The door slams as I hear the rumble of a school bus pulling away. I look up and smile, happy he’s home, but I’m met with a scowl before I even have a chance to ask him about his day. I know this look well.
I often find myself frustrated and mystified over how my child can hold it together all day at school, yet fall apart the moment he gets home — throwing his bag to the floor, stomping around, pushing his younger siblings around and acting like a general asshole.
You know who also does this? Me.
I’ve often wondered aloud, “Why don’t I get the good parts of my kid?” It doesn’t seem fair. I’m the one who makes sure he stays clean and hydrated. I’m the one who smoothes his hair and wipes his tears. I am the one who carefully washes the fruit that is packed in his lunch.
And yet, he gives me his worst — because I am his safe place in an overwhelming world.
It is both my job and my privilege to absorb his fears and worry and stress. Mothers are like sponges, after all — taking it in and wringing it out before absorbing more. It is part of what makes this job so damn hard, but also so extraordinary. At the end of a crazy hard day or year, all we really want is our mothers. They take us in. They wring us out. They help us make sense of things.
My own mother is very sick and can’t absorb my problems like she used to. Right now, I have to absorb hers.
After one particularly rough afternoon with my child, the realization that I do the exact same thing to my husband rocked me. I started to pay attention to the similarities between my behavior towards my husband and my son’s behavior towards me, and in times of stress, it’s almost the same — right down to the scowling, slamming, and resistance to hugs.
It’s not because my husband deserves it, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He’s calm, smooth, and predictable. He works tirelessly to support his family. He loves us. He loves me. He is patient. He absorbs. He understood that I don’t act this way because I am a bitch or a nag, even before I understand it myself. I am simply a person who has entirely too much on her plate, and my husband bears the brunt of it all. He is my safe place.
Mothers often carry the weight of unseen things. Some days, it takes all of my energy just to hold it together for the children’s sake. I take deep breaths of air and whisper prayers to get through the day, tucking them all in safely at nightfall. Regardless of what happens during the day, I can’t fall apart yet – one of them might get up, thirsty or needing just one more hug.
I wait. I hold it all in. The tears prick behind my eyes, and I use my last shreds of energy to hold them in check. And then, blessedly, my husband comes home and I can finally fall apart.
Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I just need wine or chocolate and for someone to tell me I’m pretty. Sometimes I check out, mentally and physically, but mostly, I bitch about how tired and stressed I am. My problems are big — he can’t fix any of them — a knowledge that eats away at his heart, I can see it. He hates feeling helpless, and I hate feeling like an endless pit of despair.
It’s harder for husbands to be sponges, but in a pinch, sometimes they have to do.
This is the hard part of relationships: entering into marriage and parenting knowing full well that you’re going to be someone’s safe place, but not knowing what that really means until one day when the jolting realization is upon you. It’s an honor that some people go their entire lives without experiencing. It is the rawest part of the human experience, holding another person’s hand as they navigate through difficulty.
When you finally see it for what it really is, rather than thinking that this other person is just trying to make life hard for you by being angry or sad all the time, it changes things. This person feels safe with you. They need you to help them make sense of something that is bothering them. It is beautiful, this unfiltered, real love.
My son came home today and fell apart. The trigger was something small, trivial — but this time, instead of getting frustrated with him over his anger, I understood it. How many times have I been there, struggling through the day, and that one small thing is what sent me over the edge?
Walking over to wrap him in a hug, I whispered, “I’m here.”
Sometimes, when we feel that we have nothing left to give, we surprise ourselves by finding ways to give even more.