September 27, 2011

Making mistakes

Last week, in conversation with J.D. and in front of our kid, I used a word, unthinkingly, to express frustration with a person in the service industry who was inconveniencing me. Total asshole move on my part. The thing is, later I realized this word is more than just a curse word, that it can be really hurtful to a lot of people. It's not something obvious, one of the words that is right at the top of the DO NOT USE list. It's one where you kind of have to think about why it's wrong. And thinking, that's something I don't do a lot of, obviously.

And once I realized what I had said, I was horrified. And disgusted with myself. I tried to apologize, and to soothe my guilty conscience, by donating money to an activist group. It didn't work. I still felt bad, and I realized that the only thing I could do to make myself feel better was either 1) hop in my Delorean and ride back to the past and NOT SAY IT, or 2, and more realistically) resolve to never do it again in the future and really watch myself.

But here's the thing: I thought I had been watching myself. And now I wonder: how many of these kinds of mistakes am I, as a mother, going to make? Mistakes that I don't even realize I have made until later, or mistakes I NEVER realize that I've made, where I sail blithely on, unawares, after leaving a lasting impression on Lulu's mind that THIS is bad, or THIS is wrong, even when I don't believe that myself?

I think the song from South Pacific is wrong. You don't have to be carefully taught, necessarily. Sometimes you just have to be carelessly taught.

How many mistakes have I made already? How can I undo them when I'm not even aware of what they are, where they happened? How can I live with the fact that I am going to fill this marvelous, beautiful, wonderful blank slate of a kid with neuroses and biases and ideas about the world that might be hurtful or just plain wrong? I chatter on unthinkingly and don't remember half of what I said as soon as I've said it. But I can't control what Lulu will remember and what she will discard. I can't control which phrases and ideas that she hears from me will stick with her, and shape her. I can only control myself, the things I say, the things I put out there.

And I'm not used to doing that. To looking inward, to weighing my words, thinking before I act. It feels like A LOT, you know? Too much responsibility. And it's turning out to be far more difficult than the responsibility you think about when you bring the kid home from the hospital, the feeding her, the keeping her alive.

I thought at first that the hard part of motherhood was the sleep deprivation, the blowout diapers, the fear your child will be hurt or lonely or worse. But I also thought that parenthood could be separated into two categories of important and less important events. That in the valleys between the peaks of important things, you could relax a little and enjoy yourself and not have to worry about it or try so hard.

I am starting to realize, now, that it's all important. Everything. There are no valleys. It all counts.


  1. You can look at things a completely different way you know. Own that you said it, watch yourself, and move on, because in the long run you might just be promoting severely neurotic behavior by worrying so much about what you said.

    We can raise our children to be polite. We can raise them not to say certain things and how to behave. However, I don't think that it's necessarily healthy to raise people who are so afraid to ever speak their mind for fear of offending someone else that they never do. Should their language be offensive? No, however, but I'm sure that before you said that one word, you had a very valid point that you were trying to make.

    The truth is, we can never please every and all people with any of our words. With tact and poise, those of us with opinions should still let them be heard.

  2. Think of this, though, Cathy - you are showing Lulu that you, even an all-knowing grown-up (they really do think that way for a few years, you know) can acknowledge when you make a mistake, and take steps toward reparation. I screw up so many times, but I hope and pray that what Joy and Grace take away from my mistakes is not so much the mistake itself as the fact that Mamma is willing to say "I'm sorry" when she's done something wrong.

    Because even if, by some miracle, we could always be perfect around our children, life itself is going to give them biases and neuroses and prejudices, and the best thing we can do for them is give them an example of someone who is always willing to learn, and grow, and stretch beyond what is comfortable and easy, to do what is right.

  3. That's the thing, Adrienne: I wasn't speaking with poise or tact. I chose the most offensive word I could think of because I was mad. And that is a problem in itself.

    And it's not so much that I worry that someone could have overheard me and be hurt by it (though I do worry about that), but that the word I chose expresses an idea that I don't believe in, one that is diametrically opposed to my beliefs and the beliefs I want to pass on to Lulu. I'm shocked at myself for slipping this way. Normally I would have let it go. But I'm starting to realize that one day, a little set of ears will be there to hear--and understand--everything I say. That feels like a big deal. Especially for someone like me, who can be carried away with temper, who isn't used to thinking before she speaks.

    I think you're both right in the end: all I can do is model tact and poise the best I can, and if I still mess up, not be afraid to admit I was wrong.

    Today has been a big learning day for me. Lots of good thorny thoughts to play around with.

  4. No matter what way you look at it, EVERYONE makes mistakes, and it's what you do with those mistakes that really count, especially when setting an example to Lulu. It's better to learn of human frailty the good way, rather to be disillusioned late in life when she learns that none of us is perfect.