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

 

 

Letter to my son on his 8th birthday

I write a letter to Luke every year for his birthday. One day I will hand over a book of these letters to an ornery teenager to prove that my role goes beyond just ruining his life. 

Dear Luke,

Happy 8th birthday! I feel like I say this every year, but, I can’t believe you’re eight! I see so much of me in you lately, combined with a lot of your dad, and a bunch of unique Luke-ness. This mixture results in a truly remarkable boy. I can already see the man you have the potential to become. Part of my job is to help you shape your little-kid traits into the grown-up versions, helping you grow into your full potential.My baby is 8!

These traits are the makings of a wonderful man, even if the childhood versions prove challenging sometimes. Where some might see “stubborn” or “obstinate,” I see tenacity. How wonderful that you have the steadfast determination to see your ideas through! This will serve you so well in life, even if it causes conflict now and again. Think about how much experience you’re gaining in dealing with conflict! So.Much.Experience. One day, your dogged refusal to accept “no” as an answer will make you exceptional. You will astound people with your tireless commitment to your purpose. Indeed, you astound me already. Even when it’s maddening.

For now, this relentless stamina with which you press your case does cause some conflict between us. You are so much like me; one might think this would make parenting you simpler, but it doesn’t. It complicates things. You are forever helping me see my biggest flaws and weaknesses. Mostly this has to do with my own “tenacity,” and my patience and temper. This is something we both need to work on. Somehow, we need to figure out how to communicate without becoming combative. I promise to try better. I want to be able to demonstrate how to control these common traits of ours, rather than always be a victim of our big emotions and sometimes sharp tongues.

When we’re not butting heads over life’s minutiae, I’m generally overwhelmed with how extraordinary you are. It’s so hard to find the words to describe a person just right. When you read this, I want you to understand how much I love all the things that you are.

  • You are social, engaging, and funny – always wanting to chat, tell stories, hear stories, and just be with your people.
  • You are thoughtful, intuitive, and empathetic beyond your years. You always have been, and this makes you so very special. Your great big heart is open to everyone, which leaves it vulnerable. I wish I could protect you from the inevitable knocks and bruises it will take. I wish I could impart the perspective of my years to let you know that it’s worth it. Your emotional life might be harder than some, but it will also be richer.
  • You are playful and enthusiastic, and wake up happier than anyone I’ve ever known. You burst into your days. You derive so much joy from the simplest things. I hope this stays with you despite the temptation to find life terribly mundane as a teenager, even as your peers perfect bored aloofness. Bored and aloof don’t suit you at all.

I admire your enthusiasm for ALL THE THINGS; I envy your energy (even though it often drives me crazy); and I bask in your humor and affection. I can say with certainty that my life would be a pale proximity if you weren’t there each day to thrash through it.

Kid loves to snowshoe

While my job is to teach you as you grow, your job, it seems, is also to teach me. I try to show you the shades of gray in the world that you see as black and white. You show me that I have much to learn about patience. I teach you the right way to handle frustration; you give me many opportunities to demonstrate it and help me see when I’m not doing it right. Every day you show me how to love and care for our family with your thoughtful, tender kindness and your boundless affection.

I can’t wait to see what you accomplish this year as an eight year old. You are going to be great at eight!

I love you, little man!

Love,

Mom

You can see more birthday letters to my kids here.