This goes through my mind every time I lose my temper at Lily.
Of course, I was predictably arrogant about the kind of parent I would be before actually having a child. (Aren’t we all?) Yes, I knew myself well enough to know I wouldn’t be the perpetually cheerful, meet-every-situation-with-a-laugh-and-a-smile mom. But I did harbor delusions of unflappability. For I’d always been a driven but generally pragmatic, patient person; so I’d long pictured myself as a woman who would, in the end, be a zen/yoga mommy who’d never lose my cool – who, in the face of a kid’s irrational screaming and baiting, would just take a deep breath and let it all roll right off me, like so much white noise.
I’d never become one of those miserable harridans who loses it at her kid over nothing. Would I?
The problem with picturing what kind of parent you’ll be, before you actually are one, is that you don’t quite realize how much sleep deprivation, domestic tail-chasing (laundry, dishes, bills, etc.), job stress, parenting anxiety, and the struggle to maintain closeness with your spouse while still making a little time for yourself all play into your mood and your responses to any given parenting situation.
And if you bring it down to an even more basic level, I think, underlying a parent’s short temper is an anger with yourself because, ultimately, you CHOSE this chaotic, challenging, all-consuming path.
Recently, I was on my own with Lily, who’s 3, and baby Neve for the evening because Joe wanted to go to a monthly beer tasting with friends at a nearby bar. And while I normally hire a babysitter or babysitter-in-training when I have to work in the evening and Joe is going it alone with the girls, arrogance struck once again, and I thought that I’d be fine by myself. I could handle it.
And things went smoothly at first. But then Neve’s bedtime arrived. Lily was using her allotted 30 minutes of TV time to watch “The Princess and the Frog,” which we’d recently recorded from the Canadian television station, in the basement, while I got Neve into her jammies and took her upstairs.
As I always do, I wrapped Neve in a blanket, took her to the rocker in Lily’s room, and fed her for a few minutes. She was just about asleep when Lily started screaming, “Mommy!” from two floors below.
“Oy,” I thought, as Lily’s calls got more frantic and weepy. Looking at Neve, who was unfazed and drifting off, I thought that Lily might just be losing it because she wants someone to fast forward through the commercials. Yes. I was sure that was it.
But Lily kept crying out inconsolably, and I thought that if there’s even the smallest chance that something more serious is wrong, I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t go to Lily right away.
Annoyed, I stood, moved through fully lit parts of the house (with Neve stirring in my arms), and headed down two flights of stairs to see that, yes, Lily’s cries were solely inspired by commercials.
It was at this point that I lost my patience. I picked up the remote, and while speeding through the remaining commercials, I railed, “Why are you screaming at me?! I thought you might be hurt. Commercials are NOT worth screaming about! Neve – ” now wide awake and blinking in my arms – “was almost asleep, and now I have to start all over again. All because of commercials?! If you’d just had a little patience and waited for a few minutes, the movie would have come back on!”
Even as the words left my mouth, and I stomped back up the stairs to repeat the whole bedtime process with Neve, I realized, “Oh, my God. The reason I have to explain this to Lily is because the only television she’s ever watched has been ‘Sesame Street,’ which has no commercials. She doesn’t know that commercials are only on for a few minutes and then the show comes back. To her, the movie was just gone. Permanently.”
I felt two inches tall. While rocking and feeding Neve yet again, I relentlessly beat myself up – how could I berate Lily for something she didn’t understand? – and thought about this irony: one of the reasons I was so upset about having to wake Neve and go down two flights of steps with her was that I had been looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with Lily after Neve was down for the night, and now, that wouldn’t happen for a while yet.
At this point, I pondered how parenting is the quintessential Russian nesting doll of guilt.
But I finally got Neve back to sleep, put her in her crib, and sheepishly made my way to the basement. Once there, I pulled Lily onto my lap and told her that I was sorry for raising my voice before.
And then I was made to feel even more of a heel when I realized that commercials had come on, and Lily had studiously avoided pointing them out to me.
I sighed. “Sweetie, you can ask me, when I’m here, to speed through this junk. The movie will come back, but there’s no reason to sit through them if I’m here, or if Daddy’s here. I know I got upset with you before, but I shouldn’t have. I was wrong, and I made a mistake. So you can still ask me to speed through these, OK?”
She nodded in that way that essentially translates to a kid saying, “Riiiiight.”
Oof. I let her watch 15 minutes beyond her normal time allotment while internally chanting the mantra, “I am a horrible person. I am a horrible person. I am a horrible person.” (I re-adopted this mantra on St. Patrick’s Day, when Lily pooped while in our bathroom-less basement; she’s been all over the map on potty training this past year, so in the moment, I lost it at her – but she later threw up during the night, thus suggesting that the pooping incident was the first (diarrhea) part of her stomach flu manifesting itself. Say it with me now. “I am a horrible person. I am a horrible person.”)
Of course, sometimes I lose my temper at Lily and it’s justified. The other day, for instance, while I was feeding Neve, she slapped Neve’s head. I had been on the phone with Joe, but I stopped everything to say, “Why did you do that?!”
Looking weepy, Lily said, “Because I want to kiss Nevie.”
Huh. Hitting someone because you want to kiss them? The ultimate pre-schooler logic, I suppose. But it’s also something Lily and I had a very serious talk about.
I tried hard to view this as an opportunity to reiterate something I will firmly, unequivocally repeat a million times throughout Lily and Neve’s childhood: love never, ever goes hand-in-hand with hitting – whether you’re on the front or back end of it.
But one of my worst outbursts came the day after Christmas. We were at my father’s house in North Carolina, and we needed more diapers for Neve. I borrowed my father’s car to go to the nearby grocery store, and Lily wanted to come along.
Now, she’d been getting at least a small gift every night during the previous week for Hanukkah, and she’d just opened several gifts the day before. But even so, I warned her repeatedly before heading into the store that we were there for diapers and nothing else.
Naturally, near the store’s baby product aisle, there were some cheap Barbie knockoffs stocked at 3 year old eye level, and Lily started begging. I said “No,” and reminded her what I had told her before we came in.
She begged more, and I said “no” again. “You just got a ton of presents, including three dolls from different people. You don’t need more dolls.”
“Yes, I do.”
So began a discussion about “want” and “need,” which Lily appeared to listen to as she sat holding the doll, coveting it. She wouldn’t let it go. I said “no” again and said I was leaving to pay for the diapers.
Like a dog on a very, very long leash, Lily reluctantly followed me to the checkout from a distance, crying pitifully. I finally picked her up, paid for the diapers, and took her out to the minivan as she screamed.
I strapped her in and got into the driver’s seat. Though this was the first time Lily had really thrown a fit in a store, I’d known it would come at some point, and that it would be the opening salvo of a years-long campaign to keep her from becoming spoiled and entitled. The thought of that by itself made my shoulders droop with fatigue and sadness.
“I need that dollie,” she screamed through tears.
“Lily, you just got three dollies, and obviously, that didn’t satisfy you longer than a day. This one wouldn’t be any different.”
“Yes, it would!”
“No, it wouldn’t! Lily, nearly every time you go into a store, I promise you, there will be something that catches your eye, something you’ll think that you want. But you can’t get everything you want. You just can’t. First of all, it would cost too much money to do that. Second of all, our house would just get more and more packed with junk. And third, it doesn’t make you happy, obviously, since you’re miserable now, one day after getting a bunch of stuff.”
“But I need that dollie!”
“STOP IT! Stop saying that!” My voice broke at this point. “You’re being selfish. There are lots and lots of people who don’t have what you have. Who don’t even have what they actually need, let alone want.”
And here’s the moment all parents of little ones have, where you stop and remember, they have no idea of this. It’s good to introduce them to this truth, I guess; but because they have no experience beyond their own short life, you might as well be speaking in Klingon at times like these.
But clearly, whether the message was clear or not, Lily understood I was disappointed, because at that point, she crumbled, mentally let go of that stupid dollie, and said, gulping breaths and huffing through tears, “Please don’t be mad at me, Mommy.”
And that was an odd turning point. Never before had she expressed anxiety about my feelings and attitudes toward her.
She got more and more upset about the point, actually, until I found myself saying, “I won’t be mad in a few minutes. But I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t like the way you acted in that store, and I was angry. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It just means we have to work it out. But I love you, and that doesn’t change, no matter what. OK?”
She calmed down enough to nod, and I started the car and drove to my father’s house.
What a high drama diaper errand.
But ever since then, Lily has become sensitive to my anger, and this has reminded me of the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing. Just last night, when she was giving Joe a terrible time as he tried to put her to bed, I inserted myself to tell her she’d lost her TV time for the next morning, and if she wanted more privileges taken away, she could keep on throwing a tantrum.
She stopped, and I told her she needed to apologize to her father, get up to her bed, and go to sleep. I was firm, but also, when she got in bed, I asked for a hug and said, “I love you. You lost your temper, and you were wrong to scream at Daddy, but you’re a smart girl, and I know you can do better. We’re going to work on it, but I just need you to be a better listener. OK?”
She nodded, and for once, I felt like I’d finally managed to balance anger with support and reason.
Maybe I’m slowly getting better at this particular part of parenting.