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When what we need is to forgive ourselves.
The words are sharp, a staccato litany of frustrations ricocheting around the room. They’re mine, directed at my misbehaving teenager. Adrenaline shoots through my veins. Careful, I think, sucking in a breath, holding it. The silence echoes loudly. In my head, the diatribe continues.
Shhhh, a gentle voice says. Stop now.
My youngest stands in her PJs, 10 feet away in the darkened kitchen. Backlit by the hall light, she’s small for fourteen, but contrition renders her smaller. The fire has gone out in her eyes.
“Go to bed,” I say in resignation. “Think about what I said.” I turn away, exhausted. Tirade over.
In the living room, my husband sits, a witness. Abruptly, I’m awash with self-loathing. I lower myself onto the couch and draw bare feet under me.
“She makes me so mad!”
He listens to my rumination of dance steps well-rehearsed: I sacrifice, the kids exploit; I explode, they atone; forgiveness rounds out our choreography. Except for myself. I never quite forgive myself. Drained of my own fire, I see my daughter morph from provocateur to vulnerable teen; she’s done nothing her three siblings haven’t done before.
“I need to go to her,” I say. Unfolding my legs, I head across the house to her room. I find her sitting up in bed. She’s been crying, hard. Her nose is stopped up. She’s breathing through her mouth and discarded Kleenexes litter the blankets. Her suffering torments me, but recrimination keeps me rooted at the door. She’s earned her remorse, as I’ve earned mine.
“So,” I begin, but there are no words, just an unbreachable chasm. I hesitate and nearly retreat when the same gentle voice says: She needs her mother. Unlocked, I take the few steps to her bed, draw the covers back, and climb in. She comes into my arms, lays her head on my chest, and erupts in fresh sobs.
I stroke her hair. My lips brush her temple. “I’m sorry, honey,” I whisper. “I love you.”
“I’m sorry, too,” she says, shoulders shaking. Choking, she sits up. Tears and snot mingle on her face. She swipes her nose across the sleeve of her T-shirt. Suddenly, she’s my precocious toddler, difficult even then, when I was no less flawed myself. A pang of longing rips through me. Was I a good enough mother? Did I love her enough? My mind jumps forward: she’s a young woman and I’m remembering this moment, wondering of my angst-ridden 14-year-old: Was I a good enough mother? Did I love her enough?
Time — fleeting, malleable — shifts backward, forward, and lands in the present. I hug my girl tighter, but still, I feel her slipping from my grasp. Motherhood is a wild ride, careening this way and that without much to hold on to. Instinctually, we clutch at passing moments, only to find fistfuls of air. We berate ourselves for imperfection, withhold compassion, and crave a forgiveness we alone can grant. When she is grown, will it have been enough? I can’t know, but here and now, sharpened by pain, soothed by absolution, and bathed in benevolence, I could not love her more. And that might be enough.