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raising boys

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

This just in!

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.”

Our raging kids and where they come from

Well hot damn. Hells bells. Sheesh-ka-bob.

Things have been really hopping over here since I wrote my last post.

I’m a chronic over-sharer in my day-to-day, so writing about my life, all splayed open for the world to see, comes naturally and feels good. Necessary, even. And so I write and I keep writing and I hope it strikes a chord somewhere. Hope someone else feels a little less nuts, a little more jovial about their particular mess, a little bit encouraged by the good company of us other bumbling humans, just trying to see what sticks.

spag splat

And then BAM. For whatever reason, I struck a chord last week. A relatively big one.

The things you’ve shared with me have left me stunned.

There are so many of us.

This is my son ALL over the place.

Wow. Just Wow. Your story resonated with our boy word for word.

The attitude of mum, the elder child’s personality and spunk, and the shock when it actually worked all ring so true.

My beautiful bad seed is all girl..lovely, opinionated, strong-willed, thoughtful, loving, commanding, and gorgeously all girl. With a temper that can send giants to the corner, silently weeping and hugging their knees.

What you wrote has an impact for me right now. I can be that padded wall.

This is our house, so thanks-

Like a few of you have said above, he hits, kicks, head butts, body slams me, bites, throws things, ect, and laughs all the while doing it. And I know he is not laughing to be malicious, but because he cannot get his emotions under control, and he doesn’t understand them. It’s damn hard though. And he’s a strong little bugger.

Ladies, this was so my son when he was younger. I think I still have PTSD from his first month or so of kindergarten when he was 5.

I’m trying to find a way with my 3 years old boy that plays –often– the agressive kid, usually against me.

I have four boys – two are like your son. Your piece had me in tears as not an hour ago I had numerous sets of eyes glaring at me at a park as a meltdown occurred. I stayed calm, told myself to ignore the judgement and to love my boy. But gosh was it hard. Even after two years of practice staying calm with him during his outbursts (since I finally learned not staying calm made it infinitely worse!) I still struggle.

Thank you for putting in words what I’ve been trying to do with my nearly-3yr old bundle of energy boy.

My very spirited 2 1/2 year old can be aggressive and violent like this to his very gentle 6 year old brother!

I needed this today.

my son is Jo…

This is exactly my 4yo.

When my son goes berserk he tries to hit and scratch and bite and he’s like a wild beast. If it’s not that it’s chucking things at me and knocking things down.

I am in exactly the same boat with my almost 3 year old and little ‘accidents’ with his younger brother.

My son is only 6-months and I feel like this already fits him to a T. Love the insight and I’ll be sharing this with my wife as we prepare for the next stage!

We have a Jo of our own in the form of Eli. Thank you very much for sharing this.

Your description of the sadistic smile that he gets is so like my William’s! He is so much more than that mask. Your post brought me to tears, because you showed me I am not alone.

Maria, I thought of you when I read this, especially the head-butting part.

And this isn’t even all of them.

I had no idea how many of us were in this boat. Parents with young ones who are scratching, hitting, throwing, biting and yes, as Maria well knows, head-butting; they’re hurting things and people in their path and then tossing off a sadistic laugh to boot. Even though I know these behaviors intimately because we’ve lived them all for the past couple years, it still baffles me to write it all out. Why is this happening? And to so many of us?

Maybe this has been going on for centuries with human kids. But if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a How-To-Handle-Your-Young-Child-Who-Often-Behaves-Very-Much-Like-a-Sociopath manual out there? Written and tried and tested by the droves of mothers who have come before us, and sat where we sit, staring, glazed-over, at a loss?

I’m working out a theory for why we’re seeing this particular kind of child so much.

First, there are a bunch of us parents who are suspicious of going straight to punishment when our kids’ behavior goes south. We don’t go straight to spanking or time out when the block goes whizzing by our head. That is not to say we don’t ever go the punishment route. After a long LONG day when I’m over it, I bust out some yelling and forceful placement in the room, to “not come out until you can touch your brother the right way.” But sometimes I have the energy and time to try other stuff. I listen. I give eye contact. For those of us who are willing to try this stuff, we don’t (or can’t!) stop the cyclone of destruction dead in its tracks (as much as we might like to!), so we see our kids’ raging as it gains steam and plays out.

Second is this article. It has me floored.

Atlantic Overprotected Kid

My friend Meg brought it up as we were talking about the response to my post about “bad” Jo and all the droves of moms of kids like him that were moved to share their thoughts here. It’s a long read, but worth the time, about the dramatic trend away from unsupervised and risky play since the 1970s and how, these days, children expect to be constantly supervised. While the hyper-supervision trend seems to be rooted in parents’ fear of injury or abduction, instances of those things haven’t gone up since the 70s, though our awareness of them has. And I have a hunch that all this reigning in of our kiddos has something to do with these little psychopath boy moments we’re trying to contain out in the world and in our houses.

For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.

Are our kids so bored out of their skulls with their wooden train sets and soccer practice and happy cartoons that they’re seeking out the juicy-dangerous-aliveness that comes from risk-taking with us? If they could wander, unfettered with their neighborhood friends and build forts and cut down tree limbs and explore on their own more often, would they rage less at home?

Something tells me yes.