How a Milk-Soaked Pop-Tart Changed the Way I Parent
Parenting doesn't come with a manual, not even those sort-of-clear Ikea instructions. We all take it day by day and hope that we are making the right decisions. The older your children are, the more confusing things become. As parents, we often have lofty expectations of our children's maturity levels. The oldest child has it the worst. And the more siblings they have, the more unfair responsibility falls on their shoulders. As the oldest of four children myself, I understand this trial by fire method and have employed it with my own four kids.
My oldest son is 9, and sometimes I treat him like he is 19. I am constantly asking him to run and get my keys, to find his younger siblings' shoes, to pour milk for his sister, or to read a story to his brothers. He rarely complains. He does what I ask and asserts himself as a bit of an authority figure. All of these things are helpful, but sometimes I need to be reminded that he is just a kid himself and shouldn't have to carry the weight of our little world on his shoulders. The lines between helper and sibling manager are often blurred.
Like all mothers, I have moments that I am not proud of. I yell and I scream. I expect perfection that is unattainable and unfair. My husband was out of town recently and the kids and I were on our own. This isn't anything new. We have our "dad's gone" routines and things generally run pretty smoothly. This particular morning I was late, which was no one else's fault, but I was taking it out on my kids. They didn't deserve it but were easy targets.
Breakfast was well underway and I asked my oldest to keep an eye on everyone for a few minutes. I ran up the stairs to dry my hair and to spend five minutes alone when I heard the chaos. I headed back down and saw milk spilled from one end of the table to the other. It was pouring onto the ground and all over my oldest son's lap.
"Damn it! What is going on down here? Can't you boys eat your breakfast and not cause a disaster? Is it so difficult to just eat?" I bellowed.
His lap already soaked, I grabbed his milk-covered Pop-Tart and threw it in the trash. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, "Mom, that was the last one. I would have eaten it. I like to dip my Pop-Tarts in milk. I'm sorry."
That little boy was sopping up the milk when I came down the steps. He had one clean pair of uniform pants left that morning and was now doused in 2 percent. I left him to care for three other people so that I could take care of myself. He is not a father. He is not my partner. He is not required to do anything for me at all, yet here I am putting him in charge. It was completely unacceptable that he felt like he had done something wrong, when in fact my priorities were not aligned properly.
I grabbed him as he cried and the tears flowed down my cheeks. I apologized profusely, truly and sincerely sorry for the mother that I was that morning. I didn't want to break my child. I didn't want him to feel at fault. I didn't want him to be sad. I wanted to go back 30 seconds in time and not make that mistake. I really wanted another damn Pop-Tart. He hugged me tight, wiped his eyes, and said, "It's OK. I get angry sometimes too. I'll just have some cereal."
I was frustrated, embarrassed, and heartbroken. I wanted more than anything to take it all back. I remember moments from my own childhood when my parents lost control of their emotions. They were just as overwhelmed as I am parenting my own children. There was no malice toward us kids — sometimes it just happens. As an adult, I get that. But as a child, it made me feel sad and nervous and confused. All things that I don't want my kids to feel.
My perspective was shifted that morning. I realized that I cannot demand more from my children than they can give. They have school and friends and activities and homework and so many other things on their tiny plates. How much more can I expect of them? Not much. I cannot depend on them to be my support system. It is my job to care for and love and put them before my wet hair or any other selfish priority. I am the parent. Asking a child to be in charge of anything more than himself is unreasonable.
The game was forever changed with one choice that morning. My son could have yelled at me. He could have completely lost his mind because I threw away his breakfast. This would have been a fitting reaction to the out-of-control behavior I was exhibiting. His maturity that morning most certainly trumped mine. He taught me a lesson in self-control and compassion. He embodied what unconditional love is all about. He reminded me that he and his siblings always deserve the best of me. That boy has the wisdom of a thousand men, and I hope to grow up to be just like him.