Published on February 11th, 2021 | by Brianna Avenia-Tapper0
There was a night in Jo’s first year when she woke up and screamed. Her tiny self seized up, rigid, and then shook with outrage. It was screaming like an electric shock, like someone had plunged their hands into my torso and was slowly prying my ribcage apart. I picked her up in the dark and held her and rocked her and tried to nurse and sang to her and shushed her, and still she screamed.
And then there was a knocking from the other side of her wall.
I squinted into the dark, confused. Had I…? Was there…? A pipe, maybe..? There it was again. Our neighbors, the people in the next apartment, banging on the wall, protesting the disruption to their sleep. I gaped at the place where the knocking had come from. Then, cradling the still-screaming Josephine in my left arm, I yanked the stretched-out strap of my tank top up over my shoulder, and reached back with my right arm.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
I pounded on that wall with all the force I could generate. I swung my fist with the desperation of a mother who has just now realized how little control she actually has. I banged and banged and banged. LET THEM SLEEP THROUGH THAT THE INCONSIDERATE CHILDLESS TWITS .
BANG. BANG. BANGBANGBANG!
Before I became a mother, my meditation teacher told me that we should love our neighbors “as a mother loves her only child.” When I was pregnant, this advice rang in my head like a bell. I tried to indulge the whole world. Once Jo was born, I became sure that this “love as a mother loves her only child” phrase was a bullshit relic of some outdated misogynistic mind control. Caring for my daughter meant being woken many times a night, bitten in sensitive parts, needed constantly, screamed at. I decided that whatever ancient monk had chosen this analogy, he had certainly never been kicked by his only child while trying to get her in an elevator, and he had definitely never cleaned baby poop out of a rubber duck. The love that I had for my daughter was full of frustration, shot through with self-interest, riddled with compromise, weighed down by monotony. It wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t monk-like. It certainly wasn’t the kind of love I imagined the Buddha expected us to give our neighbors. It was love that felt a lot like a fight.
Now, Josephine is older and she doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Now, she has other problems. Chief among them:
Leaving and arriving.
She hates to leave home for school, and she hates to leave school for home. She hates to get in the bath, but she also hates to get out of the bath. She hates to get in her bed, and, of course, to get out of her bed. Don’t even get me started on the damn stroller. THE CAR SEAT.
In the morning before we leave for school, Jo will slide half-dressed off the living room couch and huddle in a puddle of four-year-old indignation on the floor. When I’ve finally coaxed her into a reasonable approximation of dressed and fed, just when I think that we may be on the threshold of the threshold, she decides that her shoes hurt, and she must change them, but her next choice is also unsatisfactory, and so it must be the socks that are to blame and so we change those too, and then I remember that we haven’t washed her face, which entails at least five minutes of arguing back-and-forth, and then a quick swab with a rough cloth, which is met by an appalled wail, and by now we are twenty minutes late and I am literally vibrating with frustration and have been reduced to waving gummies in front of her in a last-ditch attempt to bribe her out the door.
And then she wants a ponytail.
And then I am standing half in and half out of the elevator, holding her snack and her tutu, my bag, her bag, her coat, and she is off, running down the long hallway away from me and no amount of SERIOUS MAMA VOICE will bring her back, and I have to let the elevator go, which means I will have to wait for it again, or get in and leave my precious daughter to fend for herself on the eighth floor of our building, which of course I cannot do, so eventually I have to let the door close and chase her down and scoop her up and trudge back ducking her flailing arms and then I have to push the button again—at this point I crush the button, pummel it, grind it into the damn wall, and then we are waiting again so that we can get in the lift and go down and sit in the entryway and fight more about whether she should put her coat on before we go out into the freezing morning.
In No Bad Kids, Janet Lansbury writes, “It’s no wonder [parents] find themselves losing their confidence, and often their tempers. It doesn’t have to be that way.” But doesn’t it? I’m not so sure. Is that a realistic expectation for people tasked with the unpaid work of raising a small, willful child who has not yet developed full reasoning capacity or concept of time? I think that maybe a loss of confidence and temper is exactly what we should expect. Maybe we should be ready for a fight.
I was chopping sweet potatoes for dinner the other night when I got a phone call from my younger brother. If there is anyone I know about fighting with, it is Ben. Ben and I aim to draw blood. Once, I swung a rough, leather-handled rafia purse, hard, right into his little face. On this one phone call, Ben wanted me, without my husband or daughter, to join him and my other two brothers for a cruise to celebrate my father’s 60th birthday. I did not want to go. Actually, it sounded like a special kind of expensive hell.
So I said, “I don’t want to go on the cruise.”
He geared up. I could hear the crank beginning to turn, like when Josephine is tired and hungry and we’ve just discovered that the honey was mixed into the yogurt without her direct supervision. “Yeah, well…well…” his voice wavered, and I heard the sharp edge near the tears, the casting around for something to throw.
“I just want you to see how selfish that is, Brianna.”
He hung up without waiting for a response. There was that familiar ache, from before I had words to name it. I have hurt him. I have denied him. I have insisted we take the elevator. How similar to parenting, knowing a person you love is hurting, but also knowing that this is how it is. Knowing that you have chosen to deny them. Motherhood has taught me that I am allowed to say no. I am allowed to say, “I don’t want you to kick me.” I am allowed to say, “I do not want to be treated this way.” Perhaps I at least love my brother as I love my only child. I fight hard to love Josephine. It doesn’t make it easy when she spits on the floor. It is still frustrating when she steps on my keyboard or empties the contents of my purse on the grass. But still, I love her.
Still, I love my brother. Maybe we are meant to love other people this way. Knowing that sometimes they will bite us, and we will have to tell them sternly that we do not want to be bitten. And we can see this, and see that it hurts, and love them anyway. That, I think, is how a mother loves her only child.
Before I became a mom, I attended a dinner party at the house of a friend with a three-year-old. The boy had been nestled down in his cozy bed, and his parents were relaxing at the table with their guests, fondling beers, arranging a board game. We were just rolling the dice for the first time, when the little boy raced into the room, yanked down his pants, squatted, and let loose on the rug. That’s parenting. Sometimes you want to have a dinner party, and someone poops on your rug. You tell them to stop, and you love them anyway.