Tiny Spark Series: Mercy Me. I’ll Mercy You.

I am so good at everything. 

This is a confidence I developed over years of pristine dance performances, high-flying cheer leading jumps, A+ papers. I knew with no uncertainty that these feet could spin superbly. I had full faith that I could damn near kill a quarterback with my dazzling chants. And always, always, this mind of mine could sculpt and mold, knead and stretch something from a simple pile of words.

I’ve lived what those around me would call a winning life. The secret to this success has been, quite simply, to only do things I’m immediately excellent at doing. One attempt at half a soccer practice and I quit. One mediocre grade in a science course and I decide with a swiftness that science is ridiculous. Who needs science anyways? Really, the world needs more English majors to contribute to all those significant advances in the field of English. These were the private failures I tucked under stacks of brilliant short stories. But Flash! Cheer! Distraction! Shine that spotlight on me while I pull off an impossible turn sequence. Leave my less glorious bits in the dark shadow off stage right, please.

I liked this image of perfection so I wore it every day. I changed shoes and lipstick shades, but the general look of a pulled-together person remained. When I became pregnant, the growth in girth didn’t faze me. I would be the best at being pregnant. I would win it. Audiences would toss roses at my swollen feet. Shaking admiration from their baffled heads, they’d marvel, “How does she do it?”.

I was so good at pregnancy. I didn’t smoke cigarettes. I ate enough pizza to fuel a small army of fetuses. I kept my heart rate in the low, safe zone by consistently not walking. Nine months later I arrived at the hospital with all the arrogance of a mama mutt ready to spit out her 12th litter. I played, trying to guess how high each contraction would spike on the electronic chart. I pushed. I laughed. I basked in the glow of glory as nurses applauded my vagina’s ability to get a whopping, ten-pound baby here all on its own. I readied myself for the expected onslaught of praise, heard the crackling cry of a stunning son I’d been so good at making, and then? A peculiar change.

Infant Skepticism: He knows.

Infant Skepticism: He knows.

I  got quiet as we drove from the hospital. I rolled my wrists, cracked my neck, and spilled heavy tears onto the boy’s cotton cap. Online I read the sweet words from other mothers, my mother, her mother. Isn’t it the most special feeling in the world? Are you just so in love? Isn’t this motherhood gig the very best job? I didn’t answer. I was too busy failing quietly.

Weeks passed. We moved. I felt some relief to be in this strange place. It was easier to stay silent, to be left alone. I kept calls short and scripted. I avoided the sugary status updates of fellow new mom Facebookers. I stayed cooped up with curtains drawn. Shut everything down. I cannot say that I don’t like motherhood, that I’m no good at it. I cannot express to anyone how much scarier this was than that one-half of a soccer practice. Stay quiet. Stay quiet. Because I’d like to suck in the privacy of my home. My hands trembled over a bottle. This heaping scoop of formula is too heaping. I dump it out.This swaddle is sloppy. This tiny laundry is folded crooked. This creature cries different cries I cannot decode. I just cry one big silent cry into the sink as I fumble with soap, rub his small scalp too hard, spray too-warm water on his butt, a butt I still can’t seem to wipe correctly. I hold the boy, saying the only words I’ve said in months: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I am in all ways uncomfortable. I’d like to leap or write a poem, anything that feels natural. This must be what failing feels like. And this is the fear I’ve whispered around, that this was the one time I cannot quit something I don’t have the talent for. This is the one defeat I cannot dance around. My lack of skill wouldn’t just lose a game or warrant a bad grade. It could ruin a human. For every way I’ve managed to shine in my life, this parenting might be the legendary flop that out burns them all.

_____________________________________

I don’t make eye contact with the cashier at the supermarket. She is a sight, taller than most large men. Her makeup is thick: eyeliner painted into curly black cat tips, lips harsh and pointed by ox blood stain. She’s be frightening if it weren’t for the honey skin, her bright smile. She dresses up her blue work shirt with a rhinestone necklace. I notice the glittery shine of her glossy, blue nails as she pecks keys. I don’t know her name, but I decide I like her. She wears the freakishness I’m feeling, the strange displacement I keep zipped under my fleece coat.

I am wordless still, worried I’ll tell the first person who asks how miserably I’m getting beat. She scans cans of peas. I shuffle my feet, eye the baby and realize I buckled him into his carrier wrong again. With a scrunch of his nose, I feel my chest grow hot. I’m begging him with my eyes, again: Please. No more problems I can’t fix. Please. He’s furiously wailing now. She scans more cans. I turn to face the cashier when she asks for my card. I am flustered. I am failing. I forgot pacifiers.”You’re a good mom,” she says smiling as she waits for my card.

And after all this time of quiet all I can hear is “Mercy. Mercy”.

   I want to ask her, “You. Are you God?”. I want to grab her as we exchange cash. I want to climb into her blue-fingered hands. I want whatever comfort I feel from her right this minute to cover me completely. I wouldn’t, truth be told, object if she rocked me like a baby. Mostly, I want to tell her this is the very kindest lie she’s ever told. Instead, I cry.

The girl stares up but keeps bagging my apples. “We. We can help you to your car? It’s ok. It’s ok,” she assures the sobbing lady in Lane 8. I can’t answer. I’m crying and crying. I think I’m rejoicing. I think I’m finally losing loudly.

I left the store that day no wiser to the ways of soothing my son than when I arrived. I still, three years later, am forever doing this mother thing wrong. But I made a point to choose the blue-nailed girl’s lane every week on our shopping excursions. I told her I loved her nails, her new clip-on ponytail. She said I look thinner. I think her ponytail is silly. She knows I don’t actually do yoga in these yoga pants. I do not know, even now, what it was about this moment with a blue-nailed stranger, why I heard her when I couldn’t hear anyone else.  When we moved again, I took with me this  inexplicable experience in a supermarket, an even more unexpected understanding that I am not good at everything and this sucking isn’t a loss. It’s learning. I can trust that my skills and talents are lacking, my shortcomings are high and tall. I can fumble and still enjoy the practice all the same.

IMG_0204

In this new town I spot a tired mom chasing kids. I veer to make sure we cross paths. Her little girls are throwing bags of chips at each other. I mention the weather and Fritos. I try to be subtle when I tell her she’s doing a good job. I hope she really hears me: “Mercy. Mercy”.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

When has simple kindness from a stranger had a BIG impact on you? 

Coming up:

A very special Tiny Spark Post this Friday.  

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75 thoughts on “Tiny Spark Series: Mercy Me. I’ll Mercy You.

  1. All those people who tell me I can write when, deep down, I don’t believe I can. They’re my mercy mercy.

    Thomas is going to treasure these stories someday, Tori. These glimpses into your psyche are priceless. In his stubborn way, I know he will refute them, every one. xo

  2. This is the story my mother never dared to tell. I don’t think it’s possible to truly parent perfectly. Those little darlings come into our lives for a reason. I have no doubt that the blue nailed cashier is correct. You’re a good Mom.

    • It seemed a little wrong to say aloud that I wasn’t enjoying motherhood at the beginning. I felt like that made me a bad person. I read comments and posts, though, and I see that it is a more common feeling than I thought. We just don’t share our ugliest bits so easily!

  3. I wish I had read this when I was a couple weeks postpartum and everyone was asking me how much I was loving motherhood. I felt like something in me was broken because I really wasn’t loving it at all. We all need cheerleaders like the checkout girl to remind us that we’re doing it right, even when we’re experiencing the hardest parts. Loved this, Tori!

    • Oh, you so get it. I felt such huge guilt when my new mom friends were gushing about how perfect everything felt to them. It didn’t seem okay to say “Hey, I love this baby and all, but I suck at this. I kind of hate it.”

  4. This is exactly how I felt after my first son was born…I knew how to “take care” of a baby – diapering, bathing, feeding because I had 6 younger brothers and sisters, but I did not know how to be a mother. I loved him – I did not love the crazed person I had become from worry, feelings of incompetence, and sleep deprivation. None of us gets it right in the beginning. If someone tells you they did they are lying. It can be sad, lonely, frustrating hard work but the best you can do is suit up and get in the game…

    The first time I read some of my pieces aloud at an open mike event I said “I am a nurse, not a writer but I hope you enjoy these.” Afterward, several strangers came to me and encouraged me to not only keep writing, but to acknowledge that was I writer because I created written pieces.

    I have no doubt that you are a good mother – no doubt at all.

    • I love how you phrased that, that you loved your son but couldn’t love the stressed-out person you became trying to parent him. That is exactly how I felt. I knew I loved my boy immediately. I knew right then that I would give up all arms, legs, and life to make him safe and happy. I just couldn’t figure out the logistics. I didn’t feel like I was catching on, getting the hang of it, and for me it was my first big feeling of failure. Thank God he loves me despite myself sometimes :)

  5. I’m crying like an idiot. Thank you for sharing this. I know those secret failings, those “I’m sorry’s” uttered through secret tears–wishing, hoping, praying that you’ll do something right for this helpless little being and wanting nothing more than to run far away where you can’t screw anything up.
    And then someone tells you it’s okay. You’re good. You’re doing good. It’ll be okay.
    Agh, thank you thank you thank you for putting into words what a frightened first time mama feels.

    • Annnnnd I’m crying like an idiot because you’re crying like an idiot. We’re a mess :)
      I really thought I was prepared to kick butt at this motherhood thing. I read books and stocked up on wipes and felt, for a minute, that I had this thing down pat. Then I met my son and the idea that I was accountable to him without knowing what I was doing was terrifying.

  6. No one does it right, and you realize that more the older you get. The good thing is that there is mercy, and grace, and that kids are intuitive and I think they understand intentions even when we feel like we’re failing. I’m proud of you. You are so much good.

    • I laughed a little while writing this. That stranger lady didn’t say anything to me that you and Abby and Muh and EVERYONE hadn’t tried telling me a million times. Funny how we can’t always listen to what we need to hear :) You is so much good,too.

  7. Nicely done, Tori. Being a parent is so humbling. And that statement doesn’t remotely do justice to just how humbling parenting is. It reveals every one of our shortcomings, holds each one out in stark relief, puts us in touch with some of our deepest shame. And yet our resilient children love us anyway, reach up for us, never fail to want to just be with us. And we learn that we can fail every day, and yet somehow manage to succeed.

    • Oh, man. Jim, your comment said a whole lot I couldn’t find words for. Parenting made me kinder to myself and so thankful for the kindness of kids. They forgive us our shortcomings before we manage to forgive ourselves!

  8. Isn’t it strange but so beautiful when strangers make such a strong impression on us? I like to think that some higher power Up There knows when we need a lift and send it to us in the form of strangers. It might sound strange coming from someone who doesn’t have a kid, but I’m proud of you for pushing through and recognizing that failing is NOT failing…. it’s just another learning experience. :)

    • You totally get it. The idea that we get just what we need when we need it (and sometimes before we even know it) is the whole spirit behind this Tiny Spark thing. It’s comforting to think that no matter what bad things are ahead of us, something or someone will offer some light.

    • Hey, girl. I like your name! (I’m a Victoria, but not nearly sophisticated enough to pull it off. Tori it is!) Thanks for your sweet words. I can’t really understand why that woman’s comment moved me like it did. I’m just grateful it moved me, out of that self-hate, self-doubting place. I am still probably doing lots of things wrong, but I finally enjoy parenting, accept the flaws!

      • Thankyou Sweetheart :)
        Parenting is so challenging and rewarding all mixed in to one ha. I always say when any mother goes for a new job they should just say ” Yes she is a mother she can do everything and anything anyway she has the job”
        We do the role of teacher ,chef , cleaner, taxi driver, play activity practitioner and general superwoman and no other woman could ever understand until they too have children!
        When my sister was pregnant she actually said “how hard can it be they are in school all day?”
        Funny that since her little girl was born in August she has soon changed her tune now the sleepless nights have taken their toll !!
        You are doing an amazing job, if your son is happy and smiling then everythings perfect give yourself a pat on the back :) :) my two are nearly teenagers so everyday I do something wrong right now according to them haha xx
        Hugs Victoria xx

      • Teenager-ness is impossible to please. Sometimes I think of how rotten I was to my mom when I was a teen and I just want to kick my 15-year-old self’s butt. Also? I was TOTALLY one of those “How hard can it be?” women before I had Thomas. You never know until your ten dirty diapers deep into it :)

  9. This is so lovely, and I remember those feeling well. Here’s the reality, I don’t think there is any “perfect” when it comes to parenting. However, you are an amazing Mom and an amazing person in so many ways.

    Kind words from strangers can mean so much more than compliments from people you know. I can’t think of a specific instance, but I know I’ve felt that way before.

    • I don’t know her name. I still can’t explain why that little comment mattered so much. I just remember crying like I MEANT it right there in front of everyone. The second I realized I was doing everything wrong and it was okay I started to love this motherhood thing. I’ve never so enjoyed fumbling.

    • I was a little TOO confident before motherhood. Knocked me down a notch, which I’m learning is not an awful thing. I love being a mom now that I know I don’t or can’t do it exactly right. It was trying for perfection that drove me nuts!

  10. Yes! Yes and yes! All those books on how to find your man and screw her man, but nothing about how parenting would unravel you.

    I wrote something similar to this recently. Some of the Li es of eerily similar. I’m not posting it, but I have it. The whole “winning at motherhood thing.” Yes. That stuck with me for a long time. I’m not ever sure it’s really even gone yet.

    Beautiful words, Tori!

    • Seriously. I read What To Expect When You’re Expecting probably eight times. No mention of what a sucky loser I would feel like. I would’ve appreciated some honesty like that, I think. Some days I still worry about the winning part, it’s not gone for me yet, either. I guess I’m lucky for the days when I do suck AND the world doesn’t end, though. It’s refreshing to see that I can burn dinner and lose my temper and forget to do laundry and everyone is still okay. No major damage done!

  11. I stumbled in a big way with my first born. I couldn’t breast feed her right, she cried a lot, I was totally freaked out. My sister was my mercy, mercy. She calmed me, helped me, taught me for the two weeks she was in town, from her experiences with her two babies. I am thankful for that. When I got out of my own way, I turned into a great mom. Just ask the kids! And you are too. You can see it in your child’s face.

    • LOVE what you said about getting out of your own way. When I calmed down, decided to go with the flow, to be nicer to myself when I’m not sure what I’m doing, I realized why people said the sweet things about parenting, how it changes your life and that baby being the best part of your day. I started to get it.

  12. I’m not a mom, as you know, and part of the reason is because I’m pretty sure that failing would end me. I remember very clearly how my sisters struggled. I remember my mom crying on the couch a few weeks after my youngest sister was born. It didn’t end you – and look how much you shine now. Shine, girl. You win at Momming.

    • It gets SO much easier as they get older. The guilt of failing, bit. I’m pretty sure they just give you new problems like broken curfews and belly button rings. But right now I get the pleasure of having a speaking toddler who is SO nice. When I get too frantic and hard on myself, it is about the sweetest thing in the world that my own kid can say with his own mouth that he loves me, that he likes playing with me, that the grilled cheese I made him was awesome and I’m the best mom ever. He might be blowing smoke just to get more grilled cheese, but I’ll believe him!

    • See, I didn’t even really believe her I don’t think. I think I knew she was just being nice. For whatever reason it did make me chill out a little bit, go a little easier on myself. I might mess up daily now, but I actually LOVE being a mom. This is something I worried wouldn’t ever happen!

  13. Wonderful experience.
    The magic touch of a stranger, the unexpected kindness, always a miracle.

    Have a nice day (I always read your site, for almost a year, this is the first time I’m doing a comment, my English is a little rusty, I´m sorry for that).

  14. I like this approach of only focusing on things you excel at. Henceforth, I shall write humorous diatribes while grilling steaks to a perfect medium-rare and then catching up on Words With Friends, while studiously avoiding math and not even thinking about dusting the house!

    • Right? It worked out pretty darn well for me before motherhood. I was pretty close to convincing a few friends I was something of a prodigy. Obviously because they’d never seem me play soccer or sing karaoke :)

    • Oh, girl. I’m sure I’ve probably freaked you out. This is like the worst possible post to read while pregnant! Just know, if you have those days when you feel like you’re doing it wrong, I’ll totally mercy, mercy you :)

      • Quite the contrary, actually. One of my biggest fears about this motherhood thing is (and has always been) that I will totally fall flat on my face. And I find it incredibly refreshing to read your honest words about your experience with similar feelings… and how you were able to bounce back. It was just *exactly* what I needed. Thank you!

      • I remember right after having Thomas that I told Tom I kind of wanted to write all those people who gave me awful advice angry letters. I had a whole slew of ladies warn me about how awful labor would be (Thanks. I had a whole 9 months to freak out about it) and labor wasn’t bad at all. I had a whole bunch of other ladies tell me how to do this, that, and everything else. So when their tips didn’t work for me, I worried I was doing it all wrong. Now when I have a friend or see a stranger who’s pregnant my only response is “Don’t listen to anyone” or “You’ll think you’re doing it wrong but chill out, you’re doing fine”. Those are the only baby truths that I know 100% to be true :)

  15. Was this encounter at the check-out your original “tiny spark?”
    A LOT of mothers come home baffled and bewildered, not to mention depressed. The hormones are going all skitter-scatter. You were probably suffering from post-partum depression. First-time mothers are especially vulnerable.
    I remember how frightened I was with the first afraid I would unwittingly damage this little being. She was so…fragile. With the others, I felt a less anxious because I realized that babies are sturdier than they look. But the second one cried a lot (“collicky child”) and I’ve told several folks that, had she been my first, she’d probably have been an only child.

    • I actually thought of the Tiny Spark Series after watching my friend, Jenny, go through the loss of her husband. She wrote here last month, and her story was just completely eye-opening. But it did get me thinking that we all have those little moments amid the dark days that wake us up, remind us that it’s not all bad. The kind grocery store cashier was a BIG brightness to an otherwise funky time for me. I still don’t really know if I had depression or just complete fear of failure. Maybe both. I’m just so grateful that for whatever reason that lady’s words seemed to calm me down a bit, help me ease up and be nicer to myself!

  16. Yep. It about sums up the first few months with my first baby. And then it happened again when my second was born. And almost daily now that we have three. Moms do this for moms. It is life-saving.

    • I really started loving being a mom when I realized I didn’t or maybe even couldn’t have to do everything exactly right. Took the pressure off. I get sad thinking about those first months because I was so full of fear and self-doubt that I was too distracted to enjoy any of it!

  17. I have never met a mom who thought they were a parenting superstar (if I had, I surely would’ve kicked her in the shins.) We all make mistakes (my older son is 10, and I’m still messing it up!) That stranger was your angel that day, and I think she spoke the truth – there’s more to being a good mom than bringing pacifiers.

    • I think being new to parenting, I was thinking of it too much like I thought of everything else. Everyone around me was saying sweet things that I didn’t feel. I was mistaking the fact that I didn’t really know what I was doing for the idea that I was just bad at being a mom in general. I expected it to come naturally and comfortably to me immediately, and when that didn’t happen I was sure I was the problem. I LOVE being a mom now mostly because I can mess up and say or do the exactly wrong thing and my kid still thinks I’m great, still seems so happy that I’m his. I just had to get over the hope that I would make my way through parenthood without any missteps!

  18. Good golly. This was absolutely stunning. I identify with the perfectionism and the overwhelming sense of failing as a first time mom. Like the author’s awesome moment with the supermarket checker, there were many times that a kind word from a stranger helped me through some of these darker days. Thank you for this great story!

    • Oh, El. You’re so nice. I’m the “author” in that it’s about my months of Mom Failing, but author sounds so fancy and official! The perfectionism was the hardest bit to shed. I still stop and realize that I’m too rough on myself, too willing to admit failure most days. Little by little I’m letting go of the idea that I can do all things exactly the “right” way. More than that, I’m also starting to see that there really is no “right” way at all.

  19. I hadn’t realised it was your story, then I re read it! From what I’ve read you seem like a fantastic mum, making some mistakes but making light of them and making them funny for us readers. I think every parent thinks they have done it wrong. My dad has appoligised to me on many occasions for being a bad dad, and in my mind he’s brilliant and lovely and couldn’t have been better!
    It’s brave to talk about your weaknesses, and this is really beautifully written x

    • The crying! It kills me. I’m just happy that I burst into tears nowadays because I’m so confused by the good fortune. I’ll catch myself crying while playing kickball with the boy because it doesn’t make any sense that this good stuff gets to be my life! A long way from those sad and scared tears (which I still, always, shed, too) that seemed to follow me when he was first born.

  20. I needed to read this on so many levels! Today is my oldest’s 25th birthday, and I can attest that nothing can turn a flourishing perfectionist into a soggy mass of tears and leaking breast milk faster than a newborn. I felt especially lost with my first because I’d never actually been around a baby before, and because I’d lost my mother five years earlier. Sometimes all I had was another version of that blue-nailed lady to let me know that my trials and errors weren’t futile. Your post just reminded me how important it is to BE that blue-nailed lady to others. Beautiful, beautiful post :)!

    • 25? I can’t even think about it. I’m just now able to admit that my giant toddler is 3, not 6 months like I kept telling everyone! Funny thing is that I didn’t really realize how much that stranger’s kindness to me had affected the way I view strangers until much later. I didn’t put it together. All I know is that she flipped on the light switch for me. It only feels right to be that small, happy moment for someone else!

    • I hope so! The hardest part of those new-mom months for me was that no one, NO ONE, was saying out loud that they felt the way I felt. It was all about how natural and wonderful everything was. Having one person tell me they understood that failing feeling would’ve been a big comfort!

  21. What a beautiful and honest piece, Tori. So many new moms have similar feelings. Do men often have concerns about not being good dads? It doesn’t seem to happen much the other way around.
    Maybe this sounds a bit like a message on one of those tea bags, but I think you can only fail if you don’t try.

    • I love your tea bag wisdom! I think dads feel it, too, maybe just not as intensely or they don’t talking about it. I think mostly it is the mom who is considered the nurturer, who society says should be the natural baby wrangler. I felt like all eyes were on me a little bit right when I had Thomas. How was the mom doing? Was she figuring it all out? I’m sure Tom felt pretty lost and worried, too, but I don’t remember people really noticing!

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  23. Oh gosh, I think we’ve all been there! I remember holding my firstborn son when he was just a couple of weeks old. My husband was heading back to the night shift for the first time since my son arrived. I sat on the love seat with my baby in my arms and CRIED. What I remember most about that night is feeling guilty for bringing him into such a scary world and for bringing him into the arms of people who knew nothing about taking good care of him. The thing about kids though, is they’re resilient, and SO forgiving. Tough little buggers, they are. Lucky us.

    Loved this story. Even all these years after my kids were babies, I still remember those scary feelings of having no hope of measuring up.

    • I’m convinced they are designed so forgiving for a reason! I had managed to stay relatively successful at everything I’d chosen to do up until I had Thomas, so the sudden shock of realizing a little too late that I might not be getting the hang of mothering was so scary. It was a big, bright day for me when I realized most every mother feels the same way. There is no doing this child-raising exactly right!

  24. What a great honest post! The first two weeks (and several instances afterward…and still today 11 years later) sucked!!! Sore nipples, sleep deprivation, hormones, lack of hygiene. Ughhhh! (Remind me again why I want to do that again!!) We as women need to help one another out by saying little things like that so other new moms know they aren’t abnormal for their feeling! I work with post partum mamas and I make sure to tell them all the normal, but sucky things to be on the look out for when they go home.

    • I try to be honest with new mom friends now. I get how important it is, how much I needed somebody to tell me they’d felt the same way I did. Motherhood is by far the most dizzying, nonsensical experience of my life. Horrifying and beautiful and messy and fulfilling. I still can’t figure it all out :)

    • Haha. Dana you’re so nice. I’m not a winner, but I’ll take the compliment. Makes me feel better when I’m burning dinner and losing my temper and forgetting to pick the boy up from day school :)

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