In the morning when they crawl into bed with you, half asleep still, warm and scented so poignantly of themselves, when they stretch their ever longer bodies alongside you, give a wiggle to snuggle in, when you wrap your arm around them and by habit they lift their heads a little, when you bury your nose in their hair and your mouth reflexively kisses the crown of their heads, when the sky outside is shifting from navy to a dense gray, the time before the pinkening...you feel a contentment so deep and perfect it feels like a quiet joy. It feels like a joy so marvelous it is near silent, with no need to trumpet itself. Your hope rises with the dawn, glowing with the yellowing sun. You think it's good, this is good, and it's okay, it will all be okay.
That's important because you---those of you who mother---know that every day somewhere in at least one corner of your heart is the fear that your child will be hurt (or worse) in this life, and you can't get rid of it because you've lived a life yourself, and you know it's true.
But more than any lingering pucker on the knee from a bad spill on a bike, you fear that scarring on the inside. Small blemishes on the outside give us character, but sometimes, those healed wounds on the inside change our inner landscape in ways we wish had never been.
You---those of you who mother---see who your children can be, and are, so watching the inner character alter in a withering way is much worse than the little lumpy scar on a calf from that one time a Pyrex bowl shattered and embedded a shard of glass all the way into the muscle. It's worse, even, than the pinkish oval near an elbow from that time a running toddler got away from you and brushed by a hot grill. It's even worse than the looks and comments your got as if you could have and should have prevented the accident by taking better care of your precious child.
That's because your worst fear is not that some mean girl or stranger is hurting your baby, but that you are, in ways you cannot help.
That you, simply by being yourself and true to your values, are creating a challenge and pain point for your child, and you begin to remember the time you searched for an adoption certificate for yourself, so sure you were that you could not possibly have been born to your very own parents.
You now know just how very much that disbelief and disappointment must have hurt them, your parents, even if they too understood, having been there and done that themselves.
But you know you've entered that stage, that "wish my mother was some other way, more like her" stage one day when, well, your child says it, flat out to you, innocently and unblinkingly.
It's a regular day, this day that it happens for the first time. The morning was filled with cajoling and ringing threats of threats to get ready, mixed with silly incentives such as singing the "move it move it" song. But your three year old will lollygag and eventually it ended with tears, as it tends to, and you shoving small bodies out the door in an annoyed way. The three year old was crying because there was no time to do a fancy hairdo because she simply would not put on her shoes, and with honest sentiment, that child, that lollygagging morning disrupting peace breaking child snarled at you in fury, "I HATE YOU!"
But you are immune because this is your second child and the 23,765th time it has been said to you. By now, you know it really means, "You have thwarted my will and for that I wish I could immolate you on the spot." By now you know the sentiment will be gone before you back the car out of the drive and hit the LMNOP part of the Alphabet Song. By now, you are not fazed at all by I hate you.
But once upon a time you were. Once upon a time you had grand dreams, visions and plans to be a Great Mom who was at peace and in harmony with her children through positive parenting. Once you planned to never breathe a harsh or angry word, much less a threat, thus mitigating the need to ever mete out a punishment.
Once you thought every minute of every day would be like those cozy moments in the morning.
It worked for a long time with your first child. The first time she turned on you it felt like a shock. It felt like a betrayal. Who is this child? Who is this furious mom talking to her precious daughter through her teeth?
You kept trying to get back to that place of harmony and contentment. You kept trying to get back to morning. But that time had passed. Two people can harmonize, but with independent spirits and wills, two people who care will not always be in harmony. You know this is a good thing, this developing of self and independence, and someday you will not have to remind yourself of it, someday you will know it. You hope.
You don't know if it's anything at all but you never expected that with your second child, you never aimed for it. She is getting quite a different early life than her sister. It is what it is.
It is sometimes a more honest relationship because from the get-go both of you acknowledged each others' flaws. Accepted them. Or maybe that's just who you each are as people. For now.
But your older daughter recalls the feeling of the morning and she wants it all from you, too. You recognize the times of shock and betrayal in her, when she can't find that mother and moment and feeling. You recognize it and know it, in that intimate "me too" way. You two have had a closeness so different than the one you have with your other child, and so often you are able to be each others' everything.
But her world began broadening beyond your comfort zone when she entered school, and you had to slowly accept and admit that your completeness---your control---was slipping. You began to see your flaws in the system. You knew the kind of mother you are and the kind of mother you are not.
You did not realize she knew it too.
At least you did not until that day, when, annoyed and ashamed at the reception you knew you'd get hurrying up a few minutes late to the spot at school where your daughter waited, you ran into That Mom, the one you are not, and she was waiting with your daughter.
You felt this complicated sense of obligated appreciation mixed with resentment because it really wasn't necessary and you hadn't asked, then also you sensed something more behind her, "We waited to keep her company...it was no big deal!" explanation. You sensed her trying to fill some hole she thought was there. Or maybe you were projecting. You don't know.
You shucked these thoughts and feelings aside. You let the, "I should be more involved at the school" and "Somehow I should be able to juggle my be in two places at once schedule better" and "They want me to be someone other than who I am" thoughts float away like carelessly loosed balloons.
You smiled, and focused on your daughter, her moon face and prominent cheekbones so very dear, and let your heart feel complete to have her with you again.
"Thanks," you said, hugging your girl, hugging her sweet form, trying to fill her with the knowledge of how much you love her. You tugged both your girls' hands and walked towards your car.
"Her mother came to school today and read us a story!" your daughter said.
"How nice," you said, proud of your even tone.
"Her mother comes to school a lot!" your daughter said.
"I hope the teacher finds that helpful," you said.
"Probably!" you daughter said, her cheer growing as yours collapses. "She always plays fun games. She's like a teenager! She always plays and dances and she says her mother is like that at home. She plays games all the time, like a kid, like a teenager!"
"How nice," you said.
"I wish I had a mother like that," she said, to you, her mother, "I wish I had a mother who could be like a teenager! I wish she was my mother!"
You can't say anything at all because your heart has stopped and the breath froze in your lungs and your tongue turned to ash. You know you ought to say something, something graceful or funny or wise. But you've got nothing, nothing but a mouth full of ash.
That's when you felt every single flaw and insecurity you own as a mother. In an end of life style flash you saw every time you did something other than what a Perfect Mommy would do---the losing your temper moments, the giving in moments, the taking a trip on the first day of school moments, the short tolerance for playing on the floor with her moments, the let her watch TV instead of interact with her moments, the rest of them, the writing instead of reading books at school moments, all of them, all the times you weren't who or what you figure you should be.
You feel every single time in your life that you felt unlovable, unlikable, not good enough, not enough, not a fit, not what someone else who mattered to you needed.
That's when you realized your arrogance at weathering "I hate you" was simply naivete and bravado. That's when you realized there were things much, much worse than "I hate you" and you couldn't possibly imagine them to prepare yourself for them when they came.
Because there is no way to steel yourself for the moment when your child weighs and measures you and finds you wanting. None at all. There is no way to prepare yourself for the realization that even if it is just a fleeting thought in a brief moment, your child wishes she was someone else's child. Wishes you were someone other than who you are. How you are. Forgets for a moment, the whole of you, the good works well aspects of you, and is so overwhelmed by how much she likes the Plays Like a Teenager Mom that this washes out everything good about you and is the most desirable characteristic.
That's when you know unconditional love is one way.
That's when you come to treasure those mornings with a fierce sort of desperation underneath the joy and contentment because you know just how very momentous they are.
You swallowed the ash and it sat in a burning stinging pile in your stomach. You wrapped your arm back around your daughter's shoulders and hugged her, coughed, and managed to say, in a choked sort of voice that sounded as small as you felt, "Well. Well. I bet someone who plays like a teenager is a lot of fun."
She looked at you funny, suddenly seeming to realize something was out of joint, but not sure what or why, and you remind yourself, as your mind has been telling your heart since the first words came out of her mouth and poured over you like acid, that she is so very little, younger than the shoes on your feet, for all that she seems so big and sophisticated compared, you know, to a few months ago.
You coughed again and said, slightly stronger, "It's nice to know people who can play like we like, it's the good thing about meeting new people, huh."
That's when you realized this was not at all about you. She was not wishing you away or otherwise. She was trying to explain how much fun it is to play with this fun person. She would not actually trade you, like a low value Pokemon card.
That has to be the hardest lesson of parenting, you know, that it usually is really not at all about you, or personal. That even when you feel as if you have been crushed beneath a 50 ton steel support beam, you still have to get over your own feelings, and hear what your child meant to say, so that you may help her learn her words, how to use them wisely and conscientiously, with respect and consideration, so that the people she meets throughout her life do not end up with ash in their mouths.
You have to be more than the moment. You have to be so that she does not grow up thinking love can burn up and float away if you are not exactly who someone else thinks you ought to be.