Friday, January 17, 2014

the writing of an apology

I have not yelled.  And I do not like that you are saying that I did, I said to Julia, toothbrush in my hand, as we looked at each other's reflection in the bathroom mirror.

We were having one of those mornings.  Elliott was staying home from school with a fever.  Nicholas was perky and happy and distractable, and therefore singing nonstop and loudly.  Julia had slept until I forced her out of bed, and had groused at me when I pulled back the covers a bit.  And told me how cold the house was.  And how she did not like her options for clothing that day.  And she had moved so slowly to dress and at breakfast that I had to constantly remind her to do the next thing.  

A short time earlier, before the kids were up, I had woken to my alarm clock and Jonathan had delivered a cup of coffee to me on his way out the door.  I had taken a few moments to think through the day and then had risen and started our morning routine.  And I had reminded myself, as I was tempted to stay in my warm bed for even a few moments longer, that our mornings are better when we are not running late, and when I stay positive and cheery no matter how the kids greet me as they begin to wake.  And that, if I meet their moods with in-the-moment feedback, when the mood is negative, the moment will go badly.  In and down.  Smile.  And keep moving.  

I reminded myself, standing next to Julia's bed, that she was tired, and perhaps about to get the same virus Elliott had.  That the house was in fact cold, as I myself had lingered in bed a few moments too long and had therefore not had a chance to stir up the wood stoves.  And also, given that I had taken a few extra moments in the warmth of my own bed, I was now needing her to move a little faster to get out of her own warm nest.  

Understanding and acknowledgement of my own part in this, I tried to layer some extra love,  sprinkled with gentle reminders to keep moving.  I silently added a cup of hot chocolate and her favorite breakfast sausage to the breakfast I had laid out on the kitchen table, before I went upstairs to wake her.  And stood back, registered her glowering, and reminded myself, not now.  Don't comment on slowness, it will only get slower.  I turned, and reached for the mini marshmallows, deep in the back of the cabinet.  How many marshmallows change a mood?

And then, in the course of those first 20 minutes, Julia began to perk up, throwing quick witticisms into the breakfast banter, these humorous comments trickling into and overpowering her commentary of criticism.  And pretty soon I did a double-take when she traded funny barbs with Nicholas and I had to look at her to see if she was being oblivious or shockingly hilarious.  Shockingly hilarious, it turns out.  So there she was, Jazzy Julia, awake now and ready for the day.  And I think all of us breathed a sigh of relief.

All of this was just moments before the aforementioned comment about yelling.  All four of us were in the bathroom together, brushing teeth and hair.  And she announced, after a rogue hair had snagged itself in my ring, that I had been yelling at her all morning, yelling at her to hurry up.  Doing, she claimed, exactly what I had worked all morning not to do.

And so it had happened, as it sometimes does, that I did not keep my mouth shut.  I spoke, firmly but quietly, and provided that in-the-moment feedback -- but at a time that it was neither helpful nor well-received. My feeling was not angry; I was correcting something that felt important to me.

But our timing this morning was definitely off.  Sometimes she and I work like a comedy team, she lapses into a disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Valley Girl 1980 lilt, and I am right back at her with...OMG that is sooo jolt (we picked this up from listening to Terri Hatcher read A Hero for Wondla, her narration of the girls of the New World in a futuristic mall not all that different sounding from the girls in the food court of my childhood at the Mall of New Hampshire).  Or she will say something completely sarcastic and I will fling it back at her and she, when we are on, will laugh...and when we are off, will...well...cry.  It is a tricky and unpredictable dance, sarcasm and wit and private references between us.  But it is one that sometimes works between us, takes the edge off, and I do so enjoy being surprised by her wit.  But as any parenting book would tell you, using sarcasm is rarely a good idea with a nine year old, especially when said nine year old would rather be in bed.

I do however, think, that humor is a powerful parenting tool, when done well.  Which was obviously not the case this morning.  My friend, a master of humor parenting, once pretended to pick her nose beside me on the pool-side bleachers in order to surprise and elicit a guffaw from her child who was on the verge of tears during a particularly difficult YMCA swim class.  That moment of 12 year old boy inspired booger humor?  Brilliant.

Mine? Not so much.

In the bathroom, ponytailed with a slight bubble in her hair atop her head, Julia walked around behind me and stood there.  I expected a hug, or for her to say something.  Or for even just a tap or a quick and silly tickle, so both of us would know that we were okay.  

But she stood back there for a bit too long.  Like a poorly timed laugh reel, the seconds passed.  And I was focused on brushing Elliott's teeth without making him gag.  Because that just seemed like a bad idea given his upset stomach.

And soon, Julia moved on and headed downstairs with Nicholas to get into her jacket and boots and to zip up her backpack.  

Alone in the bathroom now, standing brushing my own teeth, I walked around a bit.  And as I did so, I saw this.

It socked the air out of me.  And made me feel immediately awful.  Did we really have that kind of relationship, in which she could not just turn to me and give me her small smile and say, Oops, sorry.  Or even take a tone and say Mom!  I was kidding!!  What's your damage?

And then I remembered Julia's first words as I was waking her, still warm, waking slowly, but herself.  Not a complaint.  Not a request.  Not a demand.  The first thing she said to me was, How's Elliott feeling this morning?

When I got into the car out in the driveway, I turned to her.  She had her hat over her eyes.  And was leaning back into the head rest.  Julia?  I saw your message in the window.


Thank you for saying you are sorry.  But it really wasn't a big deal.  I was just telling you that I don't like it when you say I have done something that I was very intentionally not doing.  I do not yell at you.  It bothered me that you were saying I had.

Oh.  I was just kidding.

Really?  Because you look upset now.  

I feel kind of sick.

It was a difficult morning, and in this moment of opportunity to pull it all together, I don't think I did my best work here, did not really allow the warmth and compassion back in as quickly as I wish I had.  I felt horribly about hurting her feelings, but I was also still a bit hurt myself.  And therefore I did not completely let Julia off the hook, and therefore, unlike the healthy breakfast, SmartWools on her feet and carefully organized and double-checked for contents backpack, I sent her off to school a bit unprepared to take on whatever may come her way today.

And now, she is off at school for hours.  I trust that her school will call me if she needs to come home.  If the dreaded stomach bug gets her today.  

Maybe, contrary to my initial negative impression of her written, rather than spoken, apology, Julia had made the better choice by writing sorry on the window.  Maybe she knew that a spoken sorry was not going to work right then while Nicholas was shouting song lyrics and standing on the toilet seat and Elliott was whimpering and looking pathetic while I tortured him with his toothbrush.  Maybe she knew that in that small space, she was going to stay close but remove our opportunity to continue to growl at each other.  And that she was feeling sorry. Which really is the most important thing, that our children have that capacity for empathy, not necessarily that they take care of us or make us feel better, but that they know and feel when they have hurt another.  And that her timing was actually spot on when she wrote what she felt, her back to me, our shirts rustling against each other a bit.  Written on the window in her handwriting, drops of water in its bottom edge trickling down the glass, there was no danger of me misinterpreting the tone.

I think she nailed that apology actually.  Because that word has stuck with me all day, long after the condensation on the window glass, warm inside, cold outside, faded away when the sun's warmth hit it.

I wish we had had a different morning.  That it had ended in the same manner that it had started for her.  With kindness and thoughtfulness of others.  And that I had allowed the warmth to seep back into me a little faster, so I could have filled her with it before I sent her out into the world.

Luckily, we get to do it all again tomorrow.

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