9:40. I’m running about 10 minutes late to my doctor’s appointment – not great, but not terrible either. Adeline is with me, which always makes everything take longer, so I’m being forgiving with myself. We park, hurry up the stairs and make our way to the office. I buzz the doctor and she comes out with a surprised look on her face. Right away I know something’s wrong.
“Sara. I had you down for a nine o’clock this morning.” She looks at her watch then back at me. I glance at the clock on the wall. 9:45. It’s verging on too late for a 9:30 appointment. It’s definitely too late for a 9:00 appointment. I look in my calendar and, indeed, the appointment is down as starting at 9:00. Somehow I just messed up.
I manage to keep it together while we sort out the details and reschedule. Adeline proudly shouts “Ba Bye!” as we walk out the door. The moment the door clicks shut behind us I feel it: the self-loathing and self-criticism start to rise up.
My first instinct is, always, to blame myself. “What an idiot I am! How could I have done something so stupid! We drove all the way over here for nothing – what a waste of time. I’m such a fuck-up!”
Normally this dialogue would be internal, but since having a baby I try to speak out loud as much as possible. (You know, that whole, “narrate your day to your baby” thing.) So I start to berate myself out loud, not only in front of Adeline, but to Adeline. I start to tell her what an idiot her mama is.
And then I stop myself.
I do not want to do this to my daughter. Just yesterday I had a similar experience. I was driving and someone pulled out in front of me in a typical terrible-driver move. I started to complain and say what an idiot the other driver was. After having spent eight years in Chicago I tend to think that almost everyone in Denver drives terribly, so this happens fairly often. But yesterday I stopped myself. I don’t want Adeline to hear me constantly criticizing other people.
There’s a wonderful quote by Peggy O’Mara, “Be careful how you speak to your children, one day it will become their inner voice.”
But it’s not just how you talk to your children directly, or only about themselves. It’s also how your children hear you talk about other people and about yourself. All of those things become their inner voice.
If Adeline hears me criticizing other people all the time, she will learn to think that way. She’ll assume that I’m thinking that way about her, even if I don’t say it, and she’ll internalize that voice. More importantly, if she hears me criticizing myself all the time, she’ll learn that it’s an appropriate way to treat oneself. And that is a lesson I absolutely do not want to teach her.
My inner critic has gotten substantially quieter over the last several years. Five years ago, in a similar situation, I would have berated and harassed myself into tears and maybe worse. I’ve come a long way. But it’s something I still deal with and something I’ve struggled to change. It seems I couldn’t change it for my sake alone, but maybe I can change it for my daughter’s sake. Maybe I can, at the very least, keep that voice hushed and hidden inside, so that it doesn’t worm its way into her soul.
I know that being forgiving – whether it’s of your children, that other driver, or yourself – always feels better than being critical. But old habits die hard. All we can do is take it one opportunity for criticism at a time. I stopped myself two days in a row. I’m calling that a success.