I Am Not a Mother: I Am a Human Being

Guest Post by Tania Runyan

“You’re not a good mom!” My ten-year-old daughter shouted as she stomped up to her room. “Good moms don’t throw paper plates at their children!”

Of course, this declamation can be proven false. A good mother would construct a Chinese kite out of a paper plate, toss it toward her daughter at the perfect moment of uplift, and watch her little girl revel in the kaleidoscopic tail. A good mother would cover a paper plate with cookies shaped like autumn leaves, gently toss the plate across the counter, and giggle as the studying child discovered the surprise.

In my case—a sweaty, hair-flying, early-morning rage—I picked up the first thing I saw (made of paper, thank God), and flung it at her: “I don’t like you!”

Following the rules of nature and metaphor, the plate flew back in my face. But that didn’t stop my daughter from crying, my young son from running away in fear, and my middle daughter from staring into space, escaping into the methodical chewing of her apple.

With just four minutes until the bus’s ungodly 7:15 arrival, I had a decision to make. Would I let the school bell ring on my wrath, or would I try to take something wrong, whatever it was, and turn it into something right?

I should have harnessed some fail proof strategy. But I had once again fallen into a tar pit of parenting confusion. I’ve never been into all the “mommy” stuff: magazines and playgroups; Pinterest and its neurotic cupcakes; disciplined, highlighted hair. Sure, I drive a minivan, but I’m quite certain I drive it ironically. From the moment I got pregnant, I determined to stay myself, a self who just happened to have kids. Just another poet and English teacher with a bouncy seat in the living room, and a dark, inner vortex of anger she never knew existed.

I hate apologizing to my kids. And I hate having to do it under pressure. But I made the call:

“Lydia. Come down.”

I looked up the steps to find she had never made it to her room. She sat on a middle stair, her thick hair hanging over her face like a mushroom. This was not school-ready hair. After all, our spat had originated from her clearly expressed dissatisfaction with my ponytail-making skills. Another one of those universal mom know-how’s that never quite made it into my arsenal.

She scooted her way down. Bump. Bump. Probably just one minute till the bus.

“Sorry I was mean, Mom,” she mumbled.

“I’m sorry I threw a plate. Of course I like you.”

“It’s okay,” she said.

But I couldn’t let it stop there. “You know I’m a person, right?”

“What?”

“I’m a person. Like you.”

“Um…yeah-uh?”

Oh, the condescending “Um, yeah-uhs” that had seemingly infected the whole community of fifth grade girls.

I heard the bus rounding the corner. Her eyes bolted from me to the door as her younger sister slipped out and ran down the driveway.

“I’m not just a mom, you know? I can’t just…take it over and over without getting upset. People get mad when people are mean to them. I’m a person. You know?”

“Uh huh. I need to go, Mom. Sorry. Don’t forget I need more wide-ruled paper for tomorrow.”

She ran a brush through her hair, dropped it on the floor, and careened through the garage.

Probably none of my words sunk in, but I felt calmer having said them. Maybe one day she would remember my statement as one of life’s truths, an “ah-ha” memory when she finally recognizes me as both fully mom and fully human. Sure, she’s only ten, but I still remember snippets of conversations I had with my mom at that age. Although now all I could summon was her saying, “Wish in one hand and pee in the other, and see which one fills the fastest.”

All was quiet. My son stabbed away happily at his tablet with sticky fingers. “Can you make me a smoothie, mama?”

“No,” I said. “Not now.”

“When?”

“I don’t know.”

In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott recalls losing her cool with her son: “It’s the worst thing I know, to shout loudly at this 50 lb. being with his huge trusting brown eyes. It’s like bitch-slapping E.T.”

It feels terrible to yell at a smaller, helpless person you’ve brought into your home, true, but it’s not all that crazy. An average person with a full luggage set of dysfunction gets pregnant or somehow convinces a social worker to approve an adoption home study, and suddenly she is expected to breathe Lamaze-style through every horrific challenge to her self-worth. I don’t believe in some mystical, instinctual ability to sacrifice for one’s child. I love my kids, but I often have to work at that love.

Sometimes I can’t make myself get off the couch to tuck them in at night. I want to spend my extra money on cute new boots for me, not my eight-year-old. And I certainly have my limits when it comes to receiving outrage about how I scramble eggs, set bedtimes, or wrap a rubber band around a hunk of hair. In many ways, I am a wiser and more empathic person—finding my life by losing it— for having children. In other ways, I am the same person I was as a child: flawed, selfish, and prone to throw things when I don’t get my way.

I picked up the paper plate that lay upside down on the counter and placed some apple slices on it. I dipped them in peanut butter and crunched.

“Is my smoothie ready yet?” my son asked.

“Not yet,” I said, and pulled him into my arms. I had a few more slices to eat. It had been a long morning, dammit, and I was hungry.

Tania Runyan, a recent NEA fellow, is the author of the collections Second Sky (forthcoming), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicous Air, which won Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Her book How to Read a Poem: A Field Guide will be released by T.S. Poetry Press in 2014.

Art Used: It is going to be okay by Chidi Okoye Red and black pen on paper

  • Chad Thomas Johnston

    I enjoyed this, Tania! “Wish in one hand, pee in the other, and see which fills up first.” Hilarious! And you quoted one of my all-time favorite Anne Lamott lines. Great thoughts on parenting and personhood. Thanks for these chestnuts of wisdom!

    • Tania Runyan

      Thank you, Chad! If my daughter had any clue this was circulating today. . .

  • Kristi

    Very good. Thanks for sharing.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Good for you, Tania: for sticking up for your non-Mom self. (Fun, too, the way you play with our theological language for Jesus when you insist on being “both fully mom and fully human.”)

    I do think your kids will come to appreciate that you didn’t try to turn yourself into something other than you are. (Well, when they’re parents themselves they’ll appreciate it.)

    • Tania Runyan

      Oh, but that long wait for them to be parents!

  • Treva H Whichard

    Same can be said for us grandmothers as well..when we are gutsy enough to admit it.

  • Patty Burnes Horstman

    Oh, Tania, thank you for your honesty. I’m right there with you and have been for 22 years. Yes, my oldest turns 22 on Sunday and I informed him I would no longer be planning anything for his birthday. “Will I still get a present?” he asked with both dismay and resignation. “Maybe. If I can’t find a pair of cute boots I like.” ;)

    • Tania Runyan

      It’s encouraging. . .and fearful. . .to know they never fully grow up, huh?

  • disqus_iK1FxPIuq4

    beautifully written

  • Leslie Leyland Fields

    Love this! Beautifully written! There’s a piece running in the current “Books and Culture, “Are Christian Mothers Human?”http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2013/novdec/are-christian-mothers-human.html

    • Tania Runyan

      Ah. . .it was a week of celebrating moms as people, too!

      • Jessica Hooten Wilson

        Yes, I read both pieces this week–providence in my life. Thank you both!

  • pjwaldron

    Mom is worried that Daughter didn’t “get” her message before she ran off to the bus, but it seems to me the daughter’s response to the blow-up means she ALREADY gets it. People get mad, blow up, say bad things, but then you apologize, maybe take back some bad words, and reset. Even moms. The daughter didn’t even make it up the stairs before remembering this. Hang in there mom, but she’ll be fine.

    • Tania Runyan

      What a wonderful thing to point out! She did tarry on the stairs, the sweet thing. And I do pray she will be fine. I have a hunch she will. Not sure that I will!

  • Gina

    I have a vivid memory of being about eleven years old and saying something snarky to my mother She was sweeping the floor in the kitchen. She looked up at me with a sad expression and said “I just want you to like me” She was /is an amazing mother but that was the first time I really saw her as just a human being. Someone I could hurt. I felt like crap… I’ve never forgotten it.

    • Tania Runyan

      Oh, that is such a bittersweet story. And so true–I feel like that about my kids, too.

  • Brad Winters

    Paraphrasing Psalm 133: “Behold, how good it is for head-spinning parents to dwell together in unity!” This hits a sweet-and-sour spot, for sure.

    • Tania Runyan

      You’re welcome, Brad! I think. . .:)


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