At the sound of a crash on wood, Christian and I both turned around, gearing up for a Parental Scowl at the offending child. By the time we saw the toy tractor, which had been dropped into our pew by the non-Basi boy in the row behind, I realized it was far too sharp a sound to be a hymnal, which was the only thing our kids had access to. The mother mouthed, Sorry! and I leaned back and chuckle-whispered some insufficient comment about how it wasn’t our kids so we weren’t worried about it. And then realized that did not at all communicate the sentiment I was trying to convey. So at the sign of peace I made the effort to clarify.
What I was trying to say, and never quite got out of my mouth right, was this:
I’ve been a parent for eleven and (almost) a half years, which is more intense than it seems, because during that time I’ve been steadily adding to the number of kids under my care. As a parent, my first rule has been “make sure my children know they are loved.” But close behind it has been “Make sure they don’t bother other people, especially at church and concerts.”
And because I have four kids, three of whom are boys and the fourth of whom has no sense of boundaries, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been the mom mouthing “sorry” to people, who always and inevitably said, “Oh, it’s fine, your kids are so well behaved!”
I know other people have been browbeaten for their kids’ behavior, but it’s never happened to me. (Yet, anyway. I mean, until a month ago nobody had ever threatened to call DFS on me, either.)
Smiling at that woman in church yesterday morning, I realized my first reaction had been to scold my children for something that, now that it wasn’t my kid, I didn’t find the least bit problematic. Why would either of us feel compelled to scold our kids, when the kids clearly were hurting no one and nothing?
It was a rather jarring moment of clarity. We all know, deep down, that as parents we are way, way harder on ourselves than other people are on us—and often, though not always, harder than we are on other parents. But that doesn’t stop us. We set up impossible standards and then run ourselves down for not meeting them. And when a critique is leveled, we recoil inwardly and then set out to Fix It, even when there’s no way to fix it. Like, I swear my family must think we are sick all.the.time, because we have the worst luck with family gatherings. It seems like any time there’s a holiday or get-together, I’m going to have at least one family member who’s sick, and usually more. And the last couple of years it seems like we get the long-incubating, slow-moving, not-that-severe-but-man-they-just-won’t-go-away bugs that crawl through the family over the course of a month.
I’ve always taken a sort of c’est la vie attitude toward illness. I mean, reasonable precautions. If we have a playdate and someone in the house we’re supposed to go to has strep or lice, we stay home. But we have four kids in three schools. Three separate sets of germs to catch, and four candidates to do the catching. The odds (of catching) are ever in our favor.
And yet when the back side of an illness coincides with a family gathering, you can’t imagine the guilt I have about it. And when a kid comes down with a sore throat and fever in the middle of the weekend? Ugh! I feel terrible! Even though, if the illness was coming in from nieces and nephews, I’d be like, “Whatever, it’s not your fault. It is what it is, if we get it, we’ll deal with it.”
Now, why do I give myself permission to self-flagellate for things I can neither control nor would ever dream of holding against anyone else?
I said once before that mercy begins with me. Apparently it’s a lesson I haven’t yet internalized.