As a newly single mom, I often have to choose between who needs more from me at the end of the day. Does one of my kids require what little time I may have in reserve, or do I need it for myself?
Never before have I felt so much like a plastic Pez dispenser, parsing my energy into packed pellets and meting them out based on who has the greatest deficit.
As each weekday evening wanes, my two younger children seem more or less content with their bedtime routines. However, my eldest, who is 11 years old, is particularly sensitive about how much of my time she gets right before bed.
Like most families, our daytime lives are constantly in motion. Nighttime is when things get quiet, when we feel our most vulnerable. It’s also when my daughter’s anxieties cascade out of her and fall on me, her proverbial dumping ground. It’s exhausting to get into this kind of work at the end of the day, but it is often the most important part of my role as a parent.
Sometimes, my daughter is concerned about friends, our family situation, her body or school. I often don’t know what to do with these fears, anxieties and unresolved emotions. I want to shove them under the bed, or bake them into a pie and let them evaporate with the steam, curling up and out of the decorative slits in the crust.
I do know that as parents, we lead by example, always. If I am not afraid to address my daughter’s fears, questions and anxieties, then she need not be afraid either. So every night, I lie next to her in her bed and breathe deeply, settling my own doubts about whether I will have the perfect solutions for her. She knows by now that she can bring forth whatever she’s got.
One night recently, as I snuggled up next to her, she frowned. I asked her what was wrong, but she wasn’t sure.
“We’re doing okay, aren’t we?” I asked, trying to tease out a clue.
“Well,” she admitted, “I’ve been afraid that you were going to die or something.”
In the past year, her parents have separated, her dog died and she watched her brother get hit by a car. I asked her if she worried about me dying because only then would things actually get worse.
“Yeah, I guess so,” she shrugged.
She asked me if it would be okay to use a curse word. In our house, we don’t, ever. But this time, I laughed at her request and gave her permission. My sweet, fledgling girl dropped her first f-bomb. Of course, it was more like a dust bunny and less like a bomb. She quickly covered her mouth with her tattered baby blanket, and her eyes widened. I looked at her and smiled.
Then I dropped my own f-bunny, for the first time ever in front of my kids. I said it softly, raising my fingers in a peace sign, as if that would somehow cancel out everything — the expletive, my separation from her Dad, our dead dog, her brother’s accident.
“Wait, Mom. Why did you say that?”
I told her that swearing wasn’t normally okay, but that I know that it feels really good to get things out sometimes.
She groaned and rolled over, still frowning. There was more in there, I knew.
“Maybe you need a scream pillow to get it all out,” I suggested.
She looked puzzled, so I offered her the extra pillow from her bed and told her to scream into it for as long and loud as she wanted.
“Okay,” she smiled, “Rate me on a scale of 1 to 10.” She squawked into the pillow like a baby bird.
“Um, that was like a 4,” I said, feigning disappointment.
Then, we took a deep breath together and screamed into the pillow, our voices joined in a rumbling, jungle-cat growl. Afterward, she laughed, tossing her long hair left and right, parting it on either side of her face like silks around a slender pod of maize.
“Why did you scream so long?” she asked, surprised.
“Because now I feel better. Don’t you?”
She nodded. I kissed her good night, leaving her to her dreams, happy and light. She called to me as I closed the door behind me, and she told me that she loved me. I reminded her that I loved her, too, and that I was always proud to be her mom.
I would have engineered that exchange if I could have, but real life doesn’t actually allow for that. Instead, I had to gratefully accept that for once, the pieces of the braid had come together evenly, balancing out the work-to-reward ratio for the win.
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