ten years of motherhood, I have never once even come close.

Yes, I yell at my kids. More often that I would like to admit. Yes, I have had countless moments when I have been ashamed of my parenting. You say parenting isn’t hard, Issa. You’re wrong. Parenting a sweet-smelling, cooing baby isn’t hard. Parenting bigger kids is hard. Teenagers? Not there yet, but I’d bet it makes the little kid stage seem easy. Talk to me again in nine years’ time. I’ll buy you a coffee and we can laugh about the day you lectured us all from your high-horse. I don’t condemn you for it–not at all.

Like I said, I’ve been there. Falling off it is a rite of passage. And when you do land with a thud, I hope there is a compassionate mum waiting there to smile knowingly at you from across the supermarket aisle, as your child lies on the floor kicking and screaming, and you try to yank him up and pull him away; burning with shame as you feel all eyes on you, judging your terrible parenting.

I hope that mum will come over and tell you it’s okay and that her child did it too, at that age and that you breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not being condemned.

When I see a mum being less than perfect, I have to remind myself that, more often than not, she is just like me. She is trying her best to keep it together. She loves her kids to distraction. Like me, she is probably tired and overworked and worn down. Like me, she is imperfect.

The snippet of her life I am witnessing may well be just a grubby and ugly piece of a much larger, very beautiful puzzle.

A few years ago, a friend’s child was tantruming in a shopping centre. He was kicking and screaming and performing. She was struggling to restrain him and was mortified by the condemning stares of passers by. She knew what they were thinking (she was no stranger to the high-horse, having only recently tumbled off it herself).

As she yanked her howling child away kicking and screaming, she felt someone tapping her on the shoulder. She looked up, and there in front of her was an old lady holding out a bunch of flowers. She handed them over to my friend and said, “You look like you need a little pick-me-up,” then knelt down and handed a single flower to the little boy, who calmed down immediately.

With tears in her eyes, my friend hugged the old lady. That understanding changed everything.

Let’s not judge each other any more. These Mommy Wars need to end.

Michelle is a copywriter, artist and mum of three children under ten. Read more of Michelle’s work at They Call Me Mummy.

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