Forgiving myself as a mother, especially now

hands together with a yellow flower coming through

By Hannah Grieco

All three of my kids are watching documentaries, sprawled around the living room with individual screens and headphones. I sheepishly offered this reward after we spent an hour cleaning the first floor, their faces tight as my anxiety poured over the house. Their arguments against cleaning at 8AM silenced by my panic, which I usually hide well, but not today. Today I read that article about this potentially lasting eighteen months, about the long-term dangers not just to the elderly and immune-comprised.

Today I think about my parents and my vision goes blurry. Today my asthmatic cough, bad for a couple of months now, brings acid up my throat and I picture the ER, by myself, and the chain reaction that would occur. No matter the path, it never ends in a sunny spot in my wild imaginings.

Today I panicked, the first time really, even when my son was hospitalized for a week until just a few days ago. Hospitalized for something totally different, but still terrifying and consuming—and still I didn’t feel like this. Parenting is always hard. Our family experiences what feels like endless challenges and crises. We have difficult diagnoses, strong behaviors, school needs and appointments that disrupt my sleep and weigh on us daily. But I’ve learned not to give in to dread or hopelessness. If I cry and shake, it’s short and hard and then over before you’ll ever see.

This morning I looked out the window at my parent’s car, parked next to the live-in apartment attached to our home, and the fear of losing them punched me so hard that I doubled over.

“This house is disgusting!” I stormed, targeting my children as they played with Legos in the other room. “Get up and help me!”

No calm parent voice. No morning meeting to start our homeschool day. As a former teacher, and a parent who has been trained to maintain her cool in the face of large-scale meltdowns, I know better than to yell like this, to scream my disappointment, to name-call my own children.

“I’m not your servant!” I snarl. “Why are you so lazy!”

The ugliness startles my children. They’re used to my loud, Jewish-mom complaining—but not this unkindness. Not this anxiety-fueled rage.

My anger eases as the dog fur disappears into the vacuum, as the books and toys and clothes find their proper spots. My vision clears. My son offers to take a shower, a sign of almost comical distress for my kids, who prefer to stay caked in dirt for days, to eat with their hands, juice from oranges coating their chins, sand from the sandbox out back crusted between their toes.

“Sure,” I say. “Everyone take a shower and then we’ll start our school work.”

No arguments or whining, another sign of distress. These kids love to share their thoughts, loudly and forcefully, and the quiet obedience saddens me.

The schedule on the wall says, “9:00-10:00 Math, 10:00-11:00 Language Arts” and continues through the day. I pull it from the wall and start a new schedule for today.

9:00-10:00 – A documentary of your choice

10:00-10:30 – Quiet reading

10:30-11:30 – Play outside

11:30-1:00 – Lunch, play, chill

1:00-2:00 – Math games

And so it goes. My children need structure, to learn and feel purposeful. But they also need to be calm. They need their mother to be calm. And when their mother can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t swim to the surface of this housebound world—they need her to forgive herself, to talk out loud about what she feels, to model what being a human is. Flawed, able to apologize, sometimes scared, distress-tolerant, pushing through hard experiences.

“I’m sorry, you all,” I tell my kids and lay down with them on the living room rug. They roll toward me relieved, laughing now, headphone cords tangling, the six-year-old barking like a dog.

I am forgiven.

Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, Virginia. She can be found online at, on Twitter at @writesloud, and at Porcupine Literary as the fiction editor.

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