I admit I craft an image of myself as a relentlessly cheerful person. Most of the time, this is the truth. Most of the time, I have far an abundance of optimism and energy. If I do have a bad day, I express negative emotions to a select few people, and smile at the rest of the world. Most of the time.

Recently, however, bad days have bled into weeks into months into sallow seasons. Jane’s behavior, which has always been developmentally delayed and sometimes challenging due to her hearing and language deficit, has flared. She is remembering and processing more about her past—which is appropriate and good—but also hard and confusing for her, and she expresses her confusion in anger.

Her therapy and school schedule has also been exhausting for her this year. She is in the best program, and receiving much needed help—but her days are oh, so long. While she is learning and thriving at school, it takes all of her energy. She limps off the bus at the end of a nine or ten hour day and melts down with a vengeance. In the morning, she’s still tired. She fights me.

Sandwiched between my daughter’s morning and evening emotional outbursts, I go to work and teach children with autism. I love my job as a special education teacher, but it has taken even more of my energy than usual this year. The effect is that I manage behavior challenges from sunrise to sundown—and often beyond.

When I come home exhausted—lacking adequate emotional reserves for my family or for myself—I am plagued with guilt and shame. I don’t want to be the stressed and frazzled mother. I want to be the fun, bubbly mother with a clean kitchen, perfect weekend adventure plans, and a fresh manicure. That is who I am—I tell myself.

For months, I have been trying to out-think and out-smile my exhaustion. But, being a single mom, there is often no way to tap out or hide from my children when I am having a bad day. I’m the only adult around. They need me. They need me to make them dinner, so sometimes I cry when I make dinner. They need me to drive them to gymnastics, so they know that sometimes I sit five extra minutes alone in the car, just to savor a little silence. Try as I might to suppress, deny, or dismiss my negative emotions, they see and they know. Pretense is not an option. So what do I say to them?

When my strength fails, what do I tell my children? What do I say when I am sad, burned out, and tired?

Last weekend, I was so tired and discouraged over Jane’s increasingly intense tantrums that I barely got out of bed. All weekend. My girls crawled in bed with me. We stayed in our pajamas all day. We cuddled. We read a pile of books. We made oatmeal and ate it in bed, while watching videos on my phone. They performed talent shows and plays for me. We prayed. We cried. We drew pictures. In the evening, we baked a cake from scratch and ate it with straight out of the pan for dinner.

When my strength fails, I can’t hide my failure from my children, but I can do my best to show them what to do with weakness.

I can show them that it is okay to rest. It is okay to cancel your plans and widen your margins. I can show them that experiencing negative emotions does not have to mean distancing yourself from the people you love. I can show them how to be in a bad mood and love anyways. I can show them the value of chocolate and a bubble bath—but also the value of paying your bills on time and going to the gym, whether you feel like it or not. Because, someday, I want them have an arsenal of positive coping skills, too.

Someday, my children will feel angry. My children have seen their biological parents act out their anger in dangerous ways. When my strength fails, my goal is not to pretend that I’m never angry, but to model how a person can be angry and safe at the same time. I want them to know that it’s possible to be angry but gentle—angry but not unkind.

Someday, my children will feel overwhelmed. When my strength fails, I hope my children see me reaching out to my friends and community for help because, when they need it, I want them to feel comfortable reaching out for help. When they are defeated and desperate, I want their first impulse to be deepening, not detaching.

Someday, my children will feel sad. When my strength fails, I hope my children see me broken, but still praying with hope. I hope my children know that there is nothing wrong with a season of sadness. It’s when you’re saddest that music matters most.

Someday, my children will feel confused about the directions their lives are taking. When my strength fails, I can tell my children that I don’t have it all figured out. All I can do is trust God and try my best. I don’t expect that they will have it all figured out, either. No one does.

This is temporary. In a few months, we will celebrate summer. Next year, our school schedules will get simpler. But I will not live as if the countdown to an easier time is all that matters. When my strength fails, I will endeavor to live in the moment—as much as I live in sunny, carefree moments of joy. This present moment—terrible or wonderful—is a moment with my daughters. I cannot wish it away. I want to show them that we do not connect as a family because we feel good. We connect because we are a family—no matter how we are feeling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *