By Nicki Gilbert
The marks on his wrist were only visible when his sleeve rode up his arm, so I didn’t notice them right away. They were clearly fingerprints. Someone had wrapped their fingers around his 6-year-old wrist and squeezed hard enough to leave marks: bright shameful welts on his young, innocent skin. I was horrified.
Those finger marks were mine.
“Oh my G-d. Where’s this from?” I murmured as I rubbed my thumb gently over the marks. They were raised slightly, and as I cradled my wrist in his hand I could see how my fingers fit exactly in those prints. My cheeks flamed with shame and sadness in the darkening hallway. He was on his way to bed.
“From the other day, Mommy, at the pool. Remember? You squeezed my arm really hard.” No judgment. Just the facts.
I did remember. I had been so angry. I was always so angry. My heart pounded wildly in my chest and my ears roared with the ferocity of 10,000 furious banshees. The tension marched up and down my spine like an army of angry red ants, gathering in a pinching, hurting cluster along my shoulders. In those days, that was my natural state. Anger. Exhaustion. Depletion. Rinse. Repeat.
The irony is that as my house got more and more full, as my heart expanded to love baby after baby, as yet one more small person squeezed into the already crowded space between my two arms… my soul, my essence, withered and faded, angered and hardened, became cruel and unkind until there was nothing to give to these tiny, helpless, needy beings – my beings – except loud, harsh words and the surreptitious scars of my frustration. My throat hurt from yelling, and my jaw was always tight. I kept my teeth clenched tight behind my lips, afraid of what would burst forth at any minute. It didn’t matter. It all came out in a vicious spew anyway.
And still they loved me. Needed me. Wanted me. Couldn’t get enough of me.
We had been at the pool that day, the day of the Squeeze. One of those lovely coastal summer days that starts off gray, but you know by the time you leave the house – the trunk packed with towels, pool toys, sun screen and enough snacks to feed every single person within a 5-mile radius – the determined sun will have burned off the fog and your heart is full of unrecognized great expectations for a day of easy, happy fun.
Things never go as planned. With great expectations comes even greater disappointment. And heartache. And anger.
I don’t remember why. I don’t remember who did or didn’t do what, and I’m sure I didn’t much care. Somebody wouldn’t finish his lunch. Someone pooped in the pool. One of them splashed the baby who wouldn’t stop crying and needed to be held THE WHOLE TIME. Whatever it was, I had no more to give. Not one thing more. And so I held tight onto his wrist, threatened him as spit flew through my clenched jaw, and left him branded with my angry fingerprints.
So programmed to live the myth of the Martyr Mother in those days, I completely ignored this fuming monster that was me, even though she was eating me alive. “Needs? Me? I have no needs!” I laughed in her face, a bitter, angry laugh. And off I went to hang up the wet towels after bath time, to make sure we never ran out of his favorite frozen waffles, to nurse the baby, to pick up his dry cleaning, to send an email about the school fundraiser, to drive the field trip, to sign her up for tot ballet, to check on my friend (she’s having a hard time lately), to text my husband, to buy birthday gifts. Exhaustion. Depletion. Rinse. Repeat.
I knew I had squeezed his wrist way too hard. I felt a thrill of satisfaction as I watched his eyes widen first in surprise and then what must have been pain. He shut his mouth and quieted his whine, and I decided it was time to go home. The baby, probably sensing that her mother had taken leave of every single one of her senses, finally let me put her down. As I packed up the towels, the floaties, the rockets they loved to dive for, I wondered what to make for dinner and if there was time to stop for bread on the way home. The boys at last were blessedly quiet, and I had already forgotten all about the vice-like squeeze of his wrist just minutes before. So much more than a squeeze.
Until those marks showed up a couple days later, taunting me with their shy appearance. Now you see them, now you don’t. I couldn’t believe I had left those marks on anyone, never mind my own child.
I wish I could tell you I never did anything like that again. I wish I could tell you I learned to control my temper, to breathe through my anger, to walk away when I am frustrated, exhausted, depleted.
I can tell you that I know what it’s like to be running on empty. I can tell you that I now recognize when my tank is low, and I no longer ignore it when the red light comes on. I can tell you that I learned the very hard way that I do not have to be all the things to all the people and that the first and most important person to take care of is me.
My chubby little boy with the red welts on his wrist is now a slender, gangly tween.
“Remember, Mom,” he says, “remember when you used to squeeze my arm so hard?”
I do. I do remember.
“You don’t do that anymore.”
Nicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in the Bay Area with her husband and four kids. She is a regular columnist for j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California and her work has appeared on NYT Well Family, Mamalode, Kveller, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. She blogs at www.redboots.me and tweets @nixgilbertca.