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Piss me off and hear me roar

This unheard of double-posting is brought to you by the fact that both my children are deeply sleeping and due to my aforementioned gastric issues, I've decided that we're having soup from the packet for lunch today instead of some variant of home-cooked delight I usually strive to produce. Which buys me at least an hour of free time - more if Matei emerges from his nap and into the loving embrace of Lightning McQueen.

When my son was born I was in utter shock for three days. Here was this human baby that had landed amongst us and I had no idea what on earth I was meant to do with it, or most importantly how to soothe its irascible nature and make it sleep for longer than an hour at a time, dear God. I was a mother, obviously, but I was neither the mother my own mother had been nor the one I saw being upheld as an admirable example by the media and my own peers.

For starters, I was selfish. I wanted some space and some me time and the ability to have the occasional bath and most of all to sleep four hours in a row, dear God. Sleep deprivation is brutal on everyone, but it sent me spiralling into the arms of Postnatal Depression thanks to a heady combination of stress and anxiety and most of all the crushing guilt that accompanied how angry I felt. Although I was ashamed of resenting my son's constant and ceaseless demands on me (most of all wanting to use me as a human pacifier), and my nearest and dearest were uniformly horrified when I said how dissapointing I found my newborn - those feelings remained. They just went underground and gnawed at me from within. This didn't make me feel less angry, merely more wretched.

I think Anger is one of the most difficult things to accept in the social and personal construction of motherhood, since it is in conflict with the All-Loving All-Nurturing Woman so many mothers compare themselves or are compared with. She hovers up there with all the other unattainable women who have spotless houses and slender thighs.

Angry mothers also feature in the media and literature. Sad memoirs are full of them. The papers have the ones who kill or abuse their children. The movies have Mommie Dearest and Precious. Betty Draper is a cringe-fest.

The bad mother is every mother's long shadow. It's the thing that fills us with anxiety. We fear turning into one, or being seen as one by professionals who raise eyebrows, and people who whisper and tutt, and those who throw impassioned invective and our own future grown-up children who sob on psychiatrists' couches.

I have a generally sweet temper, with a steely underbelly. And because I am kind and diplomatic and favour passive aggression, my inner Rager is rarely seen. Her invective remains an inner monologue. Largely it is better this way - I dislike hurting people and the thought of confrontation and unpleasantness makes me break out in hives - but I have learned that locking her up completely only makes her angrier, more crafty in her attempts to get out. At her repressed peak she turned me self-destructive. One of the best things that therapy ever did for me was to make me rediscover my relationship with my own buried and disowned anger (you can imagine how much my family was thrilled by that cure) and pull up along with it the anchor-chain of my own self-esteem. With the idea that I would fight for myself came the awareness that I was someone worth fighting for.

For a child who loved harmony burying anger seemed the easiest choice. I grew up with people who were intensely bitter and angry and did their best to hide it, but their rage might as well have been exploding around the room like landmines for their ability to conceal it. I could hear my parents arguing at night, with the dog joining in the conversation by barking, and me riddled with anxiety and wishing it would all stop. I remember my father's silent buried rage which made him simply absent himself from home and the source of both anger and confrontation. I remember my mother's fury-distorted face, and all the times my father screamed at me and called me stupid when I failed to grasp something he was trying to teach. And I remember my grandmother's anger which was stealthy and deadly and always vengeful. I knew that if I wasn't good she would punish me by leaving me (on one memorable occasion she simply left the house and dissappeared for three days without telling anyone where she was, so my natural fears of abandonment had ample reality to reinforce them). And because I was powerless to change any of these things I simply froze in the face of them.

All this taught me that anger was an undesirable thing. Ugly and unpleasant. Dangerous. A snake in the grass. Like having a baboon for a pet or a bowlful of live grenades for a table centerpiece.

I like things pleasant and am still terrified of hot tempers and raised voices.

I had hoped to keep my angry self out of my experience of motherhood, but she had emerged into the world as surely as my son had and she howled along with him. She was ugly and unacceptable, but she was there. I tried not to see her so she punched me in the eye. And the less I slept and the more invisible I felt, the more I submerged or lost all aspects of my individual self, the more she invaded every aspect of my experience of motherhood.

Catherine Connors wrote this about her discomfort with feeling anger at her children and much about it struck a nerve. My own anger at my eldest horrifies me* and it is something that I continue to try and keep in check. On the one hand I know that there is no one bar Ghandi himself who hasn't lost their temper with your regular whiny and obstructive toddler, but still.

Anger is like the thirteenth fairy from the Sleeping Beauty tale. Uninvited but there anyway. It is not the parenting experience I cherish, much as I recognise it as an integral and necessary part of living and parenting. As long as the offence merits it, I see no reason not to get angry with my child. For starters it teaches the principles of good behaviour and the golden relationship between actions and consequences.

Of course, anger is not a perfect parenting tool. I remember plenty of times when I got it wrong - when my child simply ended up in paralysed hysterics and not motivated into rightful action. The truth is that I am learning as much as he is about what is fair to expect of him.

I have learned not to ask "Would you like to go to bed?" (answer inevitably NO!) but to inquire (Would you prefer to go nicely or by force?). I have learned that taking away Matei's food if he starts messing with it and letting him greet the next meal hungry is much more effective than yelling at him. I have learned to try and be gentle when he is hungry or stressed and tired, but when his behaviour crosses a line then it slams into consequence. Though I shout at him, I do not call him names. I give him an opportunity to make amends and fix his mistake and when he does forgiveness and praise pour onto him, and when I think I have crossed a line, then I apologise in turn.

Obviously when I see that anger is dominating my parenting experience then I think it is time to take a step back and think and re-assess and change something (whether it is tactics or expectations). I think that things like Playful and Positive Parenting are absolutely wonderful and in the long run more effective than harshness. On the other hand I recognise that I simply do not have the resources to be the Playful Parent all the time and that Parental Pissed Offness is a natural fit and has much to teach him.

I trust myself to be a fair person, to hold myself accountable to him. To recognise when I am coming close to crossing a line and taking myself to time out. While I would be horrified if my child felt terrified of me, I think it does wonders for both of us when he becomes wary of following the courses of action** which will piss me off. Terror serves no purpose but I've found some apprehension to be both healthy and desirable.

My temper and my 'I am not pleased' look are just as much an authentic part of me as a person and a mother, as my warm and loving nature and the desire to shower you with affection. And though I could be wrong, I believe this teaches my child*** to respect me and ultimately makes him happier for knowing it. It certainly makes me less stressed to be the person who yells when provoked than wedging my face into a mask of false jollity, or beating myself up for not being sweet enough.

I don't think it matters so much whether you are by nature more of a cuddler or an enforcer, so long as whatever you are doing does not seem to cause harm and fits with your authentic self.

* for those interested in that kind of thing, his Moon lands exactly on my Mars. Anger was never not going to be a part of this relationship, although I have learned not to take his actions personally just as he has learned that it is unpleasant to not heed my warnings and make me lose my temper.

**these be the paths of reckless endangerment, destruction of property, obstructing the course of bedtime, assault and battery and whining.

***all children being individual, this is merely what works for Matei and I. He has always been a child compelled to learn through negative experience, the kind for whom sayng 'No, Hot!' was never enough.


Nov. 21st, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
You have found the *truth* about children and parenting that for somme reason, people tend to hide. Anger (as long as it's not overdone and you aren't being mean) at something your child has done (or not done) is healthy. Discipline (used in context) is a useful tool that will help to produce a happy/healthy child that you will prove to be an absolute delight.


deep sky, firefly

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