There is really nothing as devastating as seeing your child recoil from you in fear. No other jab to the heart stings quite as terribly as that. It is an instant feeling of disgust with oneself, a pitted botttom-of-the-stomach feeling that causes a deep ache, and hot tears, and rocks to well up in the back of my throat. I swallow gravel.
I have never hit Little Pup. I recite prayers in my head throughout the hard days, “please give me patience; please give me strength.” I was not raised in a gentle household, and so the example I had growing up was to meet force with force. The reactions built and trained into me are not gentle ones. I must overcome the urge to yell and slap every day. Every. Day. And sometimes I fail and yell at him. And sometimes I find myself trying to manipulate my son the way my father manipulated me. I blur the line of teaching him empathy with trying to make him feel guilt for things. And I hate the ‘me’ inside more every time.
Being any kind of a mother is not easy. Every mother in the world will struggle with something. This is my struggle: to be a gentle parent. To overcome the behaviors built into me as a learning little girl. To treat my son a completely different way than I was treated, even though no one was there to show me an example of how to do that. And so I struggle. I wade blindly through this forest, a sheet over my face, searching for answers in the thick undergrowth of my upbringing. I am desperate to find my way.
I yelled at my son this morning. Again. I yell two or three times a week. It’s not prolonged yelling. It’s more along the lines of, after 5 full minutes of him literally screaming for me to come and draw with him (which I can’t do because my hair is full of shampoo and I have to get dressed for work), the Losing-My-Shit part of me yells, “FUUUUUUCK!!!! JUST STOP!!!!” I lean over to yell right into his face. I know I am bigger than him, and that if I yell, he will stop screaming. And he is startled by my outburst. His small body flinches slightly at the sound of my loud voice, and he takes off running to his room. And instantly, I am wracked with guilt. I quickly rinse my hair and step out of the shower, peering down the hallway, already apologizing. “Honey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled. It’s not okay for Mama to yell at you when she is angry.” But I don’t see him waiting outside the door for me like he usually would.
What I see is a scared toddler. He is in his room crying, and I can barely see him lean over, and peek around the door frame to see if I’m coming. I cover the 20 feet to his doorway, expecting him to come out from hiding with arms open like all the other times. But today he stops, and stays there peeking at me from around the door. Hiding from me. Trying to protect himself from me. From his mother. And there is an audible crack resounding from my chest where my heart has shattered, and an instant resolve to never yell at him again, and then, the realization that I will probably break that resolve within the week. And I am destroyed.
When I was in 6th grade, my mother was too sick and my father too addicted to care for us. We went to live with a foster family. Some people might think that the neglect, physical and emotional abuse by my father coupled with the severe and rapid decline in my mother’s health would have been the most painful experience in my life. This is nowhere near true.
The mental abuse inflicted by our foster mother was nothing short of psychological warfare. She waged daily battles against our developing emotional intelligence, our confidence, our self-worth. There were catastrophic consequences. At any moment, her very short fuse burned to its end, and we all cowered in our room, watching her face turn red, her cheeks shaking with anger, as she told us we were just like our worthless father. She called my sister a whore at the onset of her first period, and promptly sent her to her room. She was unhappy with a two-piece bathing suit I had brought with me when we moved in, so she snuck into the bathroom while I slept each night and picked a hole in the side a little at a time so that I couldn’t wear it anymore. She shared this information with her real daughter, and they laughed behind my back. She refused to take my sister to church one Sunday to sing her solo in the choir because she “didn’t have time,” but left a short while later to take her real children on an outing without the rest of us. I walked in on her with her husband and two children one night in the kitchen. She had been imitating the way I walked as they all laughed together. No one seemed ashamed. They continued to laugh and mock me.
Her son found pleasure in provoking us regularly, making fun of our mother, telling us our father was a piece of shit. She watched him taunt us, a smirk hiding on her face, until we fought back. I always went for his weakest spot. He suffered from a condition which caused his hair to fall out, a condition he was very self-conscous over. So of course, as I had been taught to do right under the same roof by example, I did what I knew would crush him the most and pulled out fistfulls of his hair as he wailed on the side of my face. She would hold his head in front of my face with a shrill “look what you’ve done, you shit!” and whisk him away to protect him. Looking back, I know he only wanted her attention and love. I know he was just a kid who felt intruded on by three new girls to take up his mother’s time and attention. But she let him torture us, and at the time, I hated him.
Our foster sister was raised like a child-soldier, fighting on behalf of her mother. She was rewarded with her mother’s conditional love and praise if she reported our slightest shortcomings. She was driven to achieve perfection in school and extracurriculars, and I could see even then the pain in her when she realized she would have to tell her mother she had been less than perfect at something. She wanted so badly to feel that love without limitation. She suffered its withdrawal regularly. These of course, are realizations I’ve only had as an adult.
After two and a half years of door-slamming, boiling tempers, crushing insults, and psychological abuse, I would rather have weathered ten more years with my drug-addicted, abusive father than spent another minute with her. We were lucky to finally get out. So many things that people would see as terrible, horrible experiences for a child to go through – I’ve been through them all. Nothing affected me emotionally or mentally as much as the treatment I survived in the short time I lived with that woman. The same can be said for my sisters.
All this background story to explain why my own behavior is so devastating to me.
The last time I saw a child cower behind a door, hiding from its mother, the child was my sister. She was hiding from our foster mother. The last time I saw the evil coming from that woman in person was four years ago, as she held my memories hostage. Memories of my real mother who had died four years before. In a twisted attempt to solicit a visit from my sisters and me, who had refused voluntary contact with her for years, she printed pictures of us and made scrap-books. She had possession of 3 small trinkets we had left behind, they had belonged to my real mother who we all missed very much. Being the oldest, I volunteered to collect all of it from her so that my sisters woudn’t have to bear the torture of being in her presence again. But she refused to give me the albums meant for my sisters. “They’ll have to come get it themselves,” she said. And so somewhere out there are two small items that once belonged to my mother, the only items of hers we know about. Their hiding place went to the grave with her a few years later.
Some people will read this and think, “Really? You’re this worked up about yelling?”
Yes. I have to be. If I don’t get upset about yelling this week, then next week I may not get upset about spanking my son. The week after that, I might think emotional blackmail is nothing to get too worked up over. And then slowly, I become someone I hate. When I see these little pieces of a monster trying to work their way to the surface, I have to be quick and deliberate about my attempt to squash it. My son’s life – who he becomes, his sense of self-worth, his ability to trust me or anyone else – depends on it.
I say all this with quite a heavy heart today. I keep picturing his frightened, innocent face peeking around the door frame at me. I have cried more than once. I am disappointed in myself, and I am afraid that somewhere inside me lives an evil person who is much like my foster mother. Maybe she also grew up without love. Maybe her parents were not kind to her. Maybe they treated her like a puppy who was fun to play with, but deserved to be locked in a kennel as soon as it shit the carpet.
And maybe I just needed to get all this out. Much like naming my feelings, as soon as I say it out loud, it’s easier somehow to deal with. Maybe I needed the reminder of what I could be, if I allow myself to fall into the trap of manipulation to get what I want from my son.
He is still so innocent. God help me to remember this every morning. Help me to lose my shit in private, or give me just the extra 30 seconds of time to breathe before I explode. Remind me that all the while, I’m setting an example for Little Pup of how to treat others, and showing him the dynamic with which we all give and receive love. Help me to show him that love is constant, that there is no pause in it. And help me to love myself, no matter how badly I think I’m messing this whole thing up.