Tonight I was put solidly in my place by someone whose head barely clears my sternum.
There was shouting, there were tears, there were threats and bargains and even a guilt trip or two. There was throwing of toys. There were exasperated sighs. There was a kindling of anger so hot it nearly burned me as it poured out through my dagger eyes, my dragon's fire breath.
"You know it might make things better if you'd apologize," advised Dad.
"I'm sorry!" Little Man shouted, insincere of course, as he flung his small body across the bed.
And then it happened. Words, not mine but my mother's, and her mother's most likely, made their way out of my mouth. The words themselves aren't important. It's the sound of them that matters--that bitter, angry sound that shows my son I am Out. Of. Control. Over what?
Before I had children, I knew so much about them. Teachers always think they know it all about parenting, anyway, but I was especially sure. I always treated my students with respect. "You can't take it personally, no matter what," was my standard advice to student teachers and substitutes, and it's true. Keep the emotion out of it, keep your tone respectful, offer choices, de-escalate, no blaming, focus on the desired behavior. I was smug as I held and snuggled my oldest child as an infant, knowing I'd be so much better at parenting than other moms. My child would never be yelled at, never spanked, would only know love and attachment.
And it's true that most of his life has been just that. We do have a lot of conflicts. He's four, and willful, intense, and dramatic. I'm thirty-two, and willful, intense, and dramatic. Plus I have a messy house, which makes me irritable. For many of our conflicts, I'm so grateful for all my teaching experience, for all the books I've read about how to talk so my kids will listen, for all the hours I carried him in a sling, breastfed him on demand and snuggled with him in my bed. All these things that I have determined will make me the greatest mother ever actually work.
And then there are times like tonight. Faced with my four-year-old son, who is throwing himself on the floor in a frenzy of thrashing and wailing because I sent him to bed early for dumping a basket of books on the floor while I was trying to get him to clean up (yeah, it was really that mundane), I would rather be standing in front of a whole classroom full of rowdy eighth graders ten minutes before bus call. There's no way to keep myself from taking it personally when my own child screams at me that he doesn't like me anymore, even when I know on an intellectual level that he really does. Or even if he doesn't, it's for his own good. Heh.
All I can say is, thank God that at that moment, with my mother's words streaming out of me and my whole brain telling me that what this kid deserves is a "damn good spanking," my son suddenly started crying in a whole different way. This was an "I'm in pain" cry, and instantly my anger evaporated into concern.
"MY EYE!" he shrieked, hopping up and down on the step-stool. I examined him and found that one of his long, beautiful lashes was stuck in the corner of his left eye. My voice was calm and soothing as I carried him into his bedroom, where there is better light. By the time the eyelash is removed, we are both calm enough to share a story and an apology, a goodnight kiss and a lullaby.
I used to know it all. Then I had kids. Now I just apologize a lot, and try to remember.
C'mon, could you be angry at this face?