I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Don't sing!" my three year old warns me. Unlike his older brothers, my youngest seemingly detests my singing. He began to express his dislike around 14 months old - putting his hand over my mouth when I began the nightly lullabies. So, after more than five years of this nightly ritual, I stopped singing my little ones to sleep. My older boys sometimes still request me to sing our favorite - "Edelweiss" - and I acquiesce - but I have to do so hurriedly, almost sotto voce, in order not to provoke the ire of the preschooler in the house.
"I hate you! You're the meanest mother in the WORLD!" shouts my newly 7 year old. I have offended him by not allowing a second piece of chocolate cake before bedtime. This child, who would sometimes break down into tears over the thought of me dying, now informs me at least once a week of his antipathy towards me. When this happens, I take a breath, tell him that I recognize he is really angry, that it is hard to accept limits/disappointments/changes in plans, and that although he may despise me, I love him and I like him. The rages pass. We reconcile with hugs. "I love you so much, mommy" he whispers to me as I tuck him in.
"I don't want to be a Buddhist." This is said sternly, resentfully, by my 8.5 year old. We have just finished volunteering at a local food bank, sorting through boxes and boxes of donated toiletries. After several hours hard work, even by the three year old, we clamber into our van. I ask the boys to pause and recite the "Dedication of Merit" with me. This is a traditional Buddhist prayer to dedicate any good gained from an activity to all other beings, rather than keeping it just for ourselves. My eldest shakes his head. Refuses. "I don't want to be a Buddhist." Glares at me. "Ok" I say. "You don't have to be. But your family is Buddhist. Maybe you will change your mind. Maybe not." I finish reciting the brief prayer. Make sure everyone is buckled in. Drive back home.
I think of these episodes as the "slings and arrows" of daily parenting. Also big, challenging opportunities to truly let go of how I think things should be. When I am able to be present with my children when these occur, I am able to stay curious - about their sentiments, about my reaction to them. Curiosity invariably leads to greater perspective, understanding, compassion, patience. I have been thinking alot lately of my own childish critiques of my mother. She also loved to sing. I also would ask her to stop. I think of that now and feel a pain in my heart. This pain leads me to more memories of times when my childish ego got in the way of accepting my parents for who they were, not just as my mother and father, but as people going through life. I think of being embarrassed about my mother's toe nails. I felt she kept them too long. I hated that she insisted on painting them and wearing sandals in the summer, rather than hiding them under socks and closed toe shoes. This memory comes to me as my youngest repeatedly pulls off the knit hats I like to wear three seasons of the year.
This is a little taste of what we Buddhists call karma, in its more simplistic sense. The causes and conditions that come together through habitual mind and actions, leading to flowering, or echoes of past actions. When we notice such an echo, it is a good reminder to stop and look deeper. To laugh, if we can. This flowering of karma keeps us stuck in samsara, the endlessly turning wheel of birth, old age, sickness and death. We often fool ourselves into thinking that we can somehow escape this wheel, thinking a change of scene, a different path choice, a different partner, job etc will stop us from experiencing the flowering of old karma, take us off the wheel of suffering, but then we wake up once more, like Emerson in Naples, and see our same "Sad Self" there, still with us, as inescapable as our shadow.
I have written before about not looking to our children to make us happy. If I wasn't so rusty at this blogging thing, I would be able to link that entry properly. Ahem. In any case, looking to our children to save us, or in fact anything to save us, is futile. Our children will throw these slings and arrows at us. All children do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes, these arrows will hit their target with some force. The work then is to stay aware, stay curious, and not get sucked into resentment or retaliation. Yesterday, my eldest, very angry that I had taken away his screen time privilege as a consequence for bad behavior, told me I was "failing as a mother". This arrow really hit me hard, and of course I knew why. I often feel I am failing as a mother. Every single day, to be honest. I began to engage in an argument with him, and then, feeling a familiar ache in my belly and heart, I was able to stop. This feeling of failure, of feeling like a helpless, unsuccessful dilettante, is a very very old feeling for me, much older than my children. Older, too, is the feeling of being judged and rejected by others. Our children are so skillful at uncovering our old, unhealed wounds. I am not going to tell you I was immediately able to switch gears. No, in fact, I went into a bit of a wallow in self-pity and self-loathing. Fortunately though, I was able to notice that as well, take a breath and just sit with that old, old pain. The longer I sat with it, the better I was able to see it for what it was - old story, old patterns, nothing more. My urge to argue with him was an urge to somehow escape those old feelings, my old shadow. "No escape", I thought. I left the room. I made dinner. My son came up to me as I was setting the table, hugged me, and told me he loved me.
Surrendering to the reality that we cannot escape our "selves" allows us to actually get off the wheel of suffering, to stop creating the karma that keeps us trapped. Being present with our children when they let fly those arrows, being present to our reactions, helps us break the chains of karma, weaken the patterns that hold us fast. The more we can do this, the smoother this path will be.