One of my favorite stories about a matriarch in our family is about trash.
Her children shared garbage duty in their house: gather it, bag it, put it out. Not an awful lot to ask of able-bodied teens, but as parents know, our children tend to have selective hearing. For instance, “I baked cookies!” never seems to fall on deaf ears, but “please do your chores!” and they’re all, “I’m sorry–did you say something?”
It’s the night before trash pick-up, and in her authentically sugary-sweet voice, this Mother asks her kids to gather the garbage.
They don’t gather it.
So she gathers it.
She politely asks them to bag it.
They don’t bag it.
So she bags it.
Evenly, she asks them to take it out.
They don’t take it out.
So she places the gathered, bagged garbage in the middle of the kitchen floor.
They walk around it.
They don’t take it out.
So she places it in front of the doorway through which they must pass in order to leave the house.
They step over it.
They don’t take it out.
It is then that she meets her limit. Finally, this gentle woman and her kind voice have had enough.
Every time I hear this story (and I request to hear it a lot!), I visualize the scene in my mind:
A petite, quietly frazzled mother stands in the middle of her messy kitchen. No one helped clean up the dinner dishes, so they’re piled high in the sink, overflowing with the meal half the family refused to eat. Clean laundry beckons to be folded from the laundry room; remnants of kids’ homework are littered about the couches. Jackets, shoes, and book bags are yet again scattered throughout the house because their owners can’t seem to remember where they belong. Because every surface and seat is occupied by clutter, everyone is sitting on the living room floor, zombied out in front of the television. Everyone, that is, but the mother. She’s still trying to get someone to take out the garbage…
She storms into the living room where the sight of her oblivious children and husband send her into orbit. Staring mindlessly at who-cares-what, they are completely unaware of her presence, until she moves her petite frame directly in front of the TV screen. Something inside her snaps. She feels heat rise to her face. Holding the garbage bags with clenched fists, gritting her teeth, she yells. And she yells a yell that disguises her voice from recognition, immediately startling her family–and any neighbors within ear shot–but at last she has their attention.
“I have asked you! I have told you! I have put the bag where you cannot miss it! Do I have to talk to you the way you and your friends talk?! Is that what you want?! Okay, fine! TAKE OUT THE FUCKING TRASH!”
Everyone hears her this time. The trash is taken out. The mother reigns victorious. Exhausted because why do they make us do that?!, but nonetheless victorious.
Until next time.
Because you know there’s a next time. Then another time. And countless times after that. It’s not that we ask too much, it’s that we ask at all. Even in my stint as a mother and wife, relatively new compared to the matriarch in my story, I’ve learned that no one hears me until I lose my shit. Until my voice is strained and harsh and unrelenting. Then and only then does my husband make eye contact with me and my kids acknowledge my voice.
I get it: I’m the nagger. I’m the reminder, the nudger, the enforcer. I’m the one saying do this, don’t do that, and it’d be nice if you would______. I often wonder what would happen if I stopped talking altogether: would they notice?! How many of our proverbial balls would drop out of rotation, useless without my juggling? Of course I can’t stop juggling, or at least I don’t. But I will say: letting everything hit the ground in a big crash then turning on my heels while someone else cleans up the mess? #MomFantasy.
Anyway, every day after school, my two children and their friend come home and do their homework right away. It’s what works best for us, and I like me a routine. Off the bus, to the table, homework done. After papers are checked and student planners are signed, the kids return their things to their book bags and I make a snack. It’s how we do. Except…lately, my son has been forgetting to return his work to his book bag. The first few times, I reminded him after I did it. Then, I stopped doing it, but continued to remind him. Despite my constant reminders (nagging), there have been times he has left for school without the almighty homework folder. So I’ve driven the folder to him because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? I’m his MOM. MOMS drive forgotten work to school, don’t they? I don’t know because I’ve never had an eight-year-old before now. SO I DRIVE THE FOLDER TO SCHOOL.
I saw it lying underneath the dining room chair (seriously?!) and told myself to take it to school. He had a lot of work yesterday; we did it together there at the table. TAKE THE FOLDER.
But I didn’t. I didn’t take the folder because haven’t I reminded him enough? Haven’t I established a routine and expectations that are what the experts refer to as age-appropriate? Haven’t I given him second and third and seventeenth chances to take the folder? In the grand scheme of life, my job as a parent is to churn out good citizens who make worthy contributions to society. Part of citizenship is responsibility, so I reasoned that taking the folder AGAIN would actually contradict my job description. If I keep rescuing the kid from his self-induced forgetfulness, how will he learn? Today, I decided to let natural consequences be the teacher. I don’t know if that means he doesn’t get to go to recess. I do know it means he’s embarrassed and panicky, watching for me to appear in his classroom doorway to fix everything.
That part makes me physically ill.
I want to save you, buddy. I really do. I want to make sure nothing bad ever happens to you and your sisters–believe that. I want to be the Best Mom Ever in practice, not just on a coffee mug. But I can’t. Because that’s not life. Life is hard sometimes, and as much as the hard sucks, it’s also what shapes our character. And I’d much rather this innocuous example do the shaping than, say, when you’re behind the wheel of a car.
Hopefully today will be gentle on him, the minor anxiety resonating just enough to serve as a reminder to TAKE THE FUCKING FOLDER. If not, Best Mom Ever will have to rely on Plan B.
Note to self: make a Plan B.