Bad Moms

Published on May 4th, 2020 | by Sarah Dalton


Listening for the Music

In my house, Star Wars is as ubiquitous as allergens. Bedroom blankets, lightsaber toothbrushes, bath wash, stickers, books, backpacks. It’s even in the pantry, wrapped around cans of chicken noodle soup. I want to blame my white, Midwestern husband, who grew up in a Star Wars family and felt it his paternal duty to inculcate our three- and five-year-old sons in the ways of The Force. Outnumbered, and frankly missing out on all the fun, I decided to join them. In the process, to my surprise, I became the primary force behind our accumulation of paraphernalia.   

Growing up, raised by my single mom who immigrated from Panamá, I wasn’t familiar with Star Wars. At night, we watched telenovelas and listened to Walter Mercado’s daily horoscopes. I memorized and sang-along to a different trilogy, Alan Menken’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. My first contact with Star Wars came in ninth grade when I wrote an essay analyzing Luke Skywalker using Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. At the time, I thought that movie was the only Star Wars movie. In 2015, thirty-eight years after the original movie’s release, I saw a female protagonist in Rey and a Black and Latino duo in Finn and Poe, and The Force Awakens became my gateway into Star Wars fandom. 

I’ve accepted the array of toys around the house, an endless space opera battle itself, but the most difficult task has been to parley terms with the film soundtrack. My sons request Star Wars music. Every. Single. Day. Several. Times. A Day.  

There’s an art to listening to music over and over and over again. With lyrics, at least I can belt along. Instrumental music needed different tactics. At first, I tried to isolate individual instruments, learned to pick out the sound of a French horn or the cello section, but at some point, a resistance developed and I shifted to sabotaging techniques like “Mommy’s cell phone isn’t connecting to the car.”

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Any given weekday morning, by 6:30, my husband has prepared coffee, the kids’ breakfasts and lunches, and left to beat the morning commute. I have one hour to get myself caffeinated and me and my preschoolers dressed, breakfast-ed, and out the door. I hate being late. If we haven’t left by 7:35, anxiety mixed with caffeine creeps in with a pounding heartbeat.  

Buckling up my three-year-old in his carseat, I ask, “What music do you want to hear?” “Star Wars!” they exclaim. I check my older son’s buckles then slide into the driver’s seat like a  runner into homebase. I cue up The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack and tilt the rearview mirror for one last check-in.

“We ready?” I ask their eager reflections.

“Yes!” they chime, and I tap play.  

Immediately that familiar and triumphant opening chord resounds. We reverse out of the driveway to a fanfare of horns culminating in that iconic melody: daah-daah-da-da-da- daah-dah, da-da-da-daah-dah, da-da-da-dum. From the backseat, my sons sing along while I sing in my head. The music calls us to heroic action. Together we accept and make our way to school. 

The “Main Theme” is for the Rebels, led by Luke and Leia, always scrambling for their lives, making plans as they go along, reacting to the Empire. Throughout the Star Wars movies, the Rebels have the odds stacked against them, and yet, time and again, they manage to escape and triumph, even if it takes a trilogy. They operate in survival mode, which is how I operate as a mom, life lived in constant readjustment (a constant readjustment that, more recently, means no more rushing out the door and a great longing for the teachers, classmates, friends, and family members who help me raise my boys).

That victorious melody reminds me to be flexible and forgiving because whether the morning went well, was a disaster, or, more likely, fell somewhere in between, mornings with children rarely work out as planned, and sometimes, like the Rebels, triumph is just a series of lucky strokes or the kindness and generosity of others.    

We listen through the next tracks,sometimes skipping to the fifth song, “Imperial March.” Low strings and horns layer with a timpani rumble and a sharp patter from the snare drum. When the horn section starts the melody, my boys join in: “Dum-dum-dum, dum-da-dum, dum-da-dummmm, dum-dum-dum-dum-da-dum, dum-da-dum…” 

This music is for Darth Vader and the Empire. In contrast to the Rebels, they are methodically organized, singularly focused on their only goal: destroy the Rebellion. I admire Vader’s confidence, aptly reflected in the melodic repetitions and variations. Things get done with his militaristic leadership.  

Experts say having a predictable routine helps kids transition, but maybe the routine is more for me. Maybe I just want to get out of the house on time with the least amount of tantrums, fights, yelling, bribes, or cajoling. We have a routine, but something always comes up.  

A common example: potty training my three-year-old. He wants an M&M for going pee in the potty. My five-year-old, who gets an M&M as long as he helps his little brother pull his pants up, also wants one. The problem is, they just brushed their teeth, and I don’t have time or patience to brush two young kids’ teeth again. Am I going to be consistent about teeth-brushing or consistent about potty training? Will I ever get used to repeating things that have already been done?  

Darth Vader would never have this dilemma because Darth Vader always knows what to do. He never hesitates or doubts, whereas I question everything about parenting, from small things like chocolate after brushing teeth to whether I should take my five-year-old into the doctor for a tick inside his ear or try to pull it out myself.

Never questioning one’s tactics devolves into authoritarianism, often violence, and in those moments, I find an empathy for my mom. When I got in trouble as a child, she would storm off to her room while I hid, trembling. The closet doors banged open, the hangers scraped the wooden rod as she looked for a belt and came to find me.  

I know those moments, submerged in anger, my whole body a frenzy of fury. I know that impulse for violence, how easy it is to clench power, even for a moment, and use it over someone weaker.  

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Another morning, there are so many, it’s 7:30 am. Three or four times I’ve called my five-year-old to come to the bathroom, knowing the younger one will follow, and we can brush teeth together, but my older son wants to play with his Star Wars figurines.  

“This is ridiculous!” I finally scream, tugging a blouse over my head and storming down the hall.  “Get in the bathroom now and go brush your teeth!”  

“I can’t,” he sniffles.

“What do you mean you can’t? Are you a baby? Why are you acting like a baby and not brushing your teeth?” I grab the mini Stormtrooper from his hand and throw it on the carpet with a thwack. I take him under the armpits and carry him to the bathroom. Still crying, his eyes don’t recognize me. They look at me. They look for me. The wave of fury has crested and broke, and now I feel guilty for using my own version of dark-side Force magic: fear and shame.   

Ashamed, I apologize and explain in the best what-can-a-five-year-old-understand words, “Mommy got mad. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He’s too rattled to brush his teeth, so I do it for him. 

Subconsciously, I must feel the rise and fall of each trumpet-led melody in the “Imperial March.”  In the sheet music, the shape of the musical notes looked like a negative-sloped algebraic line.  In the final crescendo, the trumpet strains through one last elongated melody line, shrill, high, then plummets down the musical scale. The orchestra explodes in a frenzy of strings, a pounding from the timpanis, and a crash of cymbals. Darth Vader’s epic fall, the Empire’s final failure.  

Jedi Masters teach their protegees about the balance of light and dark. When my inner Darth Vader starts to coalesce–jaw clenched, chest and arms contracted, voice strained and tense–sometimes I am able to step away and sometimes I fail. Joseph Campbell might have given me a blank stare if I shared how the daily experience of motherhood felt like a Hero’s Journey. I may not be a hero in a galactic, inter-generational saga, but becoming a mother has challenged me with daily tests of meeting, accepting, and learning to manage my anger in an effort to protect my children from a violence too easily passed on generation after generation.  I believe my mom, in her way, did the same.   

Whether the morning is good, bad, dark, light, or somewhere in the middle, my boys and I get in the car, we look at each other through the rearview mirror. I press play, and we listen for the music.  

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About the Author

Sarah Dalton is the Managing Editor for Reed Magazine, Issue 153 where she coordinated an oral history project about the aftermath of a mass shooting called “Gilroy Strong: A Community Speaks.” She is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and a second year graduate student at San José State University.  Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth’s blog, The Sun’s “Readers Write,” and Reed Magazine.

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