There are mornings, and then there are those mornings.
You know the ones? Mornings when time is short, everyone is tired, and moods are tense. There is lots of rushing around, shouts to “GET IN THE SHOWER!,” cries of “WHERE ARE MY SHOES?” and “I CAN’T FIND MY BACKPACK!,” and pleas to “HURRY, HURRY, HURRY!”
The chaos of those mornings, I am realizing, just seems to be part of life with young children. Well, part of my life with young children at least.
Fortunately, the chaos usually ends with everyone eventually getting out the door on time (shoes on and backpacks found) and calls to “Have a good day!” A few weeks ago, however, things took a turn for the worse and it went from one of those mornings to of THOSE mornings. I’ll spare you the gritty details, but let’s just say that it involved a misused camera and bickering brothers, and ended with punishments and lots of tears followed by pleading and more than a few angry words. All of this, of course, happened just moments before Jackson needed to leave for school. When his ride pulled into the driveway a few minutes later, he had to practically be pushed out the door, sulking and brimming with tears and anger. There was no call to “Have a good day!” No goodbye hug or kiss. No “I love you.” Just a rushed goodbye and angry tears, frustration and regret.
As soon as I shut the door behind him, I sat down on the stairs and dropped my face into my hands. Had it not been for the demands of my younger son (let’s play, Mommy!), I probably would have collapsed into a puddle of tears. I could feel the pit in my stomach expanding and spreading until it had moved up through my belly and into my chest and was difficult to breathe.
Within minutes, my body seemed to be consumed with an icky goo of regret. I didn’t necessarily regret the punishment or the fact that I had followed through with “consequences” (he had, after all, misbehaved and the consequences were quite mild). I didn’t regret any of that. I know that we sometimes need to discipline our children and that they will not always be happy with us or like us. They will misbehave and make poor choices and it is our responsibility to teach them that their actions have consequences.
What I regretted that morning wasn’t the discipline or the “consequences” or even the fact that Jackson didn’t like me very much at the time; these are all necessarily evils when it comes to this oh-so-very difficult task of parenting. But what I did regret was that he left with angry tears and admonishments to “hurry, hurry,” instead of an extra hug or another “I love you” in spite of the anger. Because while it is our responsibility to follow through with the unlikeable parts of parenting (discipline, chores, etc.), it is also our responsibility to make sure that our children know that we love them, unconditionally and without measure, and are constantly told that we love them – even amidst all of the frustration and sullen moods and angry tears. So while I didn’t necessarily regret following through with the icky parts of parenting, I did regret that the reminders of love had gotten lost in the discipline and the lessons and the frustration, that the mechanics of parenting had won out over the heart of parenting.
I suppose this is bound to happen from time to time, not just with parenting, but with any any relationship for that matter. We get caught up in practicalities and necessities – the homework and permission slips and bedtimes, the bill-paying and schedule-keeping and chore-delegating – that we forget to feed what lies at the heart of the relationship. We forego that extra kiss before we leave the house in the morning or we fall asleep without one last “I love you.” We rush through bedtime or we shuffle our kids out the door in the morning with rushed goodbyes, saying “hurry, hurry.” We communicate with our friends via Facebook “likes” and occasional text messages, instead of picking up the phone or sending a card. And we reward colleagues for a job-well-done with more work, instead of heartfelt words of appreciation.
They know how I feel, we tell ourselves. I say it enough, we rationalize. And the words go unsaid, the heart of the relationship swallowed by the mechanics of it.
But do they really know? Can we ever say it enough?
I know that it is hard. We are busy. We get distracted by the day-to-day. But it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It can be as simple as one more hug – even when we are so mad that a hug is the last thing we want – or an extra “I love you” out of the blue or a note slipped under our children’s bedroom door late at night. It can be as short as an “I’m thinking of you” email or a “great job” pat on the back. It doesn’t need to be poetic or time-consuming or burdensome.
Let’s be honest, relationships are hard. Parenting is excruciatingly hard. There are bedtimes to keep, time-outs to give, fights to break up. There are lessons to teach, manners to reinforce, schoolwork to monitor. There are bills to pay and schedules to keep and work obligations to fulfill. We are exhausted – so incredibly exhausted – that sometimes it feels like we are just barely hanging on by a thread. We get frustrated and angry and we bicker. Sometimes as parents we need to be the “bad guy,” drawing the line and standing our ground. Sometimes we have to adhere to the mechanics of it and sometimes we dip into the unlikable parts: discipline, snippiness, anger.
But what I am learning, what I learned that morning a few weeks ago, is that when the heart is in it, when we do everything (even the unlikeable parts) with love, the mechanics of it all become a whole lot easier.
Maybe we just need to let the heart have the last word.