“I guess this is one of those nights you’re crying again,” my six-year-old daughter Lucy said to me from her perch on the bed.
It was 7 p.m. on a weekday and my three daughters were bathed, pajama-ed, and playing. Even though the hard part was behind me, my cheerful front couldn’t disguise how overwhelmed I felt from steering this ship, our house, for so many hours. Watching my youngest, 20-month-old Phoebe, age-appropriately dump another box of toys all over the floor, the tears spilled out.
“No, no,” I said to Lucy, quickly finding an excuse. “I’m just tired.” But I couldn’t perk up, and she started crying with me. We hugged and soon my three-year-old, Eleanor, and Phoebe joined in for a snuggle, too. It felt cathartic, but it also felt wrong. Crying is one way I safely channel the anger I often feel when I’m home with my kids. It’s also a side of me that only the people smiling out from my annual fabulous holiday card know about.
“You have such a can-do spirit,” a school foundation member recently told me at a volunteer fair. “Mindy, can I just bottle up some of your enthusiasm?” a friend joked at the playground. At preschool drop-off, I often get, “I wish I could be peppy like you every morning.” About the class parent meetings I organize, I hear, “How do you juggle this stuff like it’s fun?”
Easy, I want to tell them. I’m a wreck at home. Moody, resentful, bitter – that’s how my husband might describe me on those weeknights when he gets home after the girls are in bed. The house is quiet, but the chaos from the hours just prior – the refusal to eat the red sauce, the wrong PJs – hangs in the air. Sometimes I am too worked up to speak. I literally can’t tell him a thing about our day because I’m spent from reading books, playing hide-and-seek, folding the laundry and pretending to be Mr. Potato Head with the purse, who sees a coyote but isn’t afraid.
On good days, my girls go to bed and proclaim that this was the best day ever. I am able to conceal from them that the whole evening routine suffocates me. Being at home often makes me feel trapped, like the whole world is productively moving forward while I brush three sets of teeth. Once that feeling comes on, I’m steps away from guilt and anger.
Let me just say that I was never angry like this before I had kids. I didn’t know it was possible for two distinct personalities to co-exist inside of me – the happy me, the mad me – and the fact that they do now makes me feel like a big fake, a hypocrite of happy. I often wonder if I should have to wear a nametag when I leave home that reveals my other side.
The happiness I feel outside of my house, though, is as genuine as the anger is at home. When I am at the park chasing my kids down the slide or zipping down the aisles with them at Stop and Shop, I’m good. In fact, I look back at the at-home me who was scrubbing the splat mat under the table with hot tears in her eyes just that very morning, and I can’t articulate what I was so upset about except that it felt real.
At this point, you may be probably wondering if my husband Peter is ever home. He leaves the house most weekdays before 6 a.m. and gets home at 7 p.m. or later. No, he will not be changing jobs so he can work less. We are wise enough – and by that I mostly mean old enough – to be thankful that he’s got what he’s got. Plus, he’s a great dad: He’s the Frederic Fekkai of my girls’ hair. He can make a variety of nutritional meals and clean them up. I can leave the house on a weekend afternoon and return to four content people. Candyland is on the table, the markers are out, and now they are biking. Peter can do everything I can do, with the added cache that he doesn’t resent any of it.
Recently, on a Thursday night, I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner. When I reminded him of it, he reassured me he’d be home from work by seven, and when I said that he’d be putting all three girls to bed and not just the older two, he said, “Not a problem. Never a problem for me.”
But that reply is a problem for me. His easygoing attitude toward bedtime clashes so hard with my resentment toward it that I feel like a failure. Could he not just add, “But putting the three girls down would be a problem for me if I had to do it most nights like you do, plus you do it on top of dinner and bath”? When I bring this up during our rerun “who has it worse” argument, he would say all of that is implicit. He just wants me to not worry when I leave. He would add that he can’t win with me, and maybe he is right – he can’t win with angry-me.
Outside, in the big world with my girls, there is a sense of adventure that I thrive on. Unlike at home where I feel the simultaneous tug to engage my children and breakdown the mess on the dining room table, at the pool or children’s museum, there is just one focus – them. When we went to get new shoes at the mall, I kept thinking there must have been a spill on my shirt because other parents were so openly gaping at me there with three young children. I came home so energized from our happy outing, that I put Phoebe down for her nap and baked Halloween cookies with my two big girls. At school, Lucy wrote about our baking in “writer’s workshop.”
I know that my kids would rather be home making dolphins from Play-Doh with me than visiting the seals at the aquarium. They don’t need to get out, but I do, in order to see the beauty of life at home. Otherwise, I lose control, and the hurt feelings, the extra snacks, and the spilled juice overwhelm me. The best way I have figured out how to feel like myself is to regularly take my kids out into the world with me.
At six, Lucy is starting to realize that life consists of more than just running around the playground. She is learning to write, to play sports, to draw. I try to nonchalantly plant the idea that the most wonderful things worth doing in this life aren’t fun at first. They take hours of practice before they feel good or even natural. And I realize now the same is true for me when it comes to parenting at home. I need more do-overs to get rid of this other me. I may still cry in front of my kids, but it won’t come from a place of anger.