My FaceBook feed is full of maternal one-upmanship. Not in the sense of whose children are smarter, more beautiful, more athletic, more musical (though there’s a bunch of that, too, and it annoys me far less than it would if I weren’t lucky enough to have my own brilliant, gorgeous, strong, chirping little marvels). It’s the “No, I’m the worst mommy,” type of one-upmanship, the hall of shame featuring snacks of sugary cereals eaten off the floor, screen time as babysitter, exhortations to play in the shade because the fight to apply sunscreen is too demoralizing, and other capitulations to convenience, exhaustion, and juvenile will. So, one-downmanship, maybe?
I am one of the worst offenders. Like right now, if I were not writing this, I’d be posting on FB about how it’s certainly a terrible idea to let my kids get their first taste of the Goosebumps TV show immediately before bed. It’s alarming how quiet they’re being—all I can hear are the screams from the iPad. Crap. Oh, the carnage! The terrible choices I make! How can they be expected to reach adulthood with a parent like me?
Sometimes it’s a disingenuous sort of humble-bragging. Look, I’m so savvy that I recognize that this is a sloppy, shocking indulgence! I’m so self-aware! And obvs, this is completely anomalous, and in sharp contrast to my usual careful, conscientious parenting. I wouldn’t post this if I really thought I was the world’s worst mommy.
I think there’s something more than vanity there, though. Putting my sins and mistakes out there is cathartic. It helps me move on from them. Especially when I can strike a jokey pose—if I’m being (trying to be?) funny, the offense itself isn’t that bad. Also, though I vow I am not the friend who, in response to your tale of woe, will respond “That’s nothing, listen to what happened to me….” I am kind of competitive.
There’s also solace in joining and maintaining one’s membership in a community of like-flawed parents. I play fast and loose (and in excess) with my time on Facebook, yes, and I follow a bunch of blogs, but I tend not to have FB friends (or real-life ones) whose parenting styles are drastically different than mine, and I don’t have the patience for all that Pinterest-y folksy perfection some mommy-bloggers revel in. It’s validating to commiserate and relate to– as well as contribute my own– tales of self-conscious, possibly indirectly-self-serving (but certainly coming from a genuine place of regret and frustration) maternal self-flagellation.
To wit: my friend Rachel writes about a playground merry-go-round incident in which a (totally wrong and, let’s just come out and say it, evil) stranger scolded Rachel’s young child and Rachel, mortified and caught off guard, also scolded her child. As I was contending with the referred guilt feelings from her perfectly evoked, painful memory (because it’s all about suggestible me) I remembered my own playground merry-go-round incident.
Sorry, Rach. I might prevail in this round of The Worst-Mommy game: You were set up by an evil adversary, and I only had myself to blame.
Looking back, I can see the factors that informed my behavior that mid-summer day, as I spun the merry-go-round on which my nearly-three-year-old daughter sat. I’m not making excuses, but the following are two contextual elements that, in my defense, should be considered.
1) My newborn son. Granted, at that moment, he was safely ensconced in the arms of his grandmother, who sat on a bench nearby, but still. I was maybe six weeks postpartum, so even with my mom in town to help (bless you, mom, by the way), I was sleep-deprived, spent, and longing for a few seconds when no part of my body was in contact with anyone else’s body, or even with an object that was in contact with someone else’s body. A sensory-deprivation tank would have been perfection.
2) My nascent case of mastitis. I was a few hours from coming down with a fever that would result in my spending the next day in bed. (Okay, not so much in bed as in the easy-chair in the baby’s room, but same difference.) The slash-and-burn antibiotic I was then given to treat the mastitis would leave the door wide open for a case of C. difficile which, being extremely, yes, difficile, would have its way with my digestive system for the rest of the summer. (It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t have known that would happen. There is no way something that miserable in a person’s future doesn’t send reverberations into the past. Trust me.)
Most of the memory is fuzzy. I know I told her to hold on tight. I know I made sure she was sitting. But I don’t know why I was spinning the merry-go-round so. Very. Fast. Maybe she was asking me to push faster, and I was obliging. Or maybe that’s blaming the victim. Maybe I was trying to show off: Hey, this mother of two under three is strong! You think gestation is impressive? Giving birth? Waking 6 times a night to nurse an infant? Watch me rock this twirly metal death-trap with these slightly flabby guns! Maybe I was releasing some aggression on an inanimate object. Maybe I got caught up in the soothing rhythm of grab-heave-grab-heave-grab-heave. Maybe I wasn’t watching her closely enough, because the spinning made me dizzy.
I don’t know exactly why I was spinning the merry-go-round fast, but I know that I was. So fast that after what must have been a particularly powerful heave, my daughter lost her grip. And flew.
People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes in moments of impending doom, and I always thought it sounded so melodramatic and unlikely, but no. As horror slowed time and I watched my child soar in slow motion, HER life flashed before my eyes. Her future life, that is. I saw the blood and the carnage and the plastic surgery and the life-long disabilities that would endure from what couldn’t be repaired. I saw the pain and suffering. I saw the damage that I’d caused.
I saw all these things, and then I saw how blessedly, wonderfully wrong I was. She landed, and she howled and howled and howled, and I’ll be damned (I would have been, actually) if that child wasn’t fine. Angry and scared as hell, but unscathed. And as if I wasn’t lucky enough, almost eight years later she doesn’t remember a thing. Or at least that’s what she tells me.
Take that, Rachel– you yelled at your kid. I launched mine. I win. I’m The Worst Mommy. Oh, that’s not really a crown you wanted, anyway? Yeah, you’re right. Me neither.