Parenting two small children can be a most harrowing ordeal. It can also be the funniest face. Sometimes it is the softest touch. Often it is the loudest shriek. Occasionally it is the smelliest mess. And usually it ends with the most exhausting day.
Being the mother, I loom large. My hugs are potent. My approval is sought. My anger is damaging.
I asked for this job, but honestly I don’t always embrace it. I want things to be quiet and neat. I don’t want to hear small people complaining when really their life is pretty great or crying again because they banged their knee on the stool or asking me to stop what I’m doing and help them cut up a thick cardboard box so they can make a pirate ship. I just want some peace.
My reaction is to resist. Cringe when I hear them calling for me, frown when I see the mess they made of the couch pillows which are now a fort on the floor, yell when the noise gets to be too much.
Then the children are in bed and their lovely faces rest on their pillows and I am racked with guilt. I was mean about the couch pillows, I yelled at them to move it! when we were late for school, I walked away when they tried to include me in their game. I worry that I am hurting them.
In the book Everyday Holiness, it says the first leg of the spiritual journey involves the cultivation of humility. In this context, humility means “being no more of a somebody than you ought to be” or “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” It exists between arrogance and self-debasement, which are both overly preoccupied with the self. It is the first trait we are studying in my Mussar class.
I am thinking of humility as it relates to my parenting. What is the right amount of space in this context? I don’t want to be so big that I cannot allow my children to be who they are in my presence. Our Mussar group leader said maybe I need to step up to the job, which ironically I think means I need to shrink back a bit. By stepping up I will accept the reality of the situation and stop trying to impose my will on my kids.
It helps that the teachings in the Buddhist meditation class I am also taking reinforce this idea. If it’s good or bad, pleasant or terrible, show up for it. It also helps to know that even Buddhist mothers struggle with anger. In this article in Shambala Sun, Karen Connelly writes about her interactions with her toddler son.
It’s always like this. He gives me back the emotion I have just sent out to him. My reactions set the tone of the conflict to come; I am the adult after all. Drive all blames into oneself, says one version of the lojong slogan for mind-training, which isn’t a recipe for more mother-guilt but an admonishment to examine the nature of power and responsibility. I have power over my child. Yet I so easily misuse it. I do the precise opposite of that other Buddhist meditation practice, tonglen. Instead of sending out calm breath, I shoot a javelin from my mouth.
After Mussar class the other night I was surrounded by the mothers in the group. They offered me support and war stories of their years with young children. One woman said, “You never hear anyone saying, ‘Oh yeah, that was easy, raising children. A piece of cake.'” She’s right. I never do.