A mom friend and I were sitting down to our weekly get-together after preschool drop-off, trading stories about our latest parenting misgivings. She shared a particular instance in which her daughter, who insisted on a flavor of ice cream that wasn’t in the freezer, refused to take no for an answer.
“I was about ready to lose it,” she confessed, her face flushing hotter than the steaming cup of joe in her hand. “But luckily, I didn’t.”
“Good for you,” I said. “I don’t know if I’d have been able to squash that feeling.”
She mentioned that when she told her mother-in-law about it, her advice wasn’t any comfort, either. “It’s nothing a slight tap on the rear wouldn’t have cured,’” my friend described her mother-in-law saying. “All I could do was shake my head. At least she couldn’t see me over the phone.”
I could relate to my friend’s frustration. Ever since becoming a mom, I’ve seen my own anger flare up faster than a kid unwrapping her presents on Christmas morning. I’ve been shocked at how little it takes to get me all riled up: an eight-year-old who refuses to turn off her DS when called to dinner, that same kid who insists I don’t know the correct spelling of chrysalis, “even if you have been alive for longer,” a four-year-old who has suddenly decided she will only eat noodles and meatballs “for the rest of my life.”
Sure, none of these scenarios warrant blowing my top. But when they arise after a bad night’s sleep, an invasion of ants in the kitchen, or a string of rainy days stuck indoors, counting to three and doing some deep breathing doesn’t cut it. Instead, I wind up yelling just to be heard over kids who seem to cry at the drop of a hat.
“Maybe you should take up yoga again,” offered my husband one evening as we discussed my noticeable inability to keep my cool. My husband works late and rarely sees this happen, but mainly listens to me recount what happened that day when he returns home in the evening. “It might do you good, and you’ll get out of the house, too.”
But of course, I dismissed the idea. I knew too well that a brief respite of downward dogs for an hour once a week couldn’t stifle the urge to scream my bloody lungs out after tripping over Calico Critters for the third time in one day. Besides, like a good cry, letting it all out by raising my voice felt, well … good.
But if my girls still weren’t listening to me, was a slap on the rear going to validate my scream fest? I’d tried other methods of discipline; time-outs didn’t seem to diffuse my kids’ anger. Physically taking things away from them didn’t have much effect either, as they knew their toy would eventually be returned to them.
I wasn’t sure if taking that extra step toward the dark side would get me the respect I deserved. All the childhood development textbooks I could get my hands on told me otherwise: hitting was a sign of defeat, and physical punishment would send a message that my words alone had no value. In my mind, spanking would mean I stooped to a level that said, “I’m bigger and stronger than you, and I’ll show you just how much.” And, like the experts claimed, hitting my kids wouldn’t necessarily make them listen any better; in the long run, it could potentially turn them into abusers themselves. All that from a “slight tap”?
It’s not like I wasn’t immune to being spanked growing up. As my older siblings like to remind me, I was an angel most of the time — but I can clearly remember the day when I impulsively dumped a bottle of shampoo over my head after my mom refused to buy me a doll I wanted. Let’s just say that after my drama had subsided, I knew not to repeat that act anytime soon and, more importantly, doing something to get her attention still didn’t get me that doll. I wasn’t spanked, just sent to my room — but for me, that sent enough of a message.
As I grew up and watched my teenage siblings get into trouble for worse crimes than my spontaneous shampooing, I began to watch more closely and learn. When my brother was chided one night for answering my father back, I recoiled as I saw my dad pull my brother’s sneaker off and hit him on the backside with it. It was a defining moment for me, one that made me realize that dad’s temper was short; if I did the right things, I wouldn’t experience any sort of punishment worse than losing my TV privileges.
When I bring this up with my mother today, she admits that my dad had occasionally come down hard on my brother, but she stood by him and didn’t intervene. “He was wrong,” she said, referring to my brother, “and he needed to learn respect.”
Since my father passed away two years ago, his side of the story will never be known. But we talked about discipline before he died, when I just had one daughter. He still thought there was something to be said for children fearing their parents; if they did, they’d know to never get out of line.
“Watch your step,” he used to tell us. That’s why I never talked back. It’s also why it’s so difficult for me to withhold my anger because my girls both answer back more than I ever did as a child — even when I was younger than they are now.
I neither blame my parents for their punishment choices nor hope to carry on their “tradition.” But when my own patience is tried on a daily basis, I can feel my resolve weaken. One time, I asked my 8-year-old to pick up her napkin off the kitchen floor. She looked me in the face and said, “No, you can do it; you’re standing right there.” Angered by the way she spoke to me, I blurted out, “If you grew up years ago, you wouldn’t just be sent to your room! You’d be smacked!” as my daughter ran up the stairs, crying. My four-year-old followed quickly behind, leaving me standing there in awe.
Hearing her sob behind her closed bedroom door was enough to stop me. I didn’t like who I had become in that moment. I was more monster than mom.
I found my four-year-old hiding behind her rocking chair. She didn’t say a word and when I tried to coax her out in a reassuring tone, she just shook her head back and forth.
“I’m sorry,” I said to both girls later that night, as they got ready for bed. “Mommy had a bad moment back there.” I kissed each girl goodnight, sang lullabies like usual, and shut their doors.
As I turned to head back downstairs, I listen for their hushed nighttime chatter and noticed they were both quieter than usual. While the silence was a refreshing change of pace, it wasn’t for the right reasons.
It does bother me that my girls may remember bad moments like that one instead of all the times I have bent over backwards to be a good mom. They know me for doing silly voices and acting out TV characters, for singing to them in the tub and knowing right off the bat when they are hurt, sad, or trying to hold back their tears. I wonder how all those telltale moments could outshine a bad one every now and then.
My father was notorious for saying, “So, that’s how you’ll remember me?” whenever my siblings and I brought up one of those times he lost his temper. It clearly bothered him, even if it didn’t stop him from getting angry. Today, I can clearly relate to his feelings, ones that seem to say, I’m only human and I’m trying to do the best I can. Yes, I’ll screw up every now and then. But so will you. And I’ll love you just the same. I hope you can love me, too.