We were walking in to church: my brood of children and I. I’d actually managed the impossible trifecta: hair done, makeup done, dressed appropriately (usually only one or two gets checked off the list daily). My three younger children were already hanging by their fingernails off of the plastic slide, but my eldest walked away in front of me, a bit sullen.
“You’re not owning up to it! You yelled at me,” he said, stomping off a few paces ahead of me.
He was, of course, referencing the time not five minutes previous where I’d deepened my voice to let him know his behavior was not on point. Reader, I hadn’t yelled, instead I’d deepened my voice — and he wasn’t praising me for the way I had my anger in check and my emotions under control. I hadn’t vented them at him (like I’ve done before) hoping someone else could hold all the internal contradictions for me — that if I just got them out there, then I wouldn’t have to figure them out, or be responsible for them. (As I’m sure you know such emotional vomit never seems to work well as we pass anger, frustration, fear, and confusion like hot potatoes until we’re exhausted). No, it was definitive for him: he told me I’d yelled.
I asked him to stop pacing away from me. I desperately wanted him to see how this was different. I wasn’t yelling, I was trying to be a serious parent so I’d get one of those immediately obedient children who smiled and did as I said. (Children, however, are not robots).
I tried to apologize: “I’m sorry for speaking in a way that upset you. I’m sorry for hurting you.”
He’d have nothing of it. If nothing else, we’ve been pretty good at instructing our children about how to apologize and how to accept forgiveness. That we need to be specific as we say I’m sorry; that we must own up to the problem and not pass the buck with “I’m sorry if you felt…” putting the onerousness on the other person’s feelings. And here in the parking lot on the way to church, my son got it.
I just didn’t. Or didn’t want to.
I gritted my teeth, took a breath, and apologized properly — no matter if I thought I did what he said or not. Was I, somehow, the arbiter of truth in this situation? “I’m sorry that I yelled at you. Will you please forgive me?” He nodded and we hugged a bit stiffly. He walked just a pace ahead of me.
To bring this child into the world, I stayed awake for two days, bounced on a birth ball, and dug my nails into the palms of my husband’s hands. I writhed in the bed when there were medical complications and I had to lie down, while the contractions held me in their grip. There seemed to be no peace.
When he was finally delivered in the OR, and took a while to cry, my husband was the one whose heart clung to his son’s. I was so doped up and exhausted my anxiety pulsed lightly. My husband gave him his bath, and I just wanted to sleep.
That was the first day I experienced mother guilt. Perhaps, I reason now, because it was my first child, I didn’t know it was okay to nap, that this boy would always be secure in his father’s loving arms, that I didn’t need to do or be responsible for everything. That I hadn’t failed. Or, that of course I would fail, but that failure is okay. Growth is on the other side always, as we let go.
Perhaps this is it’s own (but different) letting go — this kerfuffle in the church parking lot with a boy on the edge of becoming. A boy who knows so much and so little, understands so much about himself and so little, who is getting a grasp about how the world turns. When I dig in my heels — when I insist that my voice was deep not yelling, I wonder if he’ll be the one to grow (in bitterness, resentment, who knows?) and I’ll be the one to stay, feet planted on a hill of rightness but with no one to stand by me.
So I make other choices. I choose to say I’m sorry.
This soft-hearted and open-handed love hurts. And, more often than not, I feel consumed by waves outside of myself, that are not of my own making. Will I breathe? Will I surrender? Will I be consumed in this letting go?
Perhaps I will be consumed. Perhaps that is the blessed point.