He wins every time

“Mommy, can we please use your makeup?”

“No, kids.”

“But please? We asked really nicely. We want to play nicely together.”

“That’s sweet, and you did ask nicely. Thank you. But the answer is still no about my makeup. I’m sure you can find something else to play nicely together with.”

“But we really want to use it and we never get to and we’ll be really careful and we’ll be good for the rest of today and we’ll go to bed really early and not come back downstairs and we’ll be good tomorrow too.”

“I’m sure you’ll do all of that anyway because you’re such great kids. The answer is still no. I’m not going to change my mind.”

“But why, Mommy?”

“This isn’t open for discussion. I said no.”

Luke has a hard time with no. Many kids do, I realize, but every other kid on the planet (I’m pretty sure) will drop it eventually. Not Luke. He will take this to the nth degree. I don’t want to engage. I have a nice evening planned and I don’t want to have to take it away. I want to drop this so we can move on. So I’m staying calm, remaining firm, and not giving him any reasons why. That’s what I’m supposed to do, right? That’s what the books say.

“Please?”

“No. Please stop asking me.”

“But why?”

“This isn’t open for discussion.”

“But just tell me why. Why can’t we?”

“I’m not changing my mind and you’re going to make me angry. It’s time to drop it. Luke, really, stop.”

“But just tell me why?”

I don’t answer. It’s over if I don’t say anything, right?

“Mom? Mom? Mom? You can’t ignore me. What if I got a knife and cut my head off, would you ignore me then? Mom? Why? Why can’t we use your makeup? Why? I don’t get it. You’re so mean. Mom? We’ll be really good. We just want to play together. Isn’t that what you want? That we play nicely together? If you don’t let us use your makeup I’m going to punch Sally in the face and break her things and it will be your fault. Would that make you happy?”

“Luke, this is me warning you. I’m starting to lose my patience. You need to stop yourself. Now.”

“Just tell me why!”

“This is the last warning. I’m getting angry. Do you understand?”

My voice is still calm and even. I am going to diffuse this fucking thing if it’s the last fucking thing I fucking do. He storms away, knocking a book to the floor. I let it slide, not needing to lock horns with him now over picking up that book. I hope this is over. It’s not. He comes back with a note that says: “You are a jerk.”

“Go to your room.”

“No, I’m sorry. Why? I didn’t say anything. I didn’t mean it. It’s not about you. No, please no. Please, please, please no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“I’m angry now like I warned you. Now go to your room please!”

Speaking sternly, but still not yelling. I’m going to fucking win this fucking thing!

“No I’m really really really sorry. Here, I’ll write another note about being sorry.”

“Luke, go to your room!”

“Jerk.”

And there it is, folks. The last straw. He hasn’t budged towards his room. He is staring me down. Calling me a jerk to my face and defying me. I’ve been here before. There is only one way to get him to actually go to his room. The only thing that works. Why did I put it off for so long anyway? I scream at him:

“YOUR ROOM NOW, LUKE! GO! GO! GO! NOW!”

“I hate you! You are such a jerk!”

He stomps off to his room.

And this is how it goes here. I can’t win. No matter my intentions or mood to start, no matter how calm I remain through so much disrespectful behavior, he eventually pushes me over the edge. Every time. If I didn’t blow up then he would have escalated further – hitting his sister and destroying stuff. He will always get the reaction he wants eventually.

He wins again and I lose. Of course his win is a loss for all of us.

A little crazy is good for them

My mother has more patience for annoying things than your average person. She somehow tunes out what would drive anyone else crazy. Her general equanimity remained unaltered despite her three children’s cacophonous voices, vexing messiness, and constant fighting.

Every once in a while, though, she’d snap.

“NOW YOU’VE DONE IT!” she’d scream at us when she reached that breaking point, implying that we had finally gone so far, been so terrible, that we crossed a line. Just in case we didn’t pick up on the implication, she might shout, “IF YOU MADE ME YELL, YOU MUST BE REALLY ROTTEN!”

With that, she’d storm out the door and to her garden on the far side of our property.

It seemed unpredictable, what might send her over the edge. We didn’t necessarily do anything more obnoxious than any other day. Maybe exasperation was cumulative? Turns out it was PMS, but none of us knew that at the time. This was the late ’70s and early ’80s and PMS was not a widely recognized thing, despite women everywhere suddenly hating everyone.

What I remember was the feeling of, “Oh, shit we’ve really done it this time. We ruined everything.” Without her (nearly) endless patience, we’d be in serious trouble, all the time. My job, I felt, was to sit vigil in the window and watch her in the garden, to make sure she didn’t leave the property. If she left, surely she’d never return, and we’d be doomed. I imagined her ripping weeds from the ground while angrily thinking about how terrible we were and how awful we made her life. It wouldn’t be long before she planned her escape.

From her perspective, I learned years later, she felt better immediately upon slamming the back door leaving us inside and her alone. She’d weed her garden and pick vegetables happily, not stewing over her horrible children or plotting her flight for freedom. By the time she returned to the house, she was so far past the anger that it was a non issue.

Meanwhile, when she returned to the house with a bowl of fresh beans, smelling of Earth, I’d make sure I was on my very best behavior, hoping to endear myself to her again so she wouldn’t abandon us. Ultimately, this made her garden retreat a double win for her. She felt better and her kids stopped being assholes, at least temporarily.

I did not inherit my mother’s temperament or tolerance. I’m easily irritated and can’t keep calm in the face of my children’s obnoxious exploits. Shouting the phrase “Now you’ve done it!” would be pointedly meaningless in my household. My kids hear me yelling so often that it’s a useless measure. That is, until all things align just right. Then, something in me snaps (more than usual) and the yelling takes on a note of hysteria. Then the kids sit up and notice. I recognize the fear in their eyes and I don’t care. I have to leave.

I don’t have a far away garden that soothes me. Instead, when I lose it, if my husband is home, I get in the car and drive off in a fury. I generally have nowhere to go, and am not fit to be in public anyway. I look exactly how I feel – like a lunatic. I don’t want to sit in a coffee shop reading a book or in a restaurant sipping a glass of wine. I want to yell and scream and rampage like a two-year-old. Instead, I usually pull over into some random parking lot and cry for a while, then just kill time until either the kids are in bed for the night or I can be trusted to actually like them again.

While I don’t come home smelling of Earth and feeling renewed, I do come home. And my children are appropriately afraid and sorry and hoping to endear themselves to me again. I might feel guilty for storming out. I probably feel like a bad mother. But then I remember my mom and her garden. And even though those occasions were full of yelling, anger, and upset, my memories of them always make me smile. It’s those crazy moments in a family that no one else knows about – the secret hidden stuff that makes it only ours. Somehow, it’s the crazy that makes family family.

My children’s lives are safe and happy, as mine was. If having a crazy mother is the worst thing that happens in their childhood, so be it. Their crazy mother might sometimes be a tempest, but I love my kids and they know that. Occasionally seeing that their mother is only human and needs a break is just fine.

One day I’ll tell them that while they were often horrible, it was PMS that drove me to the brink. One day they’ll think back on these occasions fondly. Memories of our crazy household will be the stuff we laugh together about; it will be what they think back on when they’re at the breaking point with their own families.

I can’t be a perfect mother. I’m flawed and my kids are annoying. And we’re all good enough.

Mom is crazy

 

 

We turned off the TV

Two things I know about myself: I am inherently lazy; and I am predominantly grumpy.

Sure, I can be motivated and cheerful, but it’s a fight. As an insomniac, I’m also usually tired and the extra effort required to overcome my natural grumpy laziness takes even more energy. So it doesn’t happen first thing in the morning very often. Which sucks if you’re my kids. (And probably my husband.)

My kids wake up happy! and excited! and energized! and all things exclamation pointy! I wake up grudgingly. It’s not always actual waking up, just a change from being angrily awake in bed to being angrily awake not in bed. Add to this mix the fact that Luke is an early riser, and you have a recipe made for watching morning TV.

Over the years, each time my kids plugged into early morning TV I felt a pang of guilt. For the longest time I kept the programming to the PBS variety, and it made it feel alright. “It’s OK if they watch a little Arthur or Martha Speaks before school. They’re learning stuff. And, mmmmm coffee.” But “a little” was actually “a lot” and eventually the shows were not of the PBS variety.

So we slid down the slippery slope of children’s programming, and soon my kids were watching obnoxious TV shows and were acting obnoxious accordingly. As much as I’d like to deny it, the truth is that they watched hours of TV on most days. We don’t have to leave our house for school until 8:20 or so, and with Luke’s love for 6AM, you can see how the hours might accumulate.

It does not take a parenting guru to see the correlation between my kids’ behavior and their TV consumption. The change in them is pretty immediate. Happy children sit down in front of the TV, cranky children walk away from it. Every time. Something had to change. But to take away morning TV meant that I would have to step up my game. Did I want to do this? While they plugged into their thing, I plugged into mine. After taking care of breakfasts and lunches, I’d sip coffee while catching up on Facebook. Technology ruled our mornings. Any change was going to be rough on all of us.

And then, just like that, I had enough. It was a typical weekend day. Beautiful outside. I decided there would be no TV. Sally balked but then quickly busied herself with her toys.

Sally plays

Luke balked, then fought, then complained, then cried, then fought, then complained, then tried to sabotage Sally’s fun, then fought, then complained, then cried… This went on for five hours. See, not only did I say no TV, (or any iDevice,) but I also insisted that he entertain himself. No, Daddy would not play soccer and no, I would not play games. Mom and Dad were busy.

Five hours. It took five hours for my 7.5 year old to figure out how to play without the help of technology or the undivided attention of an adult. Five hours where he tried to spread as much misery as possible. Somehow, my husband and I stuck it out, not knowing if it would ever end. We paid him as little attention as possible, knowing that, for him, negative attention is just as good as any.

After those five terrible hours something amazing happened. Luke noticed his long ignored Legos. Both kids played with Legos for hours – in between snacks, fights, and meals. The day closed with both kids happy.

That night I told the kids there would be no TV in the morning. We hid the remotes, the computer mouse, and the iPad just in case a sneaky early riser “forgot.” The kids were surprisingly accepting of the morning’s dearth of technology. They never even asked. They played. I certainly couldn’t go sit at my computer, so I busied myself with chores I normally leave until after they’re off to school.

Is this what it’s like to be one of those nice families? 

OK, so that’s one day. Surely this will get hard. That night we again told them there would be no TV in the morning. We again hid all the things. They again didn’t ask. This time, we played several rounds of Uno together. The kids were DELIGHTED. So much so that I felt like the world’s worst mom.

Look how happy my kids are just to get a smidge of attention from me in the morning. Holy shit have I sucked for all these years!

It’s now been nearly two full weeks of no TV in the mornings. This means no computer time for me too, and I have to muster up a lot of friendliness before I’ve finished even my first cup of coffee. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made. Just starting our day with a little more effort helps us all have better days. Leaving the house for school requires so much less reminding, rushing, and nagging on my part and involves so much less complaining on theirs. They haven’t been asking for much afternoon TV either. Will things change when the weather gets colder? Possibly. I hope we land somewhere moderate. Things had really gotten out of control for a while there.

Could I have done this as successfully years ago? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t see much point in looking back though. There were a couple of years when survival was the name of the game. I’m happy to report that we did indeed survive them.

Many of you are probably thinking, “Of course things are better! And yes, you were a shitty parent all those years!” Fine. Judge away if it makes you feel good about yourself.

But for anyone reading who is thinking, “I could never do it. I need that morning TV time for my sanity!” I have something to say: That’s OK. I needed it too. And then, one day, I didn’t.

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