You know when is a good time to have a persistent low-grade fever of unknown origin?
Not now. It’s definitely not now.
I’m only telling you this to get to this next thing: The other day, I was burrowed into the corner of the couch, watching J play, and berating myself for not being involved. Again. Maybe he felt me doing it because he stopped playing and announced he was going to “love on” me. I happily accept his affection at any time, so I ignored the part where he smashed his knobby knee into my stomach as he settled onto my lap. I kissed the top of his head, and he reached behind himself and patted my cheek with sticky fingers. And then I apologized.
“I know I haven’t been that fun lately. I’m sorry. I want to have fun with you, but I’ve been really frustrated because being sick is making it hard for me to do fun things. And,” I paused to keep my voice steady, “I haven’t been very nice to you all the time. And I am so sorry about that.”
This wasn’t easy for me to say to J, but it was necessary. I want him to hear that I make mistakes, that I am aware of them, and that I believe in addressing them instead of pretending they don’t happen. I want J to be able to recognize his own mistakes and say, “I’m sorry. How can I make it better?” I tell him I’m sorry because I want him to know that he deserves “I’m sorrys,” that just because he’s younger and smaller doesn’t make him less than.
J didn’t skip a beat with his response to my apology. He kicked his feet against my legs and then turned around and said, “That’s OK, Mom! I just knowed it was your sickness making you mad.”
If that doesn’t make a mean mom tear up, well, then I don’t know what does. I hugged J, and then asked, “How can I make it better?”
“Can I have a popsicle?” he grinned, and I let him have two.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s not because I think we all owe our kids apologies, though it’s pretty likely that most of us do during this mess of a time. I think it’s really important we remember that kids know and understand a lot more about what’s going on than we think. They see our struggles and give us grace without us even asking for it. And I think that we, as people caring for children during a pandemic, should give that grace to ourselves. Really, we should have been doing it all along.
I’d been telling J I didn’t feel well for the last month, but I didn’t think that he connected me being sick to my behavior with him, but he did. He knows how I usually am—I don’t yell very often, I am pretty patient with his 4-year-old shenanigans, and I like to do fun things with him. Without me ever saying it, he understood that because I’ve been feeling sick, I haven’t been the mom he’s used to me being.
A while back, I was a teacher. At some point during my classroom career, I read that a teacher should treat every day as a new day with students, that to properly serve them — especially when they were having behavioral issues — it was essential to let go of their wrongs at the end of each class and start fresh the next day. As I spent more time with younger students, I carried this lesson with me, making the day incrementally smaller and smaller the longer I taught. By the end, I was working hard to look at each second as a new second, giving every kid the chance to do better, over and over again.
When J spent a few months really throwing us for a loop with a sudden big attitude and tough behavior, I remembered this lesson and applied it to my parenting ever since. It’s harder to do with my own kid than it was with my students: J doesn’t go away at the end of the day, and I am ultimately responsible for correcting the problems he’s having and making sure he’s a good human.
Reminding myself to constantly give J the chance to do better after he did bad was great — for me. It helped me stay patient and practice quick and immediate forgiveness (which I have never been good at), but just thinking about this in my head all the time didn’t necessarily help him. Luckily, somewhere along the way, I realized that and introduced him to what we call the “reset button.”
The reset button is an imaginary button that beeps when we push it and restarts and refreshes our interactions. In other words, you push the button, your slate is wiped clean. I made this button up on the fly in the heat of one of J’s tantrums, and I had no idea how valuable it was going to be for us. I don’t brag much, but I’ll brag about this one. It’s a good concept, and you have my permission to use it.
Most days, J doesn’t ask to push the button, but then there are days when he does four or five times. He uses the button when he’s in trouble, he uses it when he’s frustrated, he uses it when he’s angry, and he uses it when we just aren’t understanding each other. I know, it sounds like he can get out of anything, but that’s not how it’s worked.
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Pushing the reset button helps us regroup and try again. It gives J a little breathing room and reassurance that even when he’s been a real handful, I’m still right there to help him with a do-over. Without me saying so, he pushes the button when things have just become too much, and he can tell that the next thing that happens isn’t going to go anywhere good without starting over. When J quickly accepted my apology for my poor parenting, I realized that he’d been pushing the reset button for me and that I needed to start pushing it for myself. So, I have.
Being sick has always triggered my anxiety. Give me a month-long illness with no identifiable cause or foreseeable end, add in a global pandemic that’s led to a constant cycle of depression, and then make me have responsibilities through all of it and, well, that anxiety is having a really good time. But now there’s the button. While it is taking some practice on my part, I find that asking J if I can push the reset button when I am not being the mom I want to be gives me a second to reflect on the cause of my behavior and then change it appropriately.
The nice thing about this big, red, imaginary, beeping button is that you don’t always have to use it with your kid. You can push it by yourself, too. Does it sound stupid? Yes. Does that matter? No. Because anything that can keep you from sinking further into your feelings (which are not facts) is worth doing. Maybe your reset is not an imaginary button that I (yes, I am continuing to take credit for this) made up. Maybe your reset is eating a doughnut in the bathroom, maybe it’s meditation, taking the dog on a walk, brushing your teeth. Whatever it is, it’s important and, I’m finding at least, necessary to keep going. If you don’t have a reset yet, give yourself one. Make it a thing that will give you a few seconds to reflect then reset. Offer yourself grace and understanding, and then try again.
Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for the Devil Strip since August of 2015.