Most moments of my day make me cringe, replay, wish for a do-over, and overthink.
I am consumed with doing things exactly right. And doing my best is painfully short of that expectation.
I realize it’s silly to live in a black-and-white world in which perfection is somehow possible and always out of reach. I’ve read the books. I’ve heard the aphorisms. I know I should strive for shades of grey.
(Not that kind. That’s why I used the British spelling.)
Wanting precision is part of why I edit for a living. (Though not this blog, I’m always horrified to find. The typos in my writing, if collected, would actually kill any living grammarian.) It’s also why I have such high levels of self-imposed stress. Life is messy and imperfect and very grey. And that raises my blood pressure.
Raising my children, of all my jobs, has astronomically high stakes. Actions, both singly and cumulatively, affect who my children will be and how they see the world. Yes, personality is partially innate. There is nothing I can do to make a cautious and thoughtful guy silly and outgoing. Nor would I want to. There is not much I can do to make the impetuous and social guy reserved. Nor would I want to.
But I feel it’s my job to keep them safe and to teach them to do the same for themselves as they age. I don’t feel I have to protect my children from the forces fighting against them in the world. I feel I need to introduce those forces, explain them, and teach a few coping mechanisms. Gravity is there. It confounds climbing and wheeled motion. But you can work with gravity by learning and keeping your balance, listening to your body and to the structure on which you’re climbing. And if you can do that, you will skate (and climb) through life with minimal bruising and maximal enjoyment. The tree will tell you what’s safe. You just have to hear it telling you when to stop or change course.
There are real dangers in the world. Other than gravity. Machines and people can and will hurt you if you expose yourself to them at the wrong moment.
But my sense of danger is probably outsized, and my sincere desire to protect is probably overzealous.
And by “probably” I mean “way astronomically beyond acceptable.”
This morning, getting them into the car, I noticed that the first-grader’s seat belt was weird. One strap tightened securely but the other stayed loose. (Yes, for those of you keeping score, I keep him in a five-point harness. Still. And will until he reaches the height or weight maximum of his convertible booster. The two-and-a-half year old is still rear-facing, and will be until he reaches the height or weight limit for rear-facing. Some will mock, and some will nod their head in agreement. I don’t care. They’re my kids and as long as we have access to the safety equipment, I will use it.) Peanut usually does his own belt, but he fell yesterday climbing a bike rack that I told him was not an ideal place to climb. His thumb still hurts and I helped him buckle up.
I did not handle the wonky seat belt well. We were late. I *hate* being late. It makes me absolutely pulse with adrenaline. It makes me go into full “there’s a tiger chasing us, let’s GO” mode. I freaked out, reprimanding the big guy for not telling me before that it was loose, for probably fiddling with the adjustments too much, for not taking seat belts seriously enough…and then I cycled back through the admonitions. About a hundred times. “If the belt is loose you have to say something. If you loosen it for a jacket or other reason, you have to tighten it back down. Did I mention it’s a big deal? Did I mention you should notice it’s tighter on one side? Did I mention you can’t just adjust it willy nilly? Did I mention we’re late and I can’t fix it right now and I might just flip myself onto the ceiling from the stress right now?”
The entire eight minute drive to toddler school, I talked incessantly about how I wanted them safe and how hard it is to fit something unusual (like a wonky seatbelt that we should be able to count on but that has completely thwarted us with its inherently flawed nature) into our schedule and how important seat belts are and how being aware is most of safety and how oh my gawd the world is an unsafe and unpredictable place in which to live.
Ridiculous. Counter productive. Psychologically damaging. Asinine. Easily fixed. Harmful. Insane.
I could keep my mouth shut. I could detach the seat, disassemble all the belts and loops and buckles and start over. I could re-string the loops and buckles and belts, re-attach the seat, and make sure it’s perfect in less than ten minutes. (Seven, actually, which is how long it took after we kissed Butter goodbye and went outside to tackle the errant belt and show it who’s boss of this damned fragile planet.) I could let us be late and actually make them safe instead of lecturing about safety.
I know all that. But I’m a spazz. I’m naturally high strung. As in: strings breaking if you look at them, let alone try to make music from them.
And I live every minute with the reality that my basic nature makes me a shitty parent.
No child benefits from ten minutes of stress about safety because their mother is a spazz. No child needs all those neuroses spewed all over them. No child needs to think their mother is driving them in an unsafe seat because she can’t bear to be late and can’t take one deep breath and figure out how to fix things. No child needs a lecture on a loop for something they didn’t do, and had no reason to expect.
So. I taught my kids I’m dangerous in emergencies. I taught them to overreact about little dangers. I taught them to privilege being on time over safety. I taught them to lecture and reiterate instead of doing.
Basically, I taught them everything they don’t need to internalize.
I broke them, and they will be neurotic, maladjusted grownups. Because I’m a freak.
I didn’t yell. I didn’t hit. I didn’t call names. I used a quiet voice. And I did reassure the big guy even during the initial lecture that he probably didn’t do it and that I need to do a better job of checking the belt regularly.
But I damaged my kids just by being me. By trying so hard to do my best and by making the stakes so high, I hurt their perception of the world, themselves, and my ability to care for them.
I apologized during and after. I fixed the seat. I got them both to school on time. I never raised my voice or called names. I made it clear I was stressed about the situation not about them. But there was, in my hindsight, nothing good about how I handled it.
And I have spent my morning stewing and planning how to do better the next time. I want to apologize again and tell them again why I’m terrible and wrong and should have done better. But I blog so I can tell you, instead. Because what they least need is more mountain-of-molehilling. What they least need is neurotic “fixing” of already misanthropic behavior. What they least need is that version of me.
And the pain of that keeps me up at night.
This version of me, the one they should be spared, is inherently me. I can fight it and I can learn to cope and keep my mouth shut and breathe and find perspective. Even though I can’t change who they are and shouldn’t, I can try really hard and change who I am, right?
And can I do that before I pick them up today? Because I’d like them to only get the good sides of me. All the time. And only in just the right quantities so that they can be their best possible selves without me getting in the way.
That’s a reasonable, several-shades-of-grey kind of expectation, right?