On my mental list of bad-mom moments, teaching my two-year old to swear is right up near the top. She was playing, talking to herself or an imaginary friend, when suddenly my ears perked up. In the middle of the babble, I clearly heard a “dabnit.”
“What was that?” I said.
“Dabnit.” She was proud.
“That’s not a nice word,” I started up in mommy-voice, but the kid was onto me.
“Mommy," she piped up, "you say it all the time.”
Busted. I had taught my kid to swear. There was no one else to blame but me. My husband never swears – not when he stubs his toe, or loses a football game, or drives all the way to the grocery store without The List. In over ten years, I’ve never heard so much as a whispered curse. Our child was on her way to sailor-speak, and all the guilt was mine.
I never cursed much as a teen or in my twenties. The sad truth is that motherhood brought out my potty mouth. I’m not exactly sure what broke me. The sleepless nights when she woke up every hour? The endless piles of laundry? The sharp Lego bricks beneath my feet? It might have been the constant feeling of bewilderment that comes with early parenting, those times when I forgot the names of simple objects – toothbrush, keys, banana – because my brain was rattled loose. And when it cracked? Curses tumbled out.
Now, I know enough to watch my language during story time, soccer games, and music class at the retirement home. Even on my worst days, I have fewer cuss words than a single rap song on the radio. Still, there are moments when I flounder, especially when I’m running late. And I’m always running late. Even after nine odd years of parenting, going anywhere with children takes four times as long as going on my own. It’s exponential. I’ve done the math. Sometimes I curse instead of speeding. Or huddling, inert, in bed.
By now, at six and nine, my kids know what words they cannot say, the words mommy says even though she shouldn’t. If I slip up, they catch me. I backtrack, swallow the simmer. Curse inside my head. For awhile, I swore in French and German, but my husband is multi-lingual, so that didn’t fly.
Last night, the girls and I came up with a list of cute alternatives. The top contenders are “Six! . . . and two make eight!” or “Quack it!” My mouth already feels cleaner, and my “mama-messed-up” meter is hovering somewhere around average.
There’s no perfection inside parenting. Still, we usually try to shed the habits we don’t want our kids to choose. Maybe it’s the dirty socks kicked beneath the bed, or late nights watching reruns of The Bachelor, or all those Halloween candy binges on the couch. I taught the kids to swear. It’s not my proudest moment, but I know it could be worse.
Now I’m just waiting for my husband’s turn. I bide my time, knowing no one is immune from quirks. One day the kids will pile junk mail, flyers, and old school papers into crazy, precarious heaps. Random files, book covers, and cardboard pictures of Santa will totter and wobble in stacks on desks and chairs and file cabinets. When the avalanche comes slip-sliding down, no one will point a finger at me, their compulsively neat mom. I’ll have him at last, my husband. Well and truly busted. If I’m lucky, maybe he’ll even whisper “Quack it!” just loud enough for me to hear.
Lisa Ahn has published essays and fiction in PANK, Limestone, Hippocampus, Prick of the Spindle, and Toasted Cheese, among others. She’s the homeschool mom of two spunky daughters, ages 6 and 9, and she feeds them fairy tales each day. Come visit her with a cup of coffee at tales of quirk and wonder.