The night before the first day of school I was lying in the bathtub, indulging in a minor panic attack about all the things I needed to do before everyone headed out in the morning. Someone knocked and I yelled, “Come in,” knowing it had to be my husband because my kids just barge in and also knowing that sometimes he has been known to bring me a glass of wine. But when he poked his head around the door, it was immediately clear that this was not a wine-delivering mission. I’ve never seen that expression on his face before–somewhere between fear and wariness and dawning realization and horror.
I sat up. “What?”
“I think Sierra just got sprayed by a skunk,” he said reluctantly.
Sierra is not one of our children; she is our miniature dachshund, and the news that she’d been sprayed by a skunk probably shouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but in that moment it very much felt like one. Inside my head I was yelling, “Nope, sorry, I cannot worry about one more thing right now. My brain is full to capacity with planning first-day-of-school outfits and packing lunches and getting the perfect morning of photo with the carefully lettered chalkboard and dreading all the work and volunteer commitments I’ve been putting off all summer that I know are going to fall on my head like an avalanche as soon as the kids are all in their new classrooms and I return home to my computer. And now I have to worry that my children are going to have to start off with new classrooms and teachers while smelling like skunks?”
Do you ever feel that way? That you’ve got so many little concerns that another one would topple you right over? I think of it as the mom-as-martyr complex that I sometimes fall prey to, that I singlehandedly have to hold all the worries and also the corollary of this idea–that I’m the only one that can get anything done, at least to the standard to which I want these things to be done.
The funny thing was that before I was even out of the bathtub, Ryan had grabbed our still-barking dog, who had indeed been sprayed by an annoyed skunk, scrubbed her with the hydrogen peroxide/baking soda paste that we’ve learned from experience is the only way to deskunk a dog, and rinsed her off with the garden hose.
By the time I showed up on the scene, there was just a very sad wet dog barricaded in the kitchen even though she honestly wasn’t very stinky anymore.
I hadn’t done one single thing. Except freak out.
It’s not a very healthy instinct of mine–this feeling that I’m the ONLY ONE who can do ALL THE THINGS. Mostly because it’s completely untrue. My husband can do a lot of the things, too. And at this point, so can my kids. But sometimes I don’t want to let them, partly out of some idea of what a good mom is supposed to do and also because I want a lot of those things done my way.
And part of it is even deeper, about my identity and who I am if I’m not Mom. If being a mom of a newborn and toddler involves a process of turning over your time and your identity to your child, of allowing all those things that made up your identity before you were a mother to become at least partially subsumed by this new round-the-clock job, then being a mom of school-aged children seems to involve a gradual but constant process of letting go. This letting go is both theoretical and practical. It means letting other people handle things I once did or teaching my kids how to do those things for themselves. My husband is perfectly capable of deskunking a dog. My kids, at least the older ones, are perfectly capable of making their own lunches and doing their own laundry. Initially, this letting go doesn’t feel great. It feels a little bit like prying open a fist when you’ve been holding it in a tight clench for a long time. At first it hurts to release that hold–your fingers cramp as you stretch them out, but eventually my hand feels better when it’s not so tightly clenched. In the same way, letting go of some of the kid tasks can make us feel like we don’t have control, even that we’re losing our identity as a mom if we don’t do all of the “mom things.” But I don’t have control over as much as I like to think I do. And some, okay, most, of the things I worry about aren’t that important anyway. I got my daughter to wear a dress for that first-day-of-school photo, but before we actually drove to school, she changed right back into her tshirt and leggings. I mean, oh well. She was clothed.
I can feel sad that they are doing things I once did, or I can feel happy that they are becoming independent in a healthy way. (I think it’s okay to feel a little of both.)
So yes, my kids don’t need me in the same way they once did, but at the same time there are certain things I hope my kids will always need (allow) me to do–to listen to triumphs and failures, to encourage and to commiserate. (I remind myself of this all the time when I am worn out and just want to stare at my phone. Julia, put it down NOW and listen with rapt attention to all the important details of the math lesson so your child trusts you with the rest of the stuff they’re holding in.)
In reflecting about letting go, I’m also reminded of something Sister Simone Campbell writes in her book A Nun on a Bus about how she tries to live her life open-handed. Having open hands means you can’t hold tightly to the past, but it is also the only way to allow in the new, to receive the Holy Spirit. So I keep trying to open my hands, to let go even when it hurts. I keep working on letting go and looking forward to receiving the new.
(This sort of nosiness is probably exactly why she got sprayed. But also, perhaps we could wrap a Swiffer around her and hire her out for drainpipe cleaning.)