THE BLOG

We Are Each Other's Keepers

07/18/2013 12:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

Yesterday, I was a horrible mother.

I was the least pleasant version of myself that I have ever been with my 5-year-old. I was snappish, impatient, short-tempered, dismissive, frustrated and cold. I failed to see his point of view, I overreacted and stormed out of a room. I whined. I complained. I did not make allowances. I made him cry. More than once. What was supposed to have been day two of our "Week o' Fun" ended with him asking, "Mommy, do you think tomorrow you could be a little nicer to me?"

I was, in a word, hideous.

The day ended when I escaped to my book group later that night. I fled from the house. I told myself I was getting some space from my son, but when I couldn't look at myself in the mirror on my way out, I knew I wasn't running from him. My sense of self-loathing and Bride of Frankenstein hair prompted a friend to ask what was wrong. Note to self -- no matter how bad things are, always brush your hair before going out in public.

I sighed, wondering what to say. I wasn't looking for a pass. I didn't need forgiveness. I think that when we are bad parents (and we all are at one time or another), we have to own up to it, both to ourselves and to our kids. (I did apologize to Little Dude. A lot.) We should accept responsibility and try to be better the next day. Guilt isn't a bad thing if it means we make amends and learn from our mistakes. I am not in the "you are never failing as a mother" group. I fail all the time. I don't think that makes me a failure, but it does mean that I have as much to learn as my son does about how to behave.

I did not want to be told that I hadn't screwed up. I knew I had. I needed to vent.

I cataloged the hundred failings of my day -- every lost moment, the words I wished I could take back, my disappointment in squandering time with my son and my fear that this would be one of the days he'd share with the therapist he'd need in his 20s because I was The Worst Mother Ever. My friend made soothing noises and reminded me that every parent has those days. She told me my son would be fine and tomorrow would be better.

Then, she told me a story.

A year ago, she said, I brought her family dinner when she was recovering from an extremely severe skiing accident. Unable to stand for any length of time, and exhausted from hours of intense physical therapy, she relied on an army of friends to help prepare meals for her family. When it was my turn, I brought Chicken Marbella and Little Dude brought a wildflower he picked from the yard. We chatted for a bit, and Little Dude and I had to leave to spend the afternoon in the backyard together. I turned to my son and said, "OK, guy, it's time to go garden like rock stars." I do not remember any of this, but my friend swears it happened, even though she was on a large dose of painkillers at the time. This anecdote did not (and still doesn't) seem like much to me, but my friend said that at the time, she thought, I wish I could be a mom like Devon.

Given yesterday's events, I think we can agree she's delusional. Still, it was what I needed to hear. It wasn't absolution -- it was perspective.

My friend reframed my day. Not by telling me to ignore what had happened, or to "give myself a break" or to "move on." Instead, she put that day in a timeline of a thousand other days, some full of gardening and caring for our neighbors and others full of impatience and crap.

As parents, we get caught in the weeds, numbed by the daily routine, the constant demands, the minutiae of bottles and diapers and school lunches and permission slips and tantrums. We make scrapbooks and photo albums of our children's achievements and milestones, but we don't keep track of our own successes -- the times we conquered impatience, bit our tongues, put our phones away or spent the afternoon gardening with a boy who has since grown to love being with his parents among plants and insects and dirt. We neglect the times we get it right.

My friend was my keeper, the archivist of a good day. Which made me think -- we are all each other's keepers.

We hold stories and tuck them away until someone needs to be reminded that her failings, while real, are temporary. That bad days are balanced by better, brighter moments. We root around in our brains and pull out ordinary forgotten memories to share them with the very people who made them at the time they need them most. We find flashes of brilliance, warmth, humor, love or just plain decency in the chaos and mess of parenting and we use them to pull each other back from the ledge when we're ready to jump. We need to look out for each other because, honestly, if you're anything like me, jumping occurs to you a few times a week.

So, my new promise to myself is to be someone else's keeper. To tell Andrea that I see how hard she works to find allergy-friendly recipes for her daughter, to call Arian to say that I notice how compassionate and empathetic she is, to thank Kristen for getting my kid to eat salmon burgers, to acknowledge Tracey's enthusiasm for her children's passions and to thank my husband for his generosity and insight and compassion even when things get really sticky.

We are each other's keepers. Consider yourself warned. Tomorrow is day three of the Week o' Fun and if I'm going to avoid being a soul-sucking shrew, I'm going to need some help.

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