I wrote this post a few weeks ago and, in some of my customary self-censoring, I haven’t posted it till now. I’ve been withholding a lot of what I’ve been writing lately. Why? Because it scares the hell out of me to publicly admit when I’m not the peaceful, even-tempered, wizened, mom-nastic person I think I should be. Nonetheless, I’m sharing the below in hopes that maybe (just maybe?), like me, there are others out there who haven’t quite yet become the vision they hold for themselves. And, like me, maybe aspects of the current state of affairs is not pretty. Maybe we’re on our way to becoming that shiny vision of our highest selves. Still, even if you’re careering toward higher consciousness, when you hit inner speed bumps at a breakneck pace, it can be extremely painful.
Here’s my story
First, comes the adorable. I got a lovely kids picture book in the mail this week. It’s called My Mom Snaps and it takes the reader through universal childhood moments while Mom stands by snapping photos of her kids in action. Apart from making my boys giggle, through awesome illustrations and delightful verse, I feel like, for my kids, it’s made sense of why a camera is often party to their antics. It’s the perfect book for wee ones of this extraordinarily well documented generation, and we love reading it.
However, at least for tonight, I really wish this book, or any book, depicted the ugly side of this title because maybe such a book would help my sons make sense of the other kind of snapping Mommy does. Because tonight, their mom snapped, and it left us all in pieces.
It’s usually unpredictable and uncontrollable when it happens.
One of my sons enters and exits these fleeting phases I don’t understand, can’t control and don’t manage very well when we’re in one of them. Usually, sensory kid that he is (that so many kids are, diagnosed or otherwise), these phases are sparked by a time of transition, which could be as small as school-to-swimming-to-home, or as big as end-of-the-school-year-start-of-summer, and I never know what exactly is going to set him off.
This week, I’ve been seeing the telltale sign that he’s on the verge of one of these phases: He amps the fuck out when I tell him no.
No you can’t have ice cream for breakfast. The line is too long at the carwash, so we’re going to have to come back tomorrow morning. We’re not getting a snack from the vending machine. No I won’t let you play with my makeup brushes. No you may not use the wooden knives from your brother’s play kitchen to pretend to be a ninja.
Nonetheless, I’ve powered through our days instead of following my instincts to slow everything to a halt. It’s been so long since we’ve entered one of these streaks of terror that I forgot my tools for easing it. When he starts throwing tantrums like a toddler, it’s time to get on the floor and play with him instead of rushing to do the laundry, cook the food, clean the dishes, wipe up the mess, pack the bags, etc… It’s time to look him in the eye as often as possible and engage in whatever kind of play inspires him. It’s time to turn off the TV. It’s time to run around outside even if it’s freezing. It’s time to let him shoot me with his pretend pointer-finger gun (as much as I abhor that game). It’s time to chase him till he’s tired. And it’s time to wrestle. A lot.
These “no”-sparked tantrums withstand attempts at distraction, rationalizing, hugs, praying, yelling, bribery, threats and everything else. I could tell him yes, and that would stop his fit, but as a policy, I never reassess my decision after he’s skyrocketed to such heights of physical emotion, as I don’t want to enforce that behavior. We’d been through several tantrum cycles today so I already was weary. Then tonight, when he hit his brother, I reduced the bedtime books from three to two as a consequence.
A heated meltdown escalated and, ashamedly, I matched him, level for level.
He started crying. I remained firm, ignored the budding tantrum and began reading to his brother.
He screamed louder. And louder. I remained firm, and made myself feel better by making sarcastic comments about his decision to go ape shit instead of to relax and read with us.
He started writhing around on his bed, bouncing on the mattress and thumping his feet, all while screaming. I remained firm, and gathered disdainful glares from my own arsenal.
He threw his books across the room. I remained firm and withdrew all my emotion, creating a chilling calm. I hate when things are thrown, especially books, and I’m incensed when his brother’s right to X, Y or Z is intercepted by his seemingly intentional emotion.
He hopped around on the bed, crying loudly and purposefully trying to land his knees on my shins. And then, mom snapped.
I went ballistic. I grabbed him roughly, removed him from the bed, set him on the floor of the room next door, held his face in my hands and told him, not at all calmly: “Your behavior is unacceptable. You will stay here until you can calm down and read peacefully with us.”
I returned to the boys’ bedroom and locked the door to read to his brother. He pounded on the door and screamed and kicked it. I took a deep breath and got up to let him in. He pushed through the door, giving me some sass-mouth on the way in. He threw a book again and demanded I read all three books. Enraged, I grabbed his elbow in the way angry parents do, ushered him into the next room and spanked him five times, as hard as I could, on the bottom. I returned to his brother, who looked sick to his stomach. My eyes must’ve been terrifying. I softened, scooped him up, explained that I loved him and his brother so much and we snuggled while my oldest pounded the door, bawling.
I opened the door. He shrieked. “You shouldn’t have hit me, Mommy!!! You need to learn how to stop yourself!!!”
The truest fucking words he ever could’ve said.
But I wanted to whack him again right then. I really, really wanted to. Someone I love grew up hearing the phrase, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and there, staring at my son’s emotionally derailed, irrationally defiant eyes, it was all I could do not to adopt that phrase as my own.
I consider myself conscious of my own inner drives, I’ve worked through much of my suppressed anger, I have such intense compassion for kids that I can’t even watch movies that hint at harm of children and I’m aware enough of my own limits that I know when to ask for help. Nonetheless, I found myself really wanting to resort to further violence to stop this ruinous tantrum. How on earth do people who’ve been raised in physically abusive households avoid repeating the pattern when faced with the horrendous behavior all kids exhibit from time to time? Sincerely, how do they do it?
Instead of hurting my son, I opted to acknowledge the truth.
“You’re right. I really apologize for doing that. But I don’t think either of us are in a good place for talking right now,” I glowered at him. “Let’s try to sit and read and just see if we can both calm down.”
He didn’t calm down, at least not right away. I didn’t calm down, either, at least not on the inside. It took about 30 minutes for him to collect himself enough to hear the words from the book, I Was So Mad, by Mercer Mayer.
“I am so mad!” he shouted immediately after I read the words from the book. Finally, he found the word for what he was feeling and, presumably, he felt powerful again. Seeing his empowerment, I was able to gather myself.
“I know, buddy. It’s ok for you to be mad at me. I’m still mad at you, too. But, even though we’re mad at each other, I still love you and you still love me,” I said, my voice hoarse from my emotional explosion. “I just want you to know that being mad doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” I tried to put my arm around him.
“I’m still too mad at you to hug you,” he blurted, curling up into a ball away from me. I wanted to sob.
Halfway into a Curious George book, his eyes were bright again. His body was less rigid and he leaned into me. His physical presence had shifted and he was engaged. We read, we completed the bedtime routine and, as they both sleep now, I’m feeling wrecked, empty and full of fear. Fearful of what tomorrow might bring if my son awakens with a mercurial temper. Fearful of what plans might be eliminated because of a freakout. Fearful of the emotional scars I may have caused tonight and other such times. Fearful of how I’ll respond when he blows a gasket again. Fearful about this side of myself that no part of me wants to admit is there. Fearful that this dark, explosive monster will raise its head again. It’s a wobbly feeling in my stomach, like the puzzle pieces of my entire being are askance.
As I understand it, the antidote to fear is love. Tonight we didn’t talk it out, and we didn’t hug it out, but I’m hoping tomorrow brings both. In the mean time, I’m going to go apologize to his sleeping body and set about cultivating a more patient, more loving me.
Anyone who’s a parent knows kids can push buttons you never knew you had. Raising children sometimes causes you to dive so deep into your own darkness that you can’t even look at what’s there. To see it can be unsettling to the point of derailment. It’s terrifying for me to acknowledge my own patches of deep-down anger, my own quick temper, my own emotional nature, but it feels essential for me to do so in order to navigate beyond it.
The next morning did indeed bring a conversation between my son and I about our emotional-turned-physical collision. We apologized, explained to each other what set us off, reassured each other of how much we appreciate each other and promised (well, I did) not to let that happen again.
Ever the bold one, he also held me accountable for my inappropriate actions. In fact, excruciatingly and necessarily, he’s brought the incident up several times since. “Remember that time when you got so mad you didn’t stop yourself from slapping me?” he asks. My other son then says, “Yeah, Mommy, do you ‘member when you slapped my brother?”
To which I reply: “I do remember that. I really, really don’t feel good about the fact that I did that and I promise I will not slap either of you again. Just like you guys are learning, Mommy is learning how to stop herself, too. I’m so, so sorry I haven’t learned how to do that yet. You guys are very brave to step forward and be my sons and teach me all of this. I promise I’m getting better every day.”
Then I thank them for reminding me about what happened when I snapped. And I mean it.
There is a fine line between my reaction to my son’s meltdown and child abuse. I recognize that and, believe me, my proximity to that line horrifies me. Even as I post this, I’m overcome with worry that, by exposing my own unacceptable behavior, I’ll be deemed unfit by all the world for caring for the children I love purely, completely and, oftentimes, divinely. It’s unbelievably scary to admit I’m not always serene and, as I like to say, mom-nastic, in my mothering.
In hindsight, I could’ve done a better job of recognizing where my emotional state was heading and redirected myself accordingly. Some things I could’ve done to stop myself from flipping out to the point of wanting to harm my son:
- Called a friend. (It sounds trite, but I guarantee if I’d called a friend before freaking out, I would’ve gotten the support, and potentially the laugh, I needed to cool off in 30 seconds or less.)
- Bagged the whole thing and brought everyone downstairs to watch a cartoon, which would’ve pulled us all out of our highly charged state and given me the chance to regroup. Once we were all calmed down, I could then proceed with a hug and a healing conversation.
- Reminded myself that his behavior wasn’t a reflection of years of my own shitty parenting up to that moment. Usually, when I get angry with my kids, it’s because I feel like they’re acting in a way that reflects some deficiency in my own self and the job I’m doing as a mom. I feel like, if I can’t figure out a way to help this situation, then it means I’m not enough. This is a belief about myself I dearly want to release.
For more tips, see the incredibly helpful PDF from Prevent Child Abuse America, entitled “Twelve Alternatives to Lashing Out at Your Child.” http://www.preventchildabuse.org/publications/parents/downloads/twelve_alternatives.pdf