“Do you guys want to go on a picnic tonight?” I asked my kids.
“Yeah!” they both exclaimed.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Our brutal Maine winter, which teased us in February with hints of spring, only to pummel us with snowstorm after snowstorm in March, finally appeared to be over. The daylight stretched further and further, and daffodils brightened our garden. My husband had a late meeting that night, so I thought, why not take the kids to the playground at their school and enjoy a fun, active picnic dinner?
The problem was exactly that—it was an active picnic dinner. So active that even after I passed the football with my son while my daughter enjoyed a nearby swingset, even after they climbed up slides and slid back down them, after they took their shoes off to dip their toes into the cool sand of the sandbox, my kids wouldn’t eat their dinner.
“Please eat,” I said approximately 175 times as they ran around the playground.
“We can get ice cream sandwiches on the way home if you guys eat most of your dinner,” I bribed.
“Could you please at least take another bite of your sandwich before you go down the slide?” I pleaded.
This wasn’t our first playground picnic—I’d tried a similar one the year before, and we’d faced the same problem. The playground was too distracting, and I’d nagged them over and over again to no avail. This time, I’d tried to set them up for success—I’d fed them veggies at home before we left, and only packed a simple sandwich for each of us for dinner instead of the multiple containers of food I’d brought on our last attempt.
But still, they only each took a handful of bites of their sandwiches, and only after constant reminders from me. Meanwhile, I’d scarfed my own sandwich down in record time. Don’t nag them, I said to myself. They’re kids, just let them play. Let go.
But I couldn’t let go. The playground was windy, and my PMS slid in on the sharp edge of a breeze. Every month, since about the time I turned 40, I am filled with a fire of agitation for anywhere from 10-12 days.
I thought back to the family picnics I’d enjoyed as a kid, sitting on the beach contentedly eating a simple cheese sandwich with my parents and brother.
“Eat,” I said, that PMS bite entering my tone.
“Eat your dinner, eat, eat your dinner,” my son started singing from his perch atop a red slide, gently taunting me. I smiled. Part of me knew I was being ridiculous and ineffective with my pleas. But that part lost out to the hot, prickly irritation that was rising in my body.
“Alright, time to go home,” I said.
“Noooo!” my kids protested.
“Yep,” I said. As we headed for the car, my son said something unkind to my daughter, who in turn charged at him.
“Mom!” he shrieked.
“Get in the car,” I spat.
By the time my kids were buckled into my car, they were both crying.
The noise escalated as I passed by the grocery store.
“Mom! I thought you said you were going to get us ice cream sandwiches!”
“Yeah, if you’d eaten most of your dinner,” I said.
“You’re the meanest mom ever!”
“Mom! She pushed me!”
“Mama! He grabbed my arm!”
Their voices rose louder and louder, in synchronicity with my red hot frustration, until I lost it.
“Stop! You guys! I’m driving! I’m just trying to get us home safely! Please stop!” I hollered.
“You’re always yelling at us!” one of my kids sobbed.
With that accusation, my irritation morphed into despair. Waves of shame slapped at me, and I started crying, too. The ruckus of shouting that had filled the car was replaced with a chorus of sniffles and gulps.
Maybe I’m just not cut out for this parenting thing, I thought.
Nobody is cut out for this all the time, a slightly saner, less self-pitying voice whispered.
“I’m so sorry, you guys,” I said after a few moments had passed. “I don’t want to yell at you. I love you guys so much, and I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay, Mama,” they both said.
“I have an idea,” my son said. “When we get home, let’s all snuggle in with the same blanket, to show that we love each other.” I looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror, and just about exploded with love.
“Oh, that’s a great idea, honey,” I said. “Of course we love each other. I still love you when I’m mad, and I know that you still love me when you’re upset with me. That doesn’t ever change.”
Rupture and repair, I thought—the psychological theory that as parents, or partners, or friends, we make mistakes. We do or say things that wound our relationships. We yell in the car, we get obsessed with our kids eating our sandwiches, we lose our patience. We feel rage and shame—and then deep wells of love, all within minutes of each other.
And then we apologize. We pray for more patience, for more gratitude. We show up over and over and over again. And maybe, just maybe, we avoid playground picnics.
“You know what guys?” I asked my kids, a tiny giggle rising in me as I parked my car in the garage. “That was the worst picnic ever.”
“It really was,” my son said.
“Yeah, worst picnic ever,” my daughter agreed.
“It was a crappy, crappy picnic,” I said.
I wiped my eyes and got out of the car. My son hugged onto his sister, and I wrapped my arms around them both.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Courtesy of Noël Smith Sparrow on Instagram
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron