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Shutting Down: When Mothering is Just Too Much

Have you ever completely shut down as a mother? I have. I’ve been doing it more and more these days. At the annual grandmother’s Halloween party this week, Drew flew off into a rage after missing the hayride. He had refused to go on the hayride, but the instant the big rubber wheels started rolling over the gravel, Drew collapsed in self-loathing and regret. I was riding on the hayride holding Madeline in my lap. The other children, all in matching t-shirts, were giggling as they pulled single straws of hay out of the bales and threw them over the side. I could hear Drew’s wails all the way down the long grassy driveway. When we rolled back up the hill like a Halloween parade float, his pitch and intensity had not changed.

That’s when a weird mental blanket draped itself over me. I heard myself saying correct things to him, things about being brave, dealing with disappointment, asking if he was hungry yet for pizza, if he would like to go to the car for a time-out — but I was enveloped in warm numbness. I normalized my interactions with the other adults, but in my mind I was sitting on a shelf watching them take place like a frozen doll. Drew continued to whine and bleat like a rabid sheep, and when I finally put him in time-out — me leaning against the pearly paint job of the Murano, moving clods of dirt around with the toe of my riding boot — the numbness slid down my throat and into my chest cavity. THUD. But before it did, the thought: Nothing is easy with him. Nothing is every easy and I hate this. I hate having kids.

On the ride home, I was quiet. A robot can’t talk unless you program it, and my wires had been crossed. I was giving one-word answers to Gordon, a default setting to hold him off. He stole sideways glances at me from the driver’s seat, like someone evaluating the mood of a viper.

When we got home, Gordon took the kids into the backyard to carve a pumpkin. I had harped about doing this all week, and now here they were in the chilly darkness trying to find an activity outside, away from me, to give mommy some space. But I hadn’t wanted space. I had wanted to take iPhone shots of the carving in progress. I had wanted to be the preening disembodied voice in the home video encouraging the festivities from the other side of the lens. But all of that seemed as difficult and heavy as trying to lift the business end of a hippopotamus.

I sat inside listening to the glaring chime of the metal bowl as Madeline hit it with the kitchen spoon. She was scooping out mounds of pumpkin guts and stirring them to make pumpkin soup. I was robotically scrolling through Facebook, a lump of charcoal simmering in my throat. They were probably drawing the jack-o-lantern face right about now.

Someone hit RESET and the next thing I knew the chilly air was against my face. I pushed the screen door open and sat in the plastic Adirondack chair on the flagstone, managing a tense smile as Drew gave Gordon instructions. The only thing to do now was stumble through without breaking down. A night’s sleep would be the only real RESET.

Call it self-pity, ungratefulness, weakness. Whatever you call it, you are probably right. Yes to all of those things. I am broken, and motherhood has shown me just how broken. And if you are a mother, then you know your own personal brand of brokenness. Because we are broken in all the most appalling ways, I want us to hug each other and be for one another. I want us to reach out and bind up each other’s bleeding knees, wrapping them with grace upon grace. The ebb and flow of strength and weakness is a mystery — Hormones? Sugar? Sin? — but as we encourage one another towards excellence in motherhood, may we be excellent dispensers of hugs and love and grace.

Maybe we would shut down a little less often.

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