So here’s a myth: I thought the physical effects of motherhood that seemed so new and strange ended after childbirth and breastfeeding. By the time my sweet toddler turned two, my hair was back to normal, my body had settled into its new shape, and I was getting used to a less than the optimal amount of sleep.
But then I entered my third year of motherhood, and I had an entirely new and completely unpleasant experience that manifested itself in such an acute physical way. Shame.
The first time:
I’m standing with a group of mothers waiting for our kiddos to finish preschool. I love this time, talking with the other parents, engaging with younger siblings, and making plans to play at the park after school. My boy and his class walk down the sidewalk with their teachers and then drop their backpacks and begin to play tag. This isn’t new. Every school day ends this way. But today I notice one of his best buddies is hitting my son a little harder when he tags him. I continue chatting with the parents, but keep an eye on the play. Again. Another hard tag/hit. My boy seems okay with it, and he keeps playing. Again. Tag/hit. And Again. Tag/hit. This time, I see the change on my boy’s face. I go to him, but he’s faster. He pushes his friend to the ground and kicks him. It’s awful. I pull him up. The friend is screaming, and my boy is MAD. I try for a moment to get my son to see how sad his friend is. How his actions hurt someone else. But as my son stands stoically, not conceding, the other parents look on, and I just want to get the heck out of there. This is my first experience where my son’s actions became my shame.
At home, I vacillate between being angry at my boy and feeling so sad about the unfairness of it all. I should have intervened sooner. I could have prevented it, and I failed to do so. But the most profound feeling is physical. I feel raw and vulnerable. My body feels weak and my appetite is gone. There’s a constant lump in my throat. I want to curl us both up in bed and never leave again. To keep us safe. Away from judgment.
The last time:
After weeks on a new baseball team, my boy is thriving. He loves playing and looks forward to every practice. I sign him up for a week-long, half-day baseball camp in the summer. As the spring practices continue, my son asks to go to full-day camp instead. I email the coach to ask about the change. I think nothing of it when the coach doesn’t reply. It’s the end of the season, and he is busy. I’ll just touch base with him on the last day. That evening I walk onto the field and tell the coach how much my boy loved playing for him. I tell him we’d like to do full-day baseball camp instead of half-day. The response is not what I was expecting.
The coach tells me my boy gets distracted sometimes. Six hours of camp may be too much for him. If we want to do full-day camp, I should have a good heart to heart conversation with him to make sure he behaves. And I feel the physical manifestation of shame again. My face is hot. There is a gigantic lump in my throat. I can’t really respond with anything except a thank you for the feedback. My son is older, and I can say with confidence, that he’s a really good kid. I’m more experienced and sure of myself as a parent. But these unexpected words bring me right back to that day at preschool pickup. I want to scoop up his body that is now longer and heavier. I want to take him home and hide. To protect him. To protect his love of this new sport and defend his goofy, creative personality.
For all the advice and shared stories I received about parenting, these experiences of shame were never mentioned to me. I learned them on my own as I hid quietly in the safety of my home.
“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story.” -Brene Brown
I wonder if other mothers feel this way sometimes?
While I would like to avoid shame, I know I will feel this way again. Because my child isn’t perfect. Because he is a child. But I’m better at managing it. I talk about it with my husband and with other mothers whom I trust. And I am developing a vocabulary to describe it.
If you, the reader feel this way too sometimes, then, it’s likely the two of us aren’t the only ones. Maybe at the next playdate at the park or a rare mom’s night out, be willing to be vulnerable and share your stories with someone you trust. I don’t think any of us can avoid shameful situations, but we can support each other through it.