It's that time of year: the few weeks when we drink ourselves silly, stuff ourselves with homemade treats (full
of dreaded gluten and sugar) and reunite with the friends and
family we make a point not to see the rest of the year.
Even if that
doesn't exactly describe your holiday festivities, one thing we are almost all
forced into, as December wraps up, is some good old-fashioned, year-end
reflection. Which is what made my conversation with the wonderfully
candid author and actress Brett Paesel all the more comforting.
Brett lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 23 years,
actor and director Pat Towne, and their two school-age boys. Brett was one of
the first writer moms to put in black and white what's it really like to be
home with babies in her best-selling book, "Mommies Who Drink." Now that
her boys are older, she is no less honest about the ever-mounting pressures of
trying to raise her children and work.
Sitting in a fancy Starbucks in the Farmer's Market in Los
Angeles, Brett was happy to tell me one of her favorite meltdown
"When Spencer was 5 and Murphy was 1, we had a routine I
loved on Sunday mornings. Spencer and I would get on the bus and go to a restaurant called "House of Pies." We'd have milkshakes and then go to church. Pat would
stay home with Murphy. One Sunday, Spencer did not want to go. He wanted to stay
home with Daddy. I got very upset by this and snapped, 'You are going to
church because that's what we do!' Spencer was near tears. 'I want to stay with
Daddy!' I made him go anyway. He kept on about wanting to be with Daddy, so
finally I blurted out, 'How would you like it if I said, I like Murphy more
than you? Because here you're saying you like Daddy more than me, but how would
you like it if I said I loved Murphy more than you?' And then, before I could
suck the words back in, he burst into tears. 'You love Murphy more than me? You
love Murphy more than ME?' he asked. 'NO! NO!' I screamed, standing outside the
pie shop. 'I'm just saying that's what you're saying, that you like Daddy
better than me, because you want to stay home with Daddy.'
"By that point, we were
both a mess. But we pulled ourselves together enough to go in and get
milkshakes. We cried our way out of it, thank God."
Since her younger son Murphy was just a year old at the
time, Brett writes off her less than stellar behavior that day as a by-product
of early motherhood. "I was breastfeeding and hormonal and clearly not managing
as well as I thought I was." She was sure that kind of outburst wouldn't happen
Until it did.
Her next memorable bad parenting moment was the day of
Murphy's of pre-school graduation. The school had a professional
photographer there and she wanted a picture with her son but he didn't want to
stop playing with his friends long enough to pose with Mommy. "So I leaned in
to his face and said pointedly, 'You get everything you want and I ask for one
thing, one thing, and you can't give it to me?' Then I grabbed him and we took
that goddamn picture!"
"I believe my kids think of me as 'emotionally high strung,' shall we say. They handle it pretty well at this point though. They know I'm not perfect, and Mommy cries, but she's okay. Really I'm doing them a service!"
I asked Brett if, in retrospect, she learned anything over the
years about what to do when emotion overtakes her. And, more importantly (to me
anyway), how to handle it when it does happen. She told me it's all about being
honest with the boys. "I say, 'I'm sorry, I got a little crazy, it had nothing
to do with you, I had other things going on. Parents are human, and their
feelings get hurt, and sometimes we don't always behave as well as we should.'"
As much as she's relieved she is
out of the various hormonal states that have plagued her over the last 10 years, Brett is fine with slipping up once in a while with her kids,
"Because you show them that you have a life separate from them, and that you're
not always making stellar choices either."
Then Brett made yet another compelling point about parenting
that we perfection-seeking mothers often forget. Which is the very
different point of view that many of our mothers had. "I don't remember
my mother ever saying, 'I'm sorry.'" She quickly added, "She was a very good
mother, and she certainly had moments like the one I described, but she
certainly never apologized for it. She knew there was no such thing as a
perfect mother. Whereas we think, because we're so overeducated, and we have
this strong image of the perfect mother and so, when we don't live up to it, we
get short tempered. Not only for whatever the transgression is but also out of
anger at ourselves, for not handling it better."
"I say, 'I'm sorry, I got a little crazy, it had nothing to do with you, I had other things going on. Parents are human, and their feelings get hurt, and sometimes we don't always behave as well as we should.'"
Right before we said good-bye that morning, Brett remembered
the moment she knew her perfectionism had gotten the better of her for the last
"It was the day I found myself sobbing in the principal's office of my 6th grader. I had been trying to get the
counselor to pay attention to me and, when I was finally able to schedule an
appointment with her, I came in and she wasn't there. I walked in to the
main office, guns blazing that she had forgotten our plan to meet, ready to
attack. Then they called her and I realized it was my fault — that I had
the wrong day. I burst in to tears, sobbing loudly, until the Principal
came out and led me into her office. The meeting was supposed to be about
setting up my son's schedule for the following year, but the Principal thought
I was crying about how rigorous the academics were. But really, it was just that
I was done trying to manage everything. And I was also hormonal again,
not from birth at this point, let's just say menopause is no joke."
As someone who tends toward the histrionic myself, I had to
ask if there had been any direct fallout for her boys from being the
kind of woman who's not afraid to lose it in the Principal's office.
"I believe my kids think of me as 'emotionally high strung,'
shall we say. They handle it pretty well at this point though. They
know I'm not perfect, and Mommy cries, but she's okay. Really I'm doing
them a service!"
think of a better approach to parenting to leave all of us on, as we close out
this year and move in to the next. None of us is perfect, and, as far as
our children are concerned, this is good news for them.
Brett Paesel can currently be seen on "Transparent," on amazon.com and is working on a novel, "Everybody Plays,"
told through e-mails exchanged between parents of 9-year-olds on a
Beverly Hills soccer team.