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Mom learns she has everything and nothing to do with her children’s behavior

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Bay Area mother discovers that the behavior of her sons has everything and nothing to do with her.

Stephanie Mackley—known for her essays on feminism, parenting, and dark-ish, somewhat funny forays into the meaning of life—has recently found her footing again, after a hell-raising summer and first few weeks back to school.

This is what it looked like when Mackley found freedom and relief from the relentless demands of her lovely and very intense children. Photo by Pam Link.

Back in July of 2017, Mackley wrote about a recent experience of accessing deep “chambers of knowing” inside herself, wherein she could “see and understand all of the things.” Coincidentally, within days of writing that blog post, Mackley found herself deep in a pit of not knowing anything at all, after weeks of frequent and unrelenting bursts of sibling fighting in her home. Her two sons, Jo, 8, and Cal, 4, could routinely be found in their bedroom or the basement “super room” screaming, “NOT FAIR” or crying after one of their many bouts of hitting, kicking or teasing each other.

“It reminded me of the days when Cal was a baby, when I could never really get anything done because I had to watch him all the time and make sure he wasn’t going to fall down the stairs or something,” Mackley reported. “I could barely make dinner for all of the fights I was having to break up. And after a while, I just started fantasizing about a small cabin in the forest where I could go and live by myself.”

Neighbors and friends all expected Mackley’s situation to improve when the school year started, giving her a much needed break from the increased parenting duties that unstructured summers often bring. Mackley’s husband of 12 years, AJ, said that things did get better in terms of the sibling fights once school started, “but then Jo started wailing and resisting most any time we asked him to do something like put on his shoes or brush his teeth. And Cal, well, he’s 4, so tantrums are a pretty regular thing for him just developmentally.”

While the new school year did provide a few hours per week for Mackley to rest at her home alone, she still felt significant despair and exhaustion over her sons’ daily outbursts and continued, albeit less frequent, sibling fighting.

As of October 4, 2017, Mackley reported having nearly two weeks of feeling a sense of parenting mastery that “couldn’t have come sooner.” She says that even though she can still be up to her eyeballs in sibling fighting, Cal’s tantrums and Jo’s whining and resistance, she has discovered a new and important aspect of her parenting strategy.

“I have to just feel my feelings,” she said. “I think over the summer, having so few breaks and watching the kids fight so much, I was just wallowing in buckets of sadness and disappointment and shame. I mean, what does it mean about me that my kids are fighting like this? I must be a terrible mother if they behave this way. And why did I get these kids, these really hard and tricky kids—they don’t act like all the ‘easy kids’ I see everywhere else. Not to mention seeing them hurt each other on purpose. Day after day, they do that crap even though I demonstrate otherwise and tell them its not okay and enforce clear boundaries. So, what the fuck?!”

In the end, Mackley reported that she’s found it helpful to track her own feelings when she is taking care of her sons, and sometimes, when things are particularly hard, she’ll leave the boys on their own and go to another room to cry. “When I reach a particular limit of frustration or upset, and I feel the need to cry, I just do it. I’ll go in the other room and bawl for like 5 or 10 minutes, however long it takes to just feel the full horror and sadness of the particular moment. I don’t do it in a manipulative way. I just let the boys know that I’m feeling too sad to keep helping them, and usually, while I’m sobbing on the couch, I can hear them solving their own problem in the other room.”

“Yeah, there’s been a lot of crying in our house,” AJ confirms. “I’m not always sure what to think about it, but Stephanie does seem calmer with the boys when things get tricky.”

Mackley, 38, also routinely engages in a practice called “listening,” when she calls one of a handful of friends who are also familiar with the practice, in order to speak frankly about what’s going on.

“I think of it as barfing up my feelings, really. Parenting these kids just triggers me so much sometimes. So after a hard day, I just need about 7 minutes to say all of the horrible things I’m thinking. And I don’t need advice, I literally just need someone to listen and maybe say ‘uh huh.’ They set a timer and tell me when the 7 minutes are over, and that’s pretty much it. Then all that crap I was thinking and feeling is out of my system, and I feel a little less bogged down, like I actually did something to help myself,” Mackley said.

She says that typically, the listening practice is exchanged, so the other person on the line often takes a turn to talk while Mackley listens.

“Between the crying and the listening time, I find that the kids inevitable drama doesn’t get to me so much–I feel way less invested in getting the fighting or upset to stop, and can focus instead on setting the boundary or consequence or helping them solve the problem or whatever they’re needing at the time.”

Mackley also reports that drinking beer, wine or gin and tonics is also an important part of her coping strategy, and that time away from the kids entirely, is also “insanely important.” But she maintains that her new focus on feeling her feelings has been “a real game changer.”

“It just clears out the fog and helps me remember that I actually do know how to be a decent parent. And it reminds me that my boys are totally separate from me, you know? They’re just kids doing their kid thing, and I’m just here to be the alpha, and set the limits and help them learn to solve problems. Their neanderthal crap doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s just their little immature brains figuring shit out. Since I’m actually taking care of my feelings, I’m just calmer and more relaxed, and I think they can feel that. I mean, it’s way nicer for me this way. Instead of feeling like a soldier with PTSD, I’m just a mom, doing her best to help her kids learn to be decent human beings.”

How my bad 4-year-old and I found our way home

There’s simplicity parenting, attachment parenting, parenting by temperament. Authoritative parenting, French parenting, parenting the spirited child.
And one I think we’re all familiar with: parenting by the seat of our pants.

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Image by Shena Tschofen

That, whether I like it or not, is where I parent from most of the time. And let me tell you, the seat of my pants is battered and worn. As I have mentioned before, parenting Jo since I got pregnant with Cal has been no cake walk. We’re talking hitting, kicking and throwing things at me when I was pregnant, having big physical outbursts with other kids and trying to contain his massive physical energy in a small house with a newborn.

I sought advice everywhere I could—books, friends, my mom. I dissolved into tears while asking Jo’s teacher what I should do after his first morning of preschool, all while bouncing Cal in his carrier.

So this last fall, I went to an introductory talk for a Hand-in-Hand parenting class that was recommended by a mom I’ve been admiring for months. Her daughter goes to Jo’s preschool and she’s a kick ass and very real mom of 3 exuberant children, including a very physical, eldest boy which is why I sought out her sage advice.

At the end of the talk, I was the woman raising my hand, “Sure Angela, that all sounds great, but then what do I do when my 4 year old starts head-butting me?” I walked out of there with the massive chip on my shoulder that only a mother of a super-physical and sometimes-aggressive boy can have: Your slick limit setting ideas won’t work in my house. My child will chew up your parenting tools and spit them directly into my face.

But I was at the end of what felt like every one of my ropes, so I tried what she talked about.

I actually stopped the 7 things I was trying to do at once while making dinner and got down on the floor with Jo the next time he tried to hit me. AJ happened to be home, so I had the pleasure of being able to try this without having Cal in tow. I tried to set the limit with a “firm and warm tone while making lots of eye contact.” I just kept saying things like, “I can’t let you hit me.” And “I know you’re angry because we’re not going to watch a video.” And “Nope. I can’t let you kick me either.” I stayed with him while he flipped out.

It was the parenting equivalent of walking straight into enemy fire.

And it effing worked.

He cried and screamed and thrashed. And then the hitting stopped. And he melted into a hug.

I was stunned.

I signed up for the class.

Like any parenting advice worth its salt, the things I learned there and practice now are just good habits for living as a human being. And they happen to apply really well to the under-developed brains of children and the calcified brains of parents.

There’s so much to say here because the whole Hand-in-Hand approach is a sweeping understanding of human relationships in general.

It’s rooted in brain science, in particular the functioning of the social or limbic part of our brains that is fully formed when we’re born. When we feel connected to others, our limbic system is happy. When we don’t, the red flag is raised, the alarm sounds. Babies cry. Toddlers tantrum. Moms want to fly far far away from here.

So, in short, the answer when things are going pear-shaped is to find a way to connect if you can. If you can’t, it’s okay. Try again next time. Angela, the same Angela I grilled with chip-on-my-shoulder questions at the intro talk, would repeat this kindness over and over: sometimes you just can’t stop everything and connect. Surprise! You’re human. Each time she’d say this, I could feel every parent in the room deflate into relief. She understood. Sometimes, you just need to sit your child down in front of 6 episodes of Animal Babies on Netflix until you get your sanity back.

The other thing the class reminded me about was how crucial listening is. Often, our kids desperately want to be listened to when they’re upset. (Shockingly, I also want this.) And if we’re not getting listened to as parents, about the relentlessness of it, the trials and triumphs and mind-numbing Tuesdays, then it’s really hard for us to listen to our kids.

Eureka.

Getting listened to over the course of the 6 week class felt like cleaning out some backed-up old pipes. Week after week I was allowed and even encouraged to let ‘er rip: “When he bit me, I wanted to hit him. I wanted to scream, ‘What the hell is your problem?!’” And slowly, I de-gunked. And the water ran clear again.

I credit what I learned in my Hand-in-Hand class with helping me recover the relationship with Jo that I loved. The way I see his outbursts and respond to them has changed subtly, and we recover faster.

As a result of all this listening and limbic system learning, I was able to make a radical mental shift:

I was able to see Jo as a good kid.

After so many months of having him try to hurt me (and sometimes succeeding) and watching him lash out at the baby, I started to believe that Jo was bad. Damaged. Wrong.

This may come as a huge surprise, but when you’re parenting your child from the perspective that they are The Bad Seed, your relationship with that child does not tend to flourish.

I’ve witnessed now, time after time, that if I have the presence and time to connect with Jo when he’s going off the rails, (which sometimes I don’t—see Netflix option above) if I can stay warm and firm, it reminds him (AND ME!) that I’m the grown up. I’m the big padded wall he can fling himself against. I’m not going anywhere. And I see that he’s okay and that we’re okay deep down. He can unfurl in that safety, flip out, and then come back. I show him that I know he’s great even when he’s at his worst. And then he knows how to find his way back.

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‘The Long Way Home’ by Christine und David Schmitt

Case in point:

Cal was crawling around with some toys in the living room and Jo was running and jumping everywhere at ludicrous speed. I stopped Jo and looked in his eyes and asked him to please slow down, because he might accidentally knock Cal over, and I know he doesn’t want to hurt him. Not 2 minutes later, Cal got knocked over, fell on his face and came up with a bloody, screaming mouth. My face crumpled and started to get that angry look towards Jo. I scooped up Cal, and Jo looked back with this horrifying grin on his face as if to say, “See how bad I am?”

I had the presence in that moment to remember his goodness. So instead of talking to the sadistic nutcase in front of me, I talked to the kid I know he is.

Don’t worry, Jo. Cal is going to be okay. I know you didn’t want to hurt him and that it’s really scary to see him bleeding. But he’s going to be just fine. He needs to cry because he’s hurting. But I know you didn’t do that on purpose and I know how much you love him.

I brought him in close and just kept talking about how I knew he was scared and sad and that he loved Cal to pieces. He kept playing the cruel jerk. But I just kept right on.

When Cal’s crying died down, it was time for us to go meet a friend. Jo fell quiet while we were getting in the car, and as I was buckling him in, he asked, “Can I hug him?”

Why yes, dear boy. You can.

“Can I kiss him too?”

By all means.

And then, after the gentlest hugging and kissing that I’ve ever witnessed from my little dynamo, he settled into his seat, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Mama, I’m never going to do that again.”

Yowza. We made it.