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sibling fights

Motherhood is all of this

This one goes out to every mother who has ever felt lost. Over it. Wired and exhausted. Overwhelmed and broken. It also goes out to every mother who has felt at the top of her game. Winning. Like her kid is the bees fucking knees.

Perhaps, once or twice, you’ve felt trapped by motherhood. Or incomparably blessed by it. Maybe today you’re just going through the motions when all you want is a silent room and some grapes. Or you’re pumping your fist in the air because you’ve got this thing nailed.

If you’ve been at this gig for any length of time, you’ve spent good portions of time on both sides of this fence.

As I write this, I’m feeling pretty blissed out. Cal only screamed like a banshee twice so far today. I can hear AJ making breakfast downstairs and the kids are whooping happily outside. This is living.

A week ago, not so much. Way back then, in the distant past of last Saturday, I wanted to stop being a mom. As if I could just walk out wearing my uniform, flip off the manager and never look back. Imagine the freedom. The wind whipping my hair, a whole horizon ahead. All of that space.

How could someone not want to abandon this job after days of intermittent but relentless screaming? Those wild animal toddler rages. The utter loss of adult competence and control.

The truth is this: if motherhood were an actual job, the kind that you could interview for and request a transfer away from, precious few would keep it.

You see, a week ago, back when I wanted to quit, I’d been solo parenting for 4 days. That may sound minimal. For me, it was not. Given the latest, grating loop that our resident 3-year-old, Cal, has introduced to our lives, it only took 2 days for me to start feeling like a cracked out war veteran.

These days, Cal, screams bloody murder at the slightest provocation. “I want that TRUCK! Not THAT truck! NooooOOOOOO!! STOOOOOP!” He wants everything Jo has, the moment he has it, and not a moment longer. When the toy or rock or hot dog leaves Jo’s grasp, Cal could not care less. As long as Jo does have it, Cal is a desperate, wild animal. Sometimes, Jo marshals up his patience, tries to leave the room, or asks for help from me, but inevitably, frustration overwhelms and he hauls off and smacks Cal. This is met with fiercer Cal screams and a good old-fashioned brother brawl. You see how this goes. A nightmare boy typhoon that twists around again and again and again. After the umpteenth time, I start to hate it. And then I start to think I hate them. I can feel that twisting inside. I become a hard, knotty old broad who pickled sour and is out for revenge. I stomp around the house on tree trunk legs with a scowl on my face just waiting for an opportunity to bust my boys for bad behavior, because they’re so very bad.

Shockingly, when you add the stomping, bitter broad to the whole boy typhoon, things don’t tend to go well. There’s often shaming. And crying. It’s basically the worst.

And then somehow, things change. I scream and then we all cry. Or I slam a door and later, I lie to Cal that the wind blew it closed. Or I turn on the sprinkler and let the chickens out.

That’s how I found my first 2 or 3 consecutive hours of peace on that terrible solo-parenting weekend. We all needed it bad. It was like finding a spring in the desert, and we gulped it in and smiled a lot. I remembered that they aren’t only here to ruin my life, and that I can be soft, wise and relaxed.

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Then there was bedtime, and the barrage of questions and song requests and popping out of bed, and I morphed, exhausted, yet again.

After that, I slunk down the stairs to our couch and cried.

Motherhood is all of these things.

And while my story might not align with yours too well, I know there’s overlap. Maybe you have one kid and he keeps you up all night. Maybe it’s your middle-schooler whose anxiety holds the whole house hostage. Maybe peace and joy reign in your kingdom today. Any way you cut it, we are all brought low by motherhood. We all feel shame, and rage and hopelessness. The trouble is that unlike the shiny happy feelings, these ugly-step sister ones get shunned, or glossed over, or buried in our desperate pile of parenting books.

So remember this, the next time you see that mom pick up her kids from school looking flawless and at ease with her beautiful, obedient children. God bless her, she might be having a good day. Or she might not, and like the rest of us, she’s just really good at playing her role in the “I’m a tremendously good mother” pageant.

The next time your friend’s kid hits yours, or says something cruel, or has a complete meltdown in the park, remember how gritty and hard motherhood has been for you at times. You probably have all sorts of judgements and ideas and advice for how she could be a better mom and fix her mean kid, but then you can just remember how shitty it feels to be barraged with judgements and ideas and advice when all you feel is ashamed of your child’s behavior and humiliated by what her problems must mean about your own inadequacy.

Probably the best thing that any of us can do for each other or ourselves is to remember that our kids and everyone else’s are both adorable dreamboats and thorny little devils. That all of our lives as parents are sweet and disastrous. That none of us knows which way the tide will turn on any given day. One minute we are charmed. The next, undone.

And that there is nothing, nothing more relieving than simply being witnessed by someone who can see all of those things.

Yesterday, I lost it. Today was better.

You know what’s crazy about living? That in a single 24 hour period you can go from feeling utterly broken and ashamed to being completely at ease and in your own skin, eating with your family on a golden evening.

This time yesterday I could feel it coming. My frayed edges flaring out like the fuse of a cartoon bomb, my energy and patience dwindling. With every whine issuing from Jo’s annoying little mouth, I felt closer to breakdown. I knew it was coming, and still, I went there.

I screamed so loud that my throat hurt. And then Jo and Cal and I all dissolved into tears.

Here’s a lemur screaming in much the same way that I did yesterday. Photo by Tom Ciriello.

This, apparently, is my Achilles heel: watching my older son hurt my youngest. It doesn’t really matter that they were fighting over a caboose. Or that Jo asked for it the first time really nicely. Or that Cal head-butted Jo after he had the caboose ripped out of his hand. What matters, apparently, to my brain chemistry, is watching my 6-year-old bang on my 3-year-old’s back with his fist really hard 3 or 4 times.

That is the thing that floods me with so much feeling that the only choice is to scream at the top of my lungs and scare the shit out of my two kids. After that, I push Jo further away. As if to prove a point: you are not here with us. You did a really bad thing.

In our teary aftermath, I apologized while staring at a gritty crack in our tile floor. “I’m not going to yell again. I know it’s not okay. And I’m not going to do it anymore.”

I told Jo that I needed his help, that he needed to come up with some ideas for what to do when he feels like hitting his brother. His answer cut deep:

“That’s a really hard thing to think of, Mom. Because it all happens so fast. Just like it happens to you when you yell.”

Touché, you smart little creature. If you could just use that sort of reasoning in the midst of a fight over a caboose, we’d all be sitting pretty. But that’s just it. You literally can’t reason when you’re in a rage. And neither can I.

So last night, after my boys fell asleep, I did all I could think of: I cried, and I texted a friend, and I read a book in the bathtub about how our children are our spiritual gifts. (The book is effing fascinating by the way, so much so that I dreamed all night that I was communing with the woman who wrote it).

Today, thanks to my part time job, I got a much needed break from parenting. I also got to Google chat AJ about the whole yelling incident, since it felt too shameful to talk to his actual living, breathing self about it last night.

In the safety of a computer window, I confessed it all. And he was kind. And told me how he tends to deal with those moments with Jo.

AJ’s natural patience and skill in parenting our strange, alien children is continually infuriating and inspiring to me. He simply gets our boys in a way I don’t; he has a composure and deliberateness in his parenting that I don’t. As he mentioned once, in critique of my style, “You get too mad too fast.” A truer word was never spoke.
AJ does not do that. Ever. I have no effing idea how he pulls it off.

So he gave me some tips: If Jo’s not listening, go stand in front of him and say it again, if he’s still not, get down low and look him in the eye, then get really close and raise your voice, then grab his ear or his shoulder a little bit hard. If all that fails, physically remove him.

Done and done.

Perhaps to some, this step by step escalation is not revelatory. But to me–the one who toggles between (1) an endless sea of patience and calm and (2) a blind rage–it represents a huge chasm of options in the middle that I typically leap over in less than a moment.

I got another chance tonight at dinner. It doesn’t really matter that it was about a purple car with white flames painted on it. It doesn’t really matter that Jo asked nicely for a turn and that then Cal said MINE and taunted Jo with the car. Here’s what does matter:

I slowly escalated. I sat up from my chair and walked between the boys. I told Jo again to stop growling at Cal. Then I grabbed his ear a little bit hard. And put a hand on Cal’s back and told him that he could finish his turn with the car. Cal made car engine noises that I’ve never learned how to make. Jo stopped growling. And then I went back to my chair and we all started talking about something else. I think we even laughed.

Scripting my kids to emotional intelligence

I learned it from Kidpower, this kick ass group that taught our preschool about safety and strangers. (The reason Kidpower kicks ass is because they teach a whole boat-load of potentially freaky stuff in the spirit of personal power and curiosity, not fear.)

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Kick ass cartoon from the cover of Kidpower’s safety comic book that graces Jo’s bookshelf.

Our Kidpower trainer did it first. This very together woman with a very together haircut and strong, easy voice walked us through the classic scenarios. “You’re in a busy shop and you look up and can’t find your grown up anywhere…” Then she’d pluck a proud volunteer kid from the audience and show us all how to practice:

I’m pretending to be the lady at the cash register, and this is a time when interrupting is okay. Now put your hand on my arm right here to get my attention. Yep. Make it a firm pancake hand so I’ll notice you, and then with your strong voice say “I need help.”

The kid flopped out a nervous “i need help.”

Try again with your loud power voice like this, “I Need Help.”

“I NEED HELP!”

Great. That was perfect. Now look in my eyes and say, “I’m lost. I can’t find my grownup.”

And so it went with how to handle angry stranger kids at the playground to the pot boiling over on the stove while mom showers to a stranger delivering flowers at the front door when the babysitter is in the backyard.

That evening training was a long time ago. But something stuck with me about that self-assured gal with her self-assured hair confidently scripting our kids to safety over and over and over.

I revived her genius scripting move one afternoon when, for the 400th time, Jo had knocked Cal down or bonked him or grabbed a car out of his hands. Cal either screamed or cried or hulked out and started throwing his potty at the wall. And Jo just walked on, fiddled with the car and pretended like nothing happened.

Jo, get down low so Cal can see your face and put your arm gently on his shoulder like this and say “I’m sorry Cal. I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?”

And I’ll be damned if my big ol’ too-proud, easily embarrassed 5-year-old didn’t parrot my every little move, from the gentle hand to the kind tone of the question at the end. And Cal listened, said “Yeah.” and picked himself up.

And the band played on.

This discovery really killed me, because it stripped away my own judgement about Jo and how emotionally brutish and stunted he can seem sometimes. Underneath that stonewall is a kid who literally doesn’t know how to respond. A kid worried that he messed up, a kid confused by his little brother’s emotional toddler storm.

The thing that slays me, every time he echoes my script, is how trusting and vulnerable he has to be every time he accepts my instruction. Every time he repeats my words, and bends his wiry knees to get his face down next to Cal’s, he’s basically saying, “I totally trust you not to make me look like an idiot, Mom.” and “I have no idea what to do, so I’ll take the risk of doing something weird and new, Mom.”

It makes my tummy all jiggly just to think about it. My steely, ninja-warrior son. A sweet little wide-eyed baby bird.

So I’ve been scripting him all over the place. And he just keeps parroting me without any resistance in the world. It still shocks me, since Jo shuts down or revolts at the slightest hint of shame or anger. But the scripting has no judgement. It’s just like handing him a wrench in a moment when he needs one and saying, here’s how you fit it to the bolt. Now grab on here, and turn it this way.

Bless his sweet cotton socks.

My kid is letting me teach him.