Last week we went on a five-day family road trip to Door County, WI. On the last day of our vacation, just before we left town, we planned to have a nice breakfast together, and I put a lot of effort into finding a restaurant we’d enjoy. I decided on a small family-owned bakery/cafe with a Sunday morning brunch and good reviews, called and made the reservations, and got us all out the door on time (almost).
When we got there, my husband had a moment of frugal conscience and suggested we order off the menu rather than get the buffet. I love me some buffet, but it’s unlikely I’d actually consume $11 worth of breakfast food. And our little kids aren’t big enough eaters to justify $7 worth of pancakes and bacon, either. I saw his logic, so I reluctantly agreed and found something on the menu that I wanted to eat.
Then, at the last moment, my husband and two older sons changed their minds again and decided they wanted the buffet after all. I went ahead and ordered the french toast for myself, and eggs and pancakes for the little guys to split.
As my older sons and husband returned from the buffet again and again with delicious-looking stuff–and I sat with two whiny little boys who couldn’t understand why everyone else was getting to eat, but they had to wait–I found myself getting annoyed. The buffet was my idea. The whole restaurant was my idea. Why wasn’t I eating that homemade mac and cheese and a pastry and fresh fruit? Where were my sausage links?
Finally, the food arrived for Owen, William and myself. After getting the little guys situated with their pancakes and eggs, I eagerly cut up my French toast, reached for the syrup, and…
instead, poured the hot water meant for my tea all over my food.
Now I went, for an instant, from annoyed to enraged. Ruined! All ruined! The French toast, soggy! The bacon, damp! And because I didn’t get the buffet, I couldn’t even go right up and trade it in for a new plate of food! RUINED!
I don’t freak out often, but food can be a big trigger for me. For one thing, when I get hungry–particularly in the early part of the day–my blood sugar drops and I get extremely cranky. And sometimes, when I really look forward to a particular meal it is hard to deal with disappointment when it doesn’t work out quite the way I’d envisioned.
So you can imagine my frame of mind at that moment. All around me, my family gobbled up pancakes and sausage and bacon and eggs and mac and cheese and breakfast casseroles and who-knows-what-else. And I sat in my seat, seething, staring at a plate of watery, ruined food. For a moment, I actually thought I might cry. Or throw a fork.
Of course, the most natural target for my rage was my husband. He’d been the one who suggested we eat off the menu, after all, and then changed his mind. All. His. Fault. And isn’t this just a perfect metaphor for motherhood, my mind went on. Everyone else gets exactly what they want, and Mom’s left holding the plate of soggy bread.
I sat there entertaining these self-pitying thoughts for a minute or two. I’m not sure what my face looked like, but the rest of my family started looking worried and talking to me v-e-r-y carefully, as though they thought I might do something rash with the breakfast meats. And then, I’m sure you can guess what happened: the initial anger wore off, I realized that I was actually close to tears over a plate of fried bread, and I started to feel silly.
Here’s where the choice presented itself to me: I could either decide that no, dammit, being angry about getting screwed out of my French toast was not silly at all and hunker down into that anger even more–hold on to it, roll around in it, get really deep into it, and let it color my reactions to my kids, my interactions with my husband, for the rest of the trip–
OR, I could recognize the choices I made that led to that plate of soggy food and not-satisfied belly, and the choices I was still continuing to make:
- I could have changed our orders when I realized that I really did want the buffet.
- I could have taken more care while prepping my food instead of using my mental energy worrying about what other people were eating.
- I could have asked for a new plate of food after I wrecked the first one. I’d have felt like a dummy, but I’m guessing they’d have brought me more.
And once I realized my control over the situation, I could decide to make a choice I could live with. By this point, I decided it was too late for me to ask for a new plate of food: everyone else was done, and it wouldn’t have been very much fun eating a whole new breakfast while four kids grew restless in their seats and the baby squirmed.
But I could walk over to the bakery and order myself a cherry turnover to eat in the car. And I could give my husband and kids a break and realize that nobody set out to ruin my breakfast. And I could even laugh about the water-mistaken-for-syrup.
And I did. And it was good.
Throughout my marriage and life as a mom, I have often found myself at that crossroads where you have to choose to either stay angry or let it go. Moments of disappointment, anger, annoyance and even rage are inevitable, and certainly there are certain behaviors that justify big and lasting feelings (like, say, infidelity). But silly little things also have a way of getting fat and large on all the energy we feed them when it would have been just as easy to starve them away.
There comes that pivotal moment where the initial event–whether it’s a soggy plate of food or a child’s misbehavior or the spouse who forgot your anniversary–isn’t enough to fuel the anger anymore. At that moment you have to make a conscious, intelligent decision to feed the negativity. And I am convinced that a huge percentage of marital discord and parental bitterness comes from people making a choice to stay angry or disappointed or disgusted or resentful.
I know because I’ve made that choice myself, many many times, especially early in my life as a mom and wife. And it has never, not once, made my day better, improved a relationship, or given me any real, lasting satisfaction. Now I go out of my way to make the other decision: the decision not to nurture the annoyance or resentment, to forget about the self-pity. Like anything else, bad feelings need to be fed in order to thrive. If you starve them of attention or focus, they have a way of shriveling up and going away.
Imagine how much happier we’d all be if we let moments of anger be just that: moments. And then went on to embrace the humor in the unexpected, the love of our families, and the freshly-baked cherry turnover.
Photo: Jules Morgan, via Flickr Creative Commons