“I hate her,” my friend confides about her two-year-old after a particularly trying day.
I wasn’t horrified by her outburst. I’ve been there too: locked in that irate moment no one can adequately warn you about, when hostility and sarcasm shove aside reason and patience, and you suddenly sense your own terrifying rage. Yet at all the parenting lectures, “Mommy & Me” classes and nursery school groups I’ve attended, I have never heard mothers address this. I’ve heard moms say their kids drive them crazy or ask for advice on problems with discipline, sleep, or toileting. But I’m talking about something so frightening that no one ever brings it up, probably for fear someone will call her aloud what we all call ourselves at our most guilt-ridden and self-doubting: unnatural, bad.
I always thought I was a patient person – before I became a mother. And I had the standard fantasy of what motherhood would be like: long, lazy afternoons baking cookies and nestling together on the couch reading The Secret Garden aloud, all painted in a Norman Rockwell glow. That happens occasionally, but more often the tableau resembles a chaotic scene from Hieronymus Bosch. When my son and his best friend are having a spitting contest with crackers in their mouths, trailing chocolate milk over the sofa, locking themselves in the bathroom with the faucets running full blast, or grinding neon green Play-Doh into the carpet, I’m enraged, and it’s not about the crumbs or the carpet. It’s that a three-year-old is controlling my life.
At those moments, it’s well near impossible to remember the experts’ advice to couch everything in positive terms. How can I say, “Let’s grind the Play-Doh somewhere else,” when what I really feel like is throwing the Play-Doh away and banishing my son to his room?
At least once a day I find myself thinking, “I wasn’t cut out for this job.” I just spent nine days in the company of a sick child, six of which that child spent throwing up. My cabin fever was compounded when I caught the virus too. During that time, I read child-rearing experts Haim Ginott and Nancy Samalin, both of whom offer helpful clues in the form of anecdotes, but neither exactly hands you a road map. Their dialogues have a lovely flow-chart logic. Unfortunately, my son hasn’t read them too, so he doesn’t know his lines. Instead, our dialogues usually go more like this:
Jonathan loses his temper and wallops me. I call a cooling-off period, after which I say calmly, “In this family, we use words, not our fists. Hitting hurts. How would you feel if I hit you?”
“Pretty bad,” he allows.
“Then how do you think Mommy feels?”
“Did you hear me?” I ask.
“What did Mommy just say?”
To which the midget master of manipulation replies, “I dunno.”
The experts say censor the behavior, not the child, so I manage not to say something that will permanently damage his self-esteem, such as, “Why can’t you ever listen?” Instead I opt for, “I feel bad when you don’t listen to me.”
A pause. “Mom?” he says. “You’re aggra-mating me.”
What I’ve learned from these encounters is that you can’t regret words you haven’t said. Sometimes it’s better to walk away – but not too far. I was shaken recently by Signe Hammer’s memoir, in which she recalls her mother’s alternating bouts of rage and withdrawal. She was, says Hammer, “as cold and calculating a witch as ever stirred a cauldron: I kept my eye on her, and she kept her back to me.”
I take it as a cautionary tale. Years from now, I do not want my son to remember a mother who seemed forever angry. “Even when I am mad, I still love you,” I tell him. And I say it again and again.