By Sarah Bradley
I was an ugly mother today.
I didn’t need a mirror to see it. I could feel the ugliness rolling off me like a thick fog, a cloud of contagion infecting the rest of the house. Motherhood is rarely pretty; anyone who’s been in the trenches of raising small children will tell you that. There are beautiful moments, of course, but even those are often forged in the fire of something difficult or terrifying or gut-wrenching. When you love someone as much as a mother loves her child, nothing about that love is easy. Even the beautiful parts.
But today wasn’t just “not pretty.” Today was ugly, the kind of day that surfaces when everyone is overtired or stressed or full of cabin fever or just plain overwhelmed by life. What started out as a few bumps in the road before breakfast turned into a fast-moving downward spiral by morning snack, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. None of my usual tricks for turning around sour moods and bad attitudes were working (even on myself).
By lunchtime, I was defeated. It felt awful to be miserable, but digging us all out of the misery seemed to require nothing less than a Herculean effort. And I was tired.
So instead of digging out, I let it take over. Soon, every one of my kids’ mistakes and requests felt like a personal attack made on purpose to irritate me. Of course you skipped your nap. Of course you need help buttoning your pants. Of course you can’t find your hat. I felt like a waitress, a servant, a maid and a trash receptacle. I wondered to myself how I ended up here: in this house, with these kids, living this life. My inner monologue was scathing and self-pitying, and it was beginning to swallow me up.
That’s when the guilt crept in.
I was an ugly mother today, and I don’t want to think about how I must look to my kids when I’m struggling to rise above whatever chaos they are creating to be a calm, collected adult. When I’m shooting daggers from my eyes because they asked me for water as soon as I sat down to rest. When I’m barely concealing the frustration in my voice after the one-hundredth refrain of “MOM-meeeee!” When I tell them they can’t have the toy/puzzle/craft/whatever they’re asking for, just because I don’t have the energy to take it out or clean it up or break up the inevitable fights it will cause.
I don’t want to know what my kids think of me, in those moments of mother failure, when I can’t be the person they want or need me to be. That’s my job: to set aside however I might be feeling and be their mother. Even when one of my kids is in the middle of an earth-shattering tantrum, or the toddler is taking off his diaper for the third time, or my brain is so clouded by my neverending to-do list that I can barely remember my own name. I’m supposed to compartmentalize and pretend that the child asking me to help him build a block tower didn’t just come out of time out for screaming that he hated me. Mothers are supposed to transcend all that.
But some days I just can’t. On those days, I feel ugly. Ugly for yelling and refusing to be flexible. Ugly for stomping through the house, complaining that no one is listening, muttering that I can’t even get five minutes to myself. Ugly for being bitter and ungrateful and not setting a better example of how to cope with tough emotions. Ugly for crying in the bathroom and counting down the minutes until bedtime. Ugly for thinking that I’m owed anything from my children, least of all a guaranteed amount of peace and quiet every day.
Mothers get a reputation for having superpowers, but I never feel more human than I do on ugly days. They’re a challenging reminder that I might be doing too much or setting too high expectations for myself and my kids. They’re a call to action, a demand to drop everything I’m doing and just be a mother—not a housekeeper or chef or writer or some long-lost version of myself that used to be able to spend her days however she wished.
And usually, the simple act of just being a mother is what we all need. I pull the toddler onto my lap and ask him to choose a book for us to read together. I kneel down in front of a whining child to say that I’m listening and I want to help him. I grab whichever kid is within reach and give him a really good hug—the kind of hug that fills us both up and reminds us how much love is there between us, even if neither one of us is acting much like it that day.
The ugly days leave me with plenty of regret and self-loathing, not to mention a wealth of doubt about my mothering abilities. On ugly days, I worry that I’ve scarred my kids for life or somehow made them feel unwelcome in our family as they are—with flaws and faults and many, many things left to learn. They are still little. I forget that way too often.
What I don’t forget, though, is that I am their mother no matter what; for better or worse, I’m not going anywhere.
I was an ugly mother today, but after my kids went to bed, I snuck into their rooms and watched them sleep. I put my hand on their backs and felt them breathing. I silently apologized for all the ways in which I failed them and promised to do better tomorrow.
That’s really what mothering is about: having your best and worst moments all at once, wrestling with painful self-doubt, clinging to the crushing love you feel for your kids, and then waking up to do it all again the next day.
I was an ugly mother today, but I will still be here tomorrow—and that is beautiful.
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