The bushtits have built a new nest in the Coastal Silk Tasselbush, and there are babies inside. I can hear them, yelling all day long. I can see the parents; all day they are frantic. They are dashing to the vine maple to comb it for whatever tiny insects they’ve found there, and dashing back to the mossy hobo bag that is their nest.
You probably know that this nest is very now. Hobo bags are so 2016. But this is not their first nest. They fucked the first one up, built it too low. The neighbor’s cat got it.
This is what parenting is like. Trial and error. You fuck it up, you repair it, you remind yourself of what your friend Colleen told you when you were in a moment of utter panic: “It’s not your job to be a perfect parent. It’s your job to keep your kid’s therapist employed.”
All of this is leading up to saying that I had badmom day yesterday. Not what I planned. What I planned was the farmers market, and the dog park and a movie. You pick! But we got into the car just after noon and I turned on some music at my son’s request, and then he yelled at me in the rudest possible voice, “I can’t hear it!”
My kid is rude to me.
Not all the time, but often enough and sometimes, like yesterday, we get on a roll where he is just playing me like a drum and I can’t get ahead of it and all of a sudden all I can think is that I can’t believe I am one of those moms who has a son who talks to me this way. I know I have created this. I know I have completely failed to protect my family from the patriarchy by being a doormat right up until the moment that I can’t take it anymore and then I use the “mean voice.”
Yes, that phrase is in quotes because that is what he calls it.
I am a badmombadmombadmom….
All of this is rushing through my code red reptilian brain stem as I am sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, breathing through my nose and trying not to scream bloody murder at this eight-year-old boy who thinks it is my job to do every fucking thing for him. I seriously cannot take one more minute of this, plus I’ve tried everything I can think of. Just before that moment in the car, I was so tired of being argued with about every tiny thing that I created a schedule for our whole day and wrote it down and explained it to him when he came out of his time out and then, because we had to make a list of what “being helpful” means, we didn’t leave to walk up to the farmer’s market at 12:30 like the schedule said and he pointed out to me that my schedule was already wrong.
Oh. My. God.
But I am hoping, hoping, that I have figured something out. I have thought this before. And, actually, it has been true before. I am a better mother now than I was, say 3 years ago, or 5, or 8 years ago, when he was ten days old and I felt like the crater after the volcano has left the premises: blown apart and spent and occupied by clouds of love and not much sense.
That last part was just me. I don’t really know if volcanoes feel that way.
The point is: I am a better mother now than the first time I tried to build the right combination of nurturing and boundaries and sustenance for this particular human. I am a better mother now than I was the first time I built this nest.
I know this is true, because even though I had the badmom song playing in my head in that moment, in the driver’s seat, I did the only thing I could do other than lose my temper, which no eight-year old deserves. I held my hand up and said “Just don’t speak.” And kept breathing until something sane occurred to me. That took a while. A while. He waited, thank the gods. Finally I turned and said, “Honey, I am so tired of being talked to this way that I don’t have any energy left to be patient and kind. So, I am just going to have to take a timeout. And that is what we are going to do from now on when this happens. Let’s go inside.”
And we went in and I put myself in a thirty-minute time out. He sat next to his new pet lizard and read books while I continued to breathe through my nostrils and made us both some lunch and remembered myself.
I have hope in this approach, both because today was an amazingly better day and because I actually know how to do this. I learned on adults. I learned that when I am dealing with someone who is being an asshole, the thing that I have to do is maintain my disposition. I do that as long as I can and then I disengage the moment that I am triggered. No. The moment before I am triggered. Because once I am triggered, I can do nothing except make it worse. The trick is noticing, of course. The trick is noticing in time to state, “I care about what you have to say. I do. But I will not engage with you for one second more while you talk to me that way. We are tabling this until you can be respectful and kind.”
It’s hard to admit that I need to do this with my son. But maybe that’s the problem: I didn’t do it when he was three. Four. Five. The divorcing years. It was all too fucking hard and I was clinging to my world by my fingernails and his was dissolving and all I could do was love him as much as I could and let it go let it go let it go…And not in the empowering Elsa way. No. In what I now understand to be the doormat-mom way.
On the way back in from the car, my son said “I feel like you want me to change my whole behavior in one day.”
“No,” I said. “I think it will take more than one day, and you get to learn. But we are starting now and we are not stopping until we are done.” As I said that I was walking under the very branch where that second bushtit nest is hanging. Who knows how many more I’ll build? There is so much change ahead. But tonight, we went down to the garden and pulled weeds from the vegetable beds. He took great pleasure in pulling out a particularly pernicious thistle. It was thorny. It stuck both of us before we were done but in the center, there was a small grey feather, the long narrow shape of a primary, but tiny. Bushtit sized, perhaps. And we took turns tickling each other’s arms with it and it was sweet time, love time, on that positive roll that makes his face soft and my heart wide and the light was low and long-lasting.