Before I had children I had no idea about so-called “mummy guilt.” I think M was barely 6 months old when I was feeling terrible about something or other (probably the decision to enroll him in daycare) and my mum imparted these pearls of wisdom: it doesn’t matter what you do as a mother you will always find something to feel guilty about. Or, she might have added, your children will find a way to make you feel guilty.
My brother and I regularly get a rise out of my mum by remembering (“misremembering” according to her) how we used to live off of microwaved pizzas and fish fingers (which, I never tire of pointing out, should not be microwaved). My poor mum protests that she used to cook us nice food and that we most certainly did not eat microwaved pizzas every night. I believe her. I am sure M will grow up remembering the hotdogs and white bun dinners or the cans of Heinz spaghetti bolognaise, not the painstakingly made spaghetti or lasagna with hidden-vegetable sauce.
I often need reminding about Mummy Guilt, lest I go completely off the edge of “oh-what-a-terrible-mother-I-am.” I love M, he is sweet and funny and kind and smart, but sometimes he is also a smart-arse, and like all four-year olds, does things he has been asked (repeatedly) not to do. Sometimes I think he is too smart for his own good, and certainly too smart for me. Lately, every time I tell him off, I come away feeling as though I have emotionally abused my child. Either I am a truly terrible parent, or (as is my husband’s theory) I have a four-year-old who knows how to push my buttons and make me feel guilty as hell for what is entirely normal, boundary-setting, parenting behaviour.
The things I tell M off for are generally things that he has repeatedly been asked not to do and that have a genuine reason behind them (I won’t pretend I am immune to the odd irrational irritated outburst, but generally there is a reason). Common reasons include: don’t swing on the door handle in case you pull it off its hinges; don’t run/mess around on/by the stairs in case you fall and get hurt; don’t stand on the back of the kitchen chairs/swing on them in case you fall and bang your head; don’t jump on the couch because a) it’s new and I’d like it to last a little while and b) because you might get hurt; and my particular favourite: don’t eat your own bogies and ear wax because it makes me want to throw up.
Like all children, M does not like being told off, but he seems to have taken this to the extreme lately and is waging a war of emotional blackmail with me; a war, I might add, that he is winning.
I love him, I don’t want to see him sad, but I am also not going to let him get away with doing things I have just asked him about four times not to do. The other day when I told him off for banging the kitchen door while his brother was asleep (the first three times of asking were perfectly pleasant and polite and included an explanation of why I wanted the baby to stay asleep a little while longer; the last time was a louder and much firmer “will you STOP doing that I have just asked you several times!”) M took himself to sit on the bottom step outside the kitchen and hung his head. I heard him mumble something and I went out to talk to him. “What did you say?” I asked. “I said why am I such a stupid kid?” M replied sadly.
This hit me like a punch to the stomach. I have never called him a stupid kid. Nor has his dad. Nor has anyone else that I know of. I asked him where he had heard that and he said nowhere, that he just thought it. I gave him a cuddle and told him that he is not a stupid kid, that he is a lovely boy. I told him that he is kind and clever but that when he does things he has been asked not to do he gets told off, like everyone else. I said just because he got told off didn’t make him a stupid kid.
Today, I was downstairs getting a tissue (I have had a cold which is really irritating as I keep having to run for tissues in the middle of doing things) and I heard a strange noise. I thought it was probably M doing something as he usually sounds like a herd of elephants in the living room (from this, I have coined the expression “herding” or “herding around” as in “stop herding around near your brother.” This backfired slightly when M seemed to take pride in it and now responds by jumping around in circles yelling “herding! herding! herding!”) When I came back up the stairs I saw that the noise was M rocking L rather vigorously in his car seat, which I had (trustingly/stupidly) left on the floor. I said something like “M! What are you doing? Stop that you might hurt him.” And I told him that he shouldn’t ever rock the car seat because he might hurt L. I said I knew he hadn’t him and wouldn’t mean to but to leave him alone when he was in the car seat just in case. I also said that I wouldn’t leave L where he could reach him in future, to which M replied: “if you put him up high he might fall off.” He then looked at me with doe-eyes and said “mum, you make my stomach go all cold when you tell me off.” “I make your stomach go all cold?” I said, “yes, and my back.” This earned him a cuddle and an apology for scaring him and a rather drawn-out explanation that he had scared me by rocking the car seat (and a mental note to self not to leave him alone with the baby again).
M has an answer for everything. Like his telling me that I would be endangering L if I put the car seat out of his reach (which I countered by pointing out that I would put it up on the buggy/travel-system and it would be fine). He tells me that he has fallen down the stairs before and it was fine (yes, I point out, but next time you might hit your head and it won’t be). He laughs when I tell him not to stand on the back of the chair (despite having fallen off it and banged his head before and another time slipping and hurting his neck).
This morning he kept saying “poo” and I told him if he said “poo” to me one more time he would be going in time out because he was too big to be saying rude words at the table. I told him that he was four and not a baby and I didn’t want to hear the word “poo” again. He looked me straight in the eye and said “sometimes four-year-olds do things they aren’t supposed to, like saying poo” and he referenced a friend at nursery’s older brother who says rude words when he comes to pick his brother up. Yes, they do, I countered, but then they find themselves in time out.
A couple of weeks ago when I asked him to eat one pea (one pea!) at dinner, he asked if he could eat a chip instead of a pea to get pudding. I told him that he could have pudding anyway but just to eat a pea to show me that he was a big boy. M said that he was a big boy. I pointed out that he was rolling around on the floor like a two-year old having a tantrum about the pea. He responded with a rather indignant “that’s what four-year olds do sometimes!”
I think my mum finds all of this rather amusing. She thinks I have a mini-me on my hands and points out that I was stubborn and used to argue with her. One of my aunts thinks she remembers me staging a sit-down protest in a shop once (or maybe twice). God knows what my poor dad remembers. I remember skidding up and down the aisles of the supermarket on my knees, my little brother in tow with my mum hissing “stop it, you’re embarrassing me/people are looking” and my carrying on regardless.
Yesterday, I had a stinking cold, so M watched three hours of TV in the morning followed by two hours of computer games while I made lunch. Then we played two board games together and sat for an hour reading books (mostly me reading them but I did get him to read me two, over his protests of “I can’t read!” which he can). I then collapsed in a heap on the sofa and asked him to play something (not TV/computer games) by himself for ten minutes before it was time to go to gym club because I didn’t feel well. He threw himself on the floor and let out a pained “why do I always have to do everything on my own?! Why do I never get to play computer games?”
My response of: “You-have-been-watching-TV-and-playing-computer-games-for-FIVE-HOURS-and-I-have-played-with-you-and-read-to-you-and-I-REALLY-don’t-think-asking-you-to-spend-TEN-MINUTES-doing-something-like-colouring-is-a-massive-hardship!” was met by a sneaky look up at me and I distinctly saw a grin on his face.
Pushing my buttons indeed. Mummy guilt be damned.