A month or so ago, it was my turn to put my older son to bed. When we got to the end of the routine, the part where I would tell his brain what kind of dreams it would have and then sing a song with him, he furrowed his brow and feigned tears, demanding his dad do it instead.
When I asked why, he took a breath, then delivered the punch: “Because…Daddy is the best. And you're not."
If there is anything I have learned in the almost four years of taking care of a small human, it is that parenting can both inflate the ego and then, often seconds later, squash it like a blueberry underfoot.
Because I am a human, albeit a supposedly large and mature one, I bit back tears. Yes, I know he shouldn't be punished for his feelings or his preferences or the standard issue manipulations associated with this particular developmental leap, however devastating to me all that was. I know my nearly 4-year-old kid shouldn't have to tiptoe around me and my emotions. I know he loves me and thinks I'm the best sometimes, too. (He does, I swear he does.)
But. I couldn't hide the shock. And I couldn't hide that I felt like he was actually onto something, that he'd found out what I'd suspected long before I became a parent—that I'm not, in fact, the best.
Since Daddy was putting my son's brother to bed, I forged onward with a phlegmy and therefore poignant version of “Monday, Monday"—the song he asked for and sung none of with me—then slunk off to take an inventory of exactly why I sucked. (I was running on about five hours of sleep that week, so my brain appalled me with its resourcefulness.)
To begin, I wasn't fun with him, was I? I was always reminding my son about all the annoying things, like wearing his hat and cleaning up his toys and eating at least one bite of his breakfast and being gentle with his baby brother, while I whisper-screeched, “THAT'S HIS HEAD CAN YOU OKAY YEAH NO STOP OKAY THAT'S GOOD THANK YOU YOU'RE GREAT WAIT YOU'RE HURTING HIM!"
Come to think of it, I was often with said brother, nursing him, camped out on the couch, talking sweetly to him and not reminding him to do anything. No wonder my older son hated me! I'd been myopic and distracted and thoughtless!
No wonder children in general didn't gravitate toward me! No wonder I'd been caught looking morose and despondent in family photos for years! No wonder school dances were always a nightmare! My entire life had been an exercise in masking my own melancholy.
I wasn't fun! I wasn't the best at all! I was actually maybe THE WORST.
As I questioned all 34 years of my life so far, spiraling with worry like a human fidget spinner, it occurred to me that maybe I was really only good for babies, a decent feeder with reasonably strong arms. In the first couple years of my son's life, I gave him everything he needed—food, company, goofy storytelling voices, a sympathetic ear, shoulder, back and hand.
“Isn't Daddy the best?" I'd tell him. I'd tell him how great his grandparents were, too, his aunts and uncles, encouraging the diffusion of his love while blithely receiving the bulk of it.
Now, thanks to all that cheerleading, I watch from a distance that feels oceanic as my husband entertains him with fart jokes and pratfalls, as his grandparents and aunts and uncles bequeath him all the toys and trinkets he wants, are liberal with the treats, and he, in turn, basks in their adoration.
That night, it felt like there were only so many parts in the play of my son's life. I'd somehow realized that, for months now, I'd been playing the bad guy. It felt like there was no space for me to be anything but.
So the next day I called my mom. And my mom told me to, of all things, just enjoy it. He's giving you an excuse to relax, she said to me. It's not your job to be his best friend, she reminded me.
My mom didn't tell me that my son didn't really mean what he'd said, because she wasn't worried about that. She told me, instead, that this would pass. She told me to chill. She told me that someday—maybe that very night or the next week or the next year or…well, sometime—he would appreciate who I was. He would love who I was.
Just be you, she said. You're very lovable, she said.
Listening to my mom tell me these things, listening to her not freak out, listening to her tell me it was fine and I was fine, I saw that she was doing exactly what I needed to do with my son. When had I called her last? Had it been a week, maybe? More? But there she was, when I needed her, calmly assuring me that I was doing a good job.
I could wait it out, too. I could agree with my son, that yeah, his dad is the best, especially at bedtime when I've got nothing left. I could do what I've done forever and be funny about my pain, groaning about how I am the worst, I'm a real monster, a MOMMY MONSTER, and crack him up.
I could, when he asks for his dad, make a cartoon exit, flinging myself out the door like Road Runner, cracking myself up. I could go snuggle up with my new son and try to live inside of time as it passes stealthily through the moments we spend bathing ourselves in regret.
I could re-cast myself. I could be fun again, my own kind of fun, my own kind of best.
A couple weeks ago, when I wasn't thinking about it, my husband reported that, as they embarked for school that morning, our son told him he wished I was taking him. When my husband asked why, he said, as if it was obvious, “Because I like her."
I like her, too.