In high school physics, we learned Newton’s Second Law; the force of an object is equal to the product of its mass and acceleration. F = ma. After my second son was born, I started experimenting with physics. I started throwing things. I craved the release of hurling an object through the air. I relished the moment of impact when the object hit its target – laundry detergent pooled at the bottom of the basement stairs, a board book flung through a glass door, a green smoothie splattered on a white kitchen wall, a dozen eggs smashed in the back of a mini van.
It seemed only fair. My sons, 17 months apart, they got to throw things. They threw blocks at each other’s heads, food on the floor, pacifiers over the edge of the crib, and sippy cups out of strollers. I wanted to throw things too. I needed to throw things. Every object that went sailing through the air was a confession, an admittance of defeat.
These crying, needy, babies with their never ending list of demands and preferences were out of control. You want to see out of control? This is what out of control looks like: grab and release.
It was impossible to tell what would set me off. There was no rhyme or reason to the kind of incident that would activate propulsion. A seemingly regular event like a toy bin emptied of all toys or an ungrateful whine or a grocery trip run off the rails, was enough force to set things into motion. For a split second, as an object took flight, time froze. All of the tension of the moment was released. And then with impact came the shame. Another mess to clean up. Another failed attempt to control myself. What is wrong with me? What kind of mother throws things?
Instead of searching for the source of my anger, I was quick to judge myself.
The first and last time I saw my own mother throw something was a few weeks after my brother was brought home from the hospital. In the weeks after his birth, I peered over the edge of the bassinet set up in a dim corner of the master bedroom. I was eight years old and having my mom who usually worked full-time home during the day felt special, almost illicit.
In the weeks after my brother was born, I could feel something else in the air, like that crackling feeling before a thunderstorm. I could feel it bumping off the walls like a bouncy ball unleashed in a small room. I tried to make myself small and scarce. But it was only a matter of time before a collision. It was only a matter of time before impact. One evening, my mom was making stir fry for dinner. We had a wok that went right on the stove, and there was a colander of vegetables on the counter waiting to be cooked. We ate a lot of stir fry probably because it was easy, fast, and healthy. My step-dad walking in the door from work said something about dinner, and my mom’s reply was to pick up the colander and throw it against the wall. Vegetables scattered across the kitchen floor. I don’t remember what my step-dad said or the tone. He could have said, Oh stir fry, or You’re really into stir fry these days, or Stir fry again? and the result would have probably been the same. Or maybe it was what he didn’t say that sent green broccoli across white checked linoleum. How are you? Are you hanging in? Why don’t you rest while I finish up dinner?
The vegetables flew, and my mom walked out the door barefoot, empty handed, leaving too quickly to take anything that might be useful in an escape–shoes, car keys, wallet. It comforted me to know that she didn’t have shoes. My eight-year-old logic told me that without shoes, she would have to come back. My stepdad, baby brother and I gathered around the dining room table, because that is what we would have done if she was there. What did we eat? Did we sheepishly salvage the stir fry or did we turn to peanut butter and jelly? I don’t remember. But we stayed calm, because we had no other choice. We acted like this woman walked out on us every day. All we could do was wait, taking turns glancing at the door and out the window for a glimpse of the woman that connected us all.
She reappeared just as the street lights started to come on, the broccoli long swept away with eyes red from crying, breasts swollen with milk, and feet blackened from asphalt. The maternity clothes she was still wearing postpartum were rumpled and damp with sweat. I was flooded with relief. I didn’t want to cry but felt that pinch in my throat a sure sign that tears were close.
Under regular circumstances, my mom was not a yeller or a thrower but an expert at keeping everything neatly contained. She rarely raised her voice. She was not one for dramatics, and I never saw her throw anything again. It was as if that evening, she was under a temporary spell, and with one throw she snapped out of it. The spell was broken.
I now know that after my brother was born, my mom experienced the postpartum blues, and the throw I witnessed was part of a more complex story. As a child I only saw pieces of what she was going through. I wonder now, was the broccoli the beginning or the end of that story? I don’t know how long it went on or if she ever saw a doctor or sought help or if she just pushed through in her own calm way.
When my first son was born, I was on high alert for signs of some sort of postpartum meltdown. I didn’t know if these things were genetic, but I prepared my husband for what I expected was the inevitable. Seventeen months later when my second son was born, I was too tired, too preoccupied, too overwhelmed to have thoughts about my postpartum emotional health. It was one foot in front of another. Every day a new exercise in survival. Because I had made it through my first son’s early days without incident, I thought I was in the clear. Then I started to throw things. As I ratcheted up my own throwing habit, I wondered if my mom’s one throw had unlocked something in me. Had her one throw given me silent permission for all of mine? Throwing became my go-to reaction when life with small children got out of control. And the more throws I made, the more addicted I became to the equation: Force = Mass X Acceleration.
Every parent of small children knows that things get out of control on an hourly or sometimes minute-by-minute basis, and my inability to deal with that chaos left me propelling whatever innocent object I was holding in my hand. More than frustration, I felt an empty disappointment. And anger. I was putting everything I had into being a mother. And I was still failing. If I wasn’t good at this, what was I good at? I underestimated the force of my children’s demands. The space they took up in my world felt like a punishment instead of a gift. Was this what my mom felt? The crushing weight of expectations? A sadness that felt like it would never pass? A disappointment in her bones? A baby that was never satisfied? A husband that questioned her choices? A situation spinning out of control?
As my children got older, and the rational moments outnumbered the out of control ones, my impulse to throw faded away. I grew out of my throwing phase just as my kids were outgrowing diapers and pacifiers and naps. But it did happen. I worry about how my throwing impacted my sons. Have I shown them that it’s okay to throw things?
Or have I shown them that control is not something we can hold in our hand?
Being a mother is not always graceful or fulfilling. It often feels to me like a series of tests gauging how I will react under different circumstances. Sometimes the reaction creates a mess. But all we can do is clean it up, forgive ourselves and try to do better next time. We make a new equation. One that trumps even the laws of physics. The Mass of Our Love x The Weight of Our Good Intentions = The Best We Can Do. And we have faith that it’s enough.