My cynicism about a post title aside, mothering has improved me. Not in that sickeningly self-righteous way that people with offspring often regard people without offspring, but rather because I'm am a better person than I probably otherwise would have been. By nature I'm less tolerant, altruistic and open-minded than I am irritable, demanding and opinionated.
Of course, these improvements are well hidden when I'm yelling "Will you just put your bloody underpants on!" at my 6-year old son, who seems convinced that dancing naked around the kitchen is the best way to get ready for school. And, unlike many other mothers I know, rearing children has certainly not made me more patient or selfless. My volcanic temper and capacity for hoarding (chocolate, time alone, stationery) make me seem more like a deranged magpie than a paragon of motherly virtue.
That said, I'm a better person for being a mother, simply because parenting is so hard. If hard = character-building, raising kids is the most character-building thing I've ever done. And while it is a path filled with joy, fulfillment and love, it's also one that overflows with exhaustion, pain, bewilderment, and sometimes even rage and deep terror. Although my kids send me on short trips to Crazyville with disturbing regularity, I usually learn quite useful lessons on the journey.
Firstly, my daughter taught me that "scary" doesn't necessarily equal "dangerous". She has a neurological condition (Sensory Processing Disorder) that means she experiences the world in an atypical way. She's not afraid of heights, speed, snarling dogs, strangers, deep water or any of the things that typically trigger a fear response, but a busy shopping mall or noisy classroom can trigger sensory overload and send her into a full-blown anxiety meltdown.
Her condition is very manageable, but often confusing and unpredictable. Ordinary things can terrify her, while terrifyingly dangerous things can be fun for her. With maturity she has learned which activities are actually dangerous or safe, and to use her judgement rather than her emotional responses to guide her behaviour. Big lesson for me right there.
Of course, she doesn't always get this right (who does?) and her extreme reactions mean that in spite of her high academic achievement, she gets into trouble at school. A lot. Which brings me to my second lesson...
Sometimes the @$$holes you deal with on a day to day basis just can't help it. My 6-year old son has quite severe ADHD, and when he's not well-medicated he is unbelievably obnoxious. He becomes aggressive to the point of violence, rude, is wildly unmanageable and completely unable to remember an instruction (or anything else) from one moment to the next. Hence the early morning nudity: before his first dose of Ritalin, he literally cannot concentrate for long enough to put pants on.
In his early preschool days when we were desperately searching for a non-medication based solution, he hit one of the children in his class so hard that it gave the child a mild concussion. (As you've probably guessed by now, I spend rather a lot of time in school principals' offices, carefully managing my own emotional responses!)
But, when my son is on the right medication, at the right dosage, he's kind, empathetic, intelligent and extremely creative. The right medication switches his brain on so that the real person buried under all the noise in his head shines through. Criticize our treatment choices all you like, but without Ritalin, a visitor to my home might mistake it for ground zero of the apocalypse.
Now, I'm not advocating medication for all naughty kids, nor am I saying that being a class-A jerk is a medical condition (if only). What I am saying is that I've come to realize that obnoxious colleagues are (mostly) not being a pain in the butt on purpose - they are simply coping with struggles of their own. They might even suffer from an undiagnosed or poorly managed medical condition. Also, it's worth noting that many medications have side effects that can affect mood or even trigger bizarre tics.
Thirdly, my kids have taught me that things don't always go as planned - and this is a good thing. My third pregnancy was unplanned. We were *done* having kids, and were looking forward to a nice, neat "pigeon-pair" family when baby number three showed up. It was a difficult pregnancy, I was hospitalized twice, I was nauseous until the day he was born and then I was struck down by post-natal depression in the months following his birth.
My youngest son is 3 now, and although he's still hard work, his unfailing admiration of his big brother has done more good than we could possibly have imagined. My boys have an oddly symbiotic relationship where the elder learns and re-builds his fragile confidence (shattered by years of struggles with his ADHD) by teaching the younger. Neither I nor his therapists could do for my elder son what my younger has done, by simply being born.
So, on those awful, awful days when work is horrible, the kids are sick and my husband and I aren't getting along I try to remember that life is just one great big beautiful mess and it's all learning. The hardest thing I've ever done is still teaching me - not just tolerance, but openness to other people's different-ness, not just courage but the value of fearlessness, not just flexibility but the importance of actively embracing the unexpected.