Being a mother has confirmed what I already suspected. I am a kind person. But I’m not kind.
I know that I am modeling kind behaviors to my seven-year-old son when I hear him play store at home. He greets me, his customer, with a “Hello,” he thanks me for shopping with him, and he wishes me a good day after I’ve purchased my basket-full of play food.
I know that my son is growing up with a kind heart when he is completely dismayed at the litter on the ground, when he offers an “excuse us” as he pushes our grocery cart by someone browsing through the cereal selection, and when he randomly takes my hand, gives me a kiss, and tells me he loves me.
I am a kind person raising a kind son.
But I am not kind to myself. And I didn’t notice how mean I was until I became a mother.
When it comes to my son, I’m much more relaxed. Dropping a chicken tender on the restaurant’s floor, spilling a cup of milk on the dining table, ripping a page in a book with an over-eager page turn. All those are accidents. They’re not big deals. They can be taken care of. When I spill milk, drop a freshly baked cookie onto the floor, or rip the newspaper I’m much harder on myself. I apologize. Relentlessly. I berate myself for the mistake I’ve made, a mistake that I shouldn’t have committed.
My son is praised for his “beautiful, strong, healthy body.” Those are the words I share with him as I help him out of his bath, as he stands in front of his full-length mirror trying on a new shirt, as he flexes his muscles to show me how strong he is. We don’t talk about “perfect,” I don’t compare his body or his abilities to anyone else’s. It’s just him. And he’s amazing.
I stand in front of my full-length mirror and wonder why my stomach has never returned to its pre-pregnancy appearance. I scrutinize the “stripes” (my son’s name for my stretch marks) that remain on my body. I peer at my complexion, acknowledging that some of my acne scars will most likely always adorn my face. I find faults. I don’t stand in front of the mirror thinking I am a “strong, healthy, beautiful woman.” And yet, I re-read that sentence and think how unkind that is. How amazingly mean it is to me.
My son is a performer. He loves to put on shows in our living room, singing along to Michael Jackson, Sade, Neil Diamond, Prince, and others. He doesn’t know all the lyrics, but he makes them up as he goes. He sings loudly with confidence and joy. And I applaud him and revel in the joy that music brings to him.
I, on the other hand, sing along in the car with trepidation, remembering my sister chastising me years ago, telling me I didn’t sing well. I believed her. So I stopped singing loudly in front of others. I stopped believing I had the right to sing, to feel the music.
My son is offered dessert each day. Chocolate chip cookies, Oreos, a small Hershey bar. He doesn’t always accept my offers, but they’re here. Chocolate isn’t a completely off-limits food item. It’s an item we enjoy in moderation, like most other food items. He licks his fingers clean, wipes his chocolate mustache off his face, and carries on.
I enjoy a cookie or two or a couple of scoops of chocolate ice cream and then spend the rest of the day wondering if I should have skipped dessert. Did I consume too many calories? Could I have found a healthier substitute?
Being a kind person means being forgiving, being patient, being gentle. All things I’m good at when it comes to my son. All things I’m not so good at when it comes to myself.
My son didn’t learn to put on his own socks and shoes the first time he tried it (and he still hasn’t mastered tying shoelaces). And I won’t wake up tomorrow suddenly kinder to myself. But, like I tell my son, it’s practice. You try a little bit each day, until after a while, certain things, like putting on socks and shoes, aren’t as hard anymore. And that’s my goal. To try a little bit each day, until I can be as kind to myself as I am to my son.