I didn’t know I should play with my children or join them in creating art with finger paints, Play-doh, or watercolors.
I never knew to let them help me in the kitchen, baking cookies or bread.
Growing up without my mother short-changed my own daughters in ways I never expected, in subtle ways that surprise and sadden me. My mother became ill when I was three years old and died when I was four. I have no memories of playing with her. I have no memories of her interacting with me at all. My basic needs were met as a child, but playful interactions by an adult were extremely rare.
I recall once, my father coloring with me, but when I didn’t want to outline each picture and make sure I was within the lines, he lost interest, feeling frustrated at my lack of perfectionism. To this day I can feel my relief when he stopped correcting my coloring and just moved on.
“Go play,” I would say to my girls. “Find something to do in your room or just go outside.” But now I see my own girls teaching their children how to play games and think creatively. Their interactions are sweet and tender and not rushed, the way I imagine my mother might have been with me. They show patience by letting a little one crack an egg to help make cornbread or when they play ‘Go Fish’ for the hundredth time, seemingly having fun, and enjoying their time together. It amazes me.
As a mother, I was always hurrying, and if I am honest, I was always anxious. Children hate to hurry and often it would be me causing their meltdowns, by forcing a quicker pace. In the mornings, I wanted to get as much done as possible before heading out for school. “Make your bed! Brush your teeth!” I barked at them, while I hurriedly straightened the house, wanting to leave everything in order. Rushing a child is like herding snails, it rarely works out well. My underlying anxiety was focused on doing ‘it’ right. “Am I doing it right?” I constantly asked myself.
I only knew how to be productive, as in working. I worked at work, but I also worked at running my home and parenting my children. My heart was filled with love for my girls, but I didn’t know how to relax and enjoy the moments together. An impromptu tea party would have made more memories than mess. If I could only go back.
As a working mother with two girls, I felt exceedingly inadequate and always lacking. I lacked time, energy, and patience. With deep shame, I confess my short fuse and agitation at their questions and childish dallying. I felt I had to run a tight ship, remembering to color within the lines. I didn’t know there was another path with less resistance and much more peace.
I began my grandmothering in much the same way. When my grandson was born, I was more than excited; I was genuinely in awe of this child of my child. I felt honored to hold him and tend to his needs. But soon I became aware of an underlying tension that threatened my happiness and serenity. It lived right under my skin for months. One afternoon when he started to cry, I walked him around the house and patted him, but nothing would work. “Shhh shhh,” I whispered in soothing tones. No nourishment or jiggling or patting; nothing would quiet him and so without even being aware, tears began to pour down my face and I sobbed right along with him for reasons different than his own. I had to lay him in his crib, and I sat sobbing in a chair nearby.
“Dear Lord,” I prayed. “Help me. Calm me. Help me to be enough. Forgive my anxious, anger at not being able to soothe him. Change this, change me and heal this hole.”
My mind shifted that day and my heart cracked wide open with such reverence, and love that I finally saw my truth and felt a change within me. I felt calm, and I realized that my trying to be perfect, to do “it” right, only caused me to feel less than and kept me from just loving. In the time it took to whisper my prayer, I hugged that little one to me and felt a peace inside that began from the inside out. I was able to slow my breath and heartbeat and when I did, his did too.
“Oh,” I thought. “This is what it feels like.” And I took a long, deep breath. If ever I start that anxious dissent or forget to enjoy the little moments, I have only to whisper, “Help me.” And the calmness returns. I can breathe in the joy and settle my insides. I can stay in the present moment and let go of unattainable perfection that threatens to flatten me like a penny run over in the streets.
And so, my house is messy now when our grandchildren are over. Train tracks, Hot Wheels, and glitter. Dress-up clothes, blocks and books are scattered about because we have fun together. Playing, imagining, laughing; all the things that create a bond of love. The love in my heart is demonstrated as I showed them through my time and attention how important they are to me.
Last year, my little granddaughter and I spent an early morning watching the snails on our patio table. We created the Snail Motel and talked about life as we herded the snails back into their make-shift housing. And as much as I feel I didn’t know these things while my daughters were growing up, I do know this now. That morning on the patio was delightful and pure and memorable, and I am filled with gratitude for another answered prayer.
My grandmothering has become an amends to my daughters. Amends for the things I didn’t know back then. Amends for so much hurrying. Amends for not enough play, silliness, and laughter. Amends for too much stress.
And almost as important is the amends to me. For after all, I did the best I knew how. I just didn’t know.
But I do now.