We were at the park when I asked Riley to hold Gertie’s leash so I could help Dylan with his shoelaces. He wrapped the leash around his body and pretended he was tied up. “Be careful,” I said. Moments later, Gertie’s harness slipped over her head from the pulling. All of a sudden, she was loose and running in circles. The sun was setting and there were dense patches of wooded areas in every direction.
My heart leapt out of my chest thinking of all the different ways she could’ve disappeared forever. It took about thirty frenzied seconds to catch her, but it felt like 30 years, and the clumsy, chaotic process caused me to almost hurt her (I had to grab her hind legs) and her to almost hurt me (she tried to bite me when I grabbed her legs).
Partly, I was furious. Riley was irresponsible with the leash. We’ve talked about leash responsibility many times. Mostly, I was terrified. What if we had lost her?
I put Gertie back in her harness, knelt down at eye level with Riley, pointed my finger in his face and said in a quiet and harsh voice, “If we lost her, it would’ve been on you.”
Can you believe I said that to my five-year-old son? In one sentence – in just nine words – I destroyed him, even if momentarily. And what if it wasn’t fleeting? What if it’s a memory permanently imbedded in his brain (and heart), one to be replayed over and over again about the night I blamed him through clenched teeth for the (almost) loss of our darling puppy loved so dearly in part because she embodies the spirit of our beloved Harry. Call me melodramatic, but Riley occasionally reminds me of the time when he was three and caught me crying on the toilet, so there’s a pretty good chance this one will stick.
There was absolutely a lesson to be learned in the park. If you hold the leash, you’re responsible for the dog’s safety, but the way I handled it was shameful. Glennon Doyle Melton from Momastery would say it was brutiful. She’d reassure me that exposing my flaws teaches my kids that perfection is a lie and that there’s beauty in my messy authenticity, but the thought of my enraged words and the image of my finger in his face feel simply brutal.
After my rant, Riley’s eyes welled up, but he didn’t cry. The fact that he didn’t melt into a puddle of tears after my inappropriate outburst, but instead stood tall and prepared to shoulder the responsibility for something that didn’t even happen made my actions even more unforgivable. Yet, he looked up at me and said softly, “Mommy, I’m sorry.”
He was sorry. I could feel it in my bones. I was sorry, too. I spent the rest of the night apologizing to him (and his brother). Over and over again. For my words. For my finger. For my blame. I was manic at the thought of losing Gertie, and I took it out on him. I was scared about what a tragedy like that would do to our family. What it would do to me. In a heartbeat, I placed an unfair burden of guilt on him that would’ve been inescapable had the worst-case scenario actually unfolded, and I did it because I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about myself.
At moments like this, I wonder who the real me is. Am I the mother who panics, yells, and says explosive and regrettable things, but holds it together most of the time? Or, am I the mother who takes deep breaths, thinks before she speaks, and is mindful of the lasting effect of her words and actions, but occasionally loses her shit? I want to believe I’m the latter, but after a night like the one in the park when we didn’t lose the dog but I threw my five-year-old son under the bus anyway, I’m not so sure.
At its core, motherhood is about putting other people first, but eternal selflessness is as unattainable as perfection. When motherhood and humanity intersect, and especially when they collide head on at a high speed, the end result is a crapshoot. The only sure thing is that tomorrow is another opportunity to try again.
Don’t finish reading this and tell me not to be so hard on myself because I’m a good mother. That’s like telling a frazzled mom with a tantrumming toddler in the cereal aisle at the grocery store to enjoy every moment because it goes by fast. I know I’m a good mother, but sometimes good mothers fail. If you want to make me feel better, tell me about a time when you failed, too.