The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Becca, get out of the tub

Last night, I saw Tell Them Who You Are, a documentary by Mark Wexler about his famous father, cinematographer Haskell Wexler. As much as the film told the story of Haskell's life and career, it also told the story of Mark's relationship with his father, a complicated and rocky one at best. After the film, I went for coffee with some friends and we talked a bit about the movie. We were all reasonably new mothers except for one of us, who has grown children (one of whom had brought her along on our girls' night out). "Does it make you think about the way you parent your children?" she asked us as we discussed Mark and Haskell's relationship. "It sure makes me think about how long lasting my casual comments and reactions might turn out to be," I replied.

I find myself losing the temper with Julia a lot these days. I'm told it's par for the course with a 3 year old and all anyone can do is muddle through these years. Nonetheless, it frustrates me that I let her get to me so much, that I can't remain in control in the face of 3 year old defiance. For every time that I've done something nice one-on-one with Julia lately -- sat and worked on a puzzle with her or taken her on a special errand or just snuggled in bed with her and talked about whatever she wants -- it seems there's also been a time that I've snapped at her or simply told her that I'm out of patience and she'd better do as I ask OR ELSE. I'd like to think the good always trumps the bad. But lately, well, there's been a lot of bad.

My mom's favorite story about my childhood is from a night when I was just a little younger than Julia is now. I had taken a long bath and she told me it was time to get out. I, predictably, ignored her. "Becca, get out of the tub," she told me. Nothing. "Becca, get out of the tub." Still nothing. "BECCA, GET OUT OF THE TUB," she finally screamed, all composure lost. And at this last request, I cheerfully climbed out of the bathtub and into my waiting towel. "Why do you always wait until I yell?" she asked me. "Because then I know you're serious," I replied.

Before I had children, I loved this story because it was so typically "me." After my kids came along and started to pull similar crap, I loved the story even more. Not only did it remind me how universal (and eminently temporary) my kids' defiance is, it made me feel better about the times I end up yelling at them. My memories of my childhood center around feeling loved and accepted, and while I remember being yelled at on occasion, that certainly isn't the dominating theme of my youth. I remember the good stuff, I've always reasoned, so my kids will, too -- even if there's some bad stuff mixed in.

But last night, as I watched a complicated father-son relationship unravel on the screen before me, I realized that you just never know what's going to stick, or with whom. I may remember that bathtub story only through my mother's retelling it over and over again, but it clearly made an impact on her, and while she thinks it's funny now, she certainly didn't initially. I'm sure that incidents like that one influenced the way we butted heads through my teenage years. And I'm slowly realizing that regardless of how we come out of it all at the end, the way Julia and I relate to each other today is building the foundation for how we'll relate for years to come. I hope that someday, our adult relationship will more closely resemble the one I have with my mom than the one Mark Haskell has with his dad. But I suspect that will have as much to do with how Julia processes my reactions to her as those reactions themselves.

This parenting thing... it's complicated, isn't it? It's great to have philosophies and goals about how you want to raise your kids, but actually following them all the time is nearly impossible. We're with our kids for the better part of 18 years straight while we're raising them, nearly every second of every day for those first few years. Some of the time, they're going to get raw reactions out of us rather than polished parenting techniques. That's life. Last night's film did make me think about how I parent. But what it mainly made me decide is that it's all a crap shoot. Sometimes, I'm the mother I want to be and sometimes, I'm not. I'm just as human as my kids. All I can do is pray that the good stuff is what eventually sticks -- in my kids' memories and in mine.


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