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The Absolute Hardest Thing About Parenting

Erin Zammett Ruddy

The reason being a mom overwhelms me (in the good sense and the bad) is that there are so many indescribably happy moments but also so many I-want-to-pull-my-hair-out moments and you never know which one is coming when. Every day is a swinging pendulum of parenting emotion and it’s impossible to be prepared. Let me explain.

Yesterday as I was getting Alex out of the car he jumped into my arms, buried his head on my shoulder and hugged me. I took advantage of the rare tender display and snuggled him back. “I love you, bud,” I said. He wriggled out of my arms and responded with this gem: “I just wiped a booger on you, mom.” So much for our hallmark moment. A friend just told me about her friend’s similarly crushing blow when she and her son were gazing silently and lovingly into each other’s eyes and then he pointed out that she had a hair growing on her chin and asked if she had a beard. If that doesn’t take the wind out of your mom sails I don’t know what does.

But isn’t that what parenting is? A series of indescribable highs and crushing lows often happening within moments of each other—sometimes within the same moment (I remember changing Alex’s diaper when he was a newborn, marveling at his naked little bod for a beat too long and catching pee in my mouth). Of course the lows aren’t always funny punch lines we can share in our FB statuses. Sometimes they’re miserable moments (that last way longer than a moment) that make us lose our cool or cry the ugly cry or feel desperate down to our core. I think that’s why parenting is so overwhelming—overwhelming in the good sense and the bad. Because you never know when those joyful moments are going to hit or when the depths of mom misery are lurking behind them. And because there can be an endless amount of both in the same day. As I’ve said before, my heart can swell with pride and love for my children to the point where I feel like it may burst and I think I'm the luckiest person on the planet, and then that same heart can beat wildly out of control with stress to the point where I feel like it may seize and I will drop dead in the middle of the produce aisle if Nora doesn't sit down in the $!#&!& cart. And that rollercoaster of emotions--wanting to freeze time one second and fast forward it the next--is hard to take some days. God forbid you’re sleep deprived or distracted with work or had too much wine the night before—hanging on for the ride can nearly break you.

The other day I met a friend for an impromptu lunch play date at the beach and it had all the makings of a perfect afternoon. Nora wasn’t feeling great so she was an angel who just wanted to sit next to me and whisper random musings in my ear. Alex decided to become possessed by the devil and embarrass the shit out of me. After our picnic lunch we headed to the water and in the span of about 10 minutes, he lost his mind. First, he refused to share the sand toys with Nora or my friend’s twin girls (despite the fact that they were their toys), then he walked over to Nora and dumped a huge bucket of sandy water on her head (she’s tough as nails and was unfazed). After a time out, he waded into the water and started teasing the twins by letting one of their toys float away, then retrieving it before it drifted out to sea. Finally he heaved it so far out that there was no way he could get it without swimming over his head. He started freaking out. The girls started freaking out. My super-chill friend was like don’t even worry about it. And I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’ll be damned if this $^#&! bucket floats to Connecticut because my little brat felt the need to tease kids half his age after I’d asked him repeatedly to stop.” So guess who had to go out and get it? This lady. Of course I wasn’t wearing a swimsuit so I had to wade out up to my belly button in my shorts and shirt. While all four kids were crying and screaming. After bringing Alex to his second makeshift beach time out, saying our sorrys and helping Nora poop in a bucket (oh yeah, that happened too), it was time to go. We were there for a total of 47 minutes and in my book it was about 40 minutes too long. I drove home in my sopping wet clothes and put the kids down for naps, Nora’s hair still covered in sand. It took a good two hours for my heart rate to slow to normal. All I kept thinking was, how on earth do stay-at-home moms do this every single day?

Fast forward to that evening. We put Nora down early and Alex, Nick and I ordered Indian. The three of us sat in the dining room with candles lit and jazz playing (Alex’s request) and we devoured chana saag and saag paneer and butter chicken with all the fixings. And it was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time. We chatted, we laughed, we ate. Alex can be better company than some 30-somethings I know—when he wants to be. He asks questions, he’s curious about your life, he remembers things you told him in the past (his memory is uncanny, in fact, and often leaves me and Nick dumbfounded), he’s funny, he’s polite, and he can be sweet and sincere. At one point during the dinner I started to say “This moment makes me…*” and Alex interrupted and said, “This moment makes me really happy. I love that it’s just the three of us together.” Then he added this: “I love my sister but she can be a little…annoying sometimes, right?” I had tears in my eyes.  I felt the same way (not about Nora being annoying, although he was spot on there). I was glad we had some time to give Alex our undivided attention. I felt so content and I imagined all the amazing experiences we could have with this gorgeous little boy sitting next to us (and the annoying sandy little girl upstairs). I felt so lucky. When only hours before I’d felt so defeated. For someone who thrives on knowing what to expect and trying to keep an even keel, that kind of rollercoaster ride is a lot to take.  

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while—that you never know what you’re going to get with these kids (with mine at least) and that the pendulum swing of emotions is exhausting. The constant need to be on your emotional toes, to never think you’re a rockstar mom who can handle anything because as soon you do someone will start whining for you to put the car window down—no up—no down—no up, mom! and you’ll snap at them and then immediately feel like a failure. The thing I’m trying to learn to do: Ride out the lows without becoming too engulfed by them because there’s always going to be a high right around the corner. And hopefully the highs soften the blows of the lows. Do they make those awful mom moments any less awful? No. But the bad moments don’t make the sweet moments any less sweet, either.

*I was about to say this moment makes me not want to have any more kids so that we can fully enjoy the two we have and give them more of our undivided attention, which clearly they need. But that was last week. This week we’re thinking we do want another. I'm hoping that feeling passes.