By Amy Ettinger
She likes the boys who push. Especially Paulie, the outcast. My daughter’s preschool teacher says Paulie and Julianna are drawn to one another like magnets. No matter how much she tries to keep them apart, they find each other. Sometimes it’s at the snack table or on the swings. Julianna gets too close or takes a toy Paulie wants and he retaliates.
Before school we practice saying, “STOP” as loud as we can. I pretend I’m Paulie and I push her hard on the shoulder. “Stop,” she whispers.
“LOUDER,” I say.
“Maybe I will tell Paulie he can’t come to my school anymore,” she says. A 4-year-old’s solution.
“There will always be people in life who try to push you around, who will try to test your boundaries. You have to learn how to stop them.” (At these moments I wish the house was secretly bugged so someone else could hear my mother’s wisdom). Julianna doesn’t seem to pay attention.
I think, maybe naively, that if I teach Julianna to stand up for herself now, the lesson will be hard-wired into her for when it really matters. When she’s a teen and the other girls are trying pot and sneaking out to parties.
Mostly I’m concerned about this attraction to the rough-housers, the young sociopaths. Of course, we’re not supposed to call them that, but there’s one in every class. Last year, it was Eric, the boy who threw a wooden block at a visiting puppy, smashed the caterpillars and wouldn’t share the trains. Julianna went over to the train table every morning ready to play.
Julianna’s grandma was also drawn to the outliers, the dreamers, the ones that nobody else wanted. She met my Dad at a dance for college graduates she attended with a friend from group therapy. Mom was in analysis for more than 15 years to deal with her painful shyness. And then she saw my Dad (who was not a college grad) but snuck in to the dance meet ambitious girls—disproving the motto that “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
Dad didn’t care that Mom didn’t talk much. He talked enough for them both. He was rough around the edges, talking back to police officers who often pulled him over for speeding, and mouthing off to his bosses. Not surprisingly, he was always getting fired.
Mom was a shy do-gooder, a Barnard graduate, who worked for a time with emotionally disturbed children in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods – Bedford, Stuyvesant. She lived with her parents in their Brooklyn apartment until she was 21, in the shadow of her domineering mother.
She met Dad just as she was starting to find some independence. Dad was unselfconscious. He had an ego and an energy Mom craved.
When they fought, it was explosive. My brothers and I watching as they tore each other apart (often with words and sometimes with fists).
The worst moment in my parent’s marriage came when I was eight years old. My brothers and I were in front of the TV, when we heard our parents bickering in the kitchen. My parent’s voices got louder, until we heard a thud.
The kitchen of our Silicon Valley home was divided from our living room by a bar-height counter where we ate all our meals. The three kids stood on the living room side of the counter. We saw Dad standing behind Mom in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around her throat. It was like watching two mimes acting out a fight. Neither made a sound.
Mom was trapped. Her stomach was pressed against the tiled counter. Dad’s body kept her from backing up or escaping to the side. Mom pulled at his fingers. They were strong and callused from years of building and tinkering. They didn’t budge.
Finally, Dad let go. Mom ran into the bedroom to call the police, who came a few minutes later. They took Dad out of the house in handcuffs, but released him a half-an-hour later after taking a statement from my mom, and asking my brothers and I to intervene when my parents’ fights got too out of control.
Mom went to talk to a lawyer, but my parents never divorced. They were married for almost 30 years. Dad mellowed a little, but his nature never really changed.
I learned from Mom’s bad choices, even though the odds were against me. Girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher rate of being battered as adults. When I was looking for a mate I picked the opposite of my father. My husband’s a pleaser, a shy writer, a kind and sometimes goofy man. We laugh a lot, even when we argue. I have always been proud of my choice, feeling like I side-stepped a potentially tragic inheritance. It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I learned that legacies can skip a generation.
Intergenerational transmission of domestic violence sometimes happens without parents even realizing it. The memories I have of my parent’s relationship are wired in me—sometimes I don’t even know that they’re there until the smell of cigarette smoke transports me back to my childhood home. The memories are a part of me, whether I realize it or not, and that affects what kind of a mom I am to Julianna. Do I lose my cool, “flip my lid”? Of course. And I have bursts of anger that frighten us both. Especially when she kicks me in frustration when I deny her a special treat or throws a shoe at her father in the heat of an argument. But why I get and angry, and how I recover is important for both of us to understand.
The relationship between my husband and I is the most important model for Julianna to learn about a healthy pairing. As one therapist told me: “No one takes a beating at age 20.” When Julianna sees Dan and me making calm, egalitarian decisions for difficult problems, it teaches her what’s normal. And when she sees us fight? Well, that’s important to. That she never sees our anger explode to scariness, that she sees us re-group. We do our best, although we can argue with heat, with passion, like any married couple. And I tell myself it’s normal, although I have to admit that I have no idea what that is.
There is still so much violence against women, that as a parent raising girls it’s hard not to think about. More than a thousand women are killed each year in the United States in domestic violence. Thousands more are seriously injured.
We need to encourage our girls to have a strong voice, even if her nature is to be quiet.
Every day, Julianna reminds me more of my mom. She is cautious and fearful, and often painfully shy. Their phobias are even the same: they both loathe dogs of any kind. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the time they spend around one another. Mom’s been a once-a-week babysitter since Julianna was born. But I know that it’s more complicated. Julianna inherited her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her disposition.
I remind myself that Julianna is four, and that it’s too early to draw these conclusions. Her preferences for many things change almost daily. One day she loves the slides, going down the steepest scariest one 30 times before I bribe her out of the park. The next day she refuses to even leave the house. She experiments with different ways of interacting with the world, sometimes sulky, sometimes kind, sometimes an adventurer and the life of the party.
She is an only child, so she mostly learns about other kids at school. She has been sheltered, and so maybe her time with the troubled boys is teaching her what she doesn’t want in life. I hope that the lessons I go over with her each day will stick.
My husband and I half-joke about getting Paulie thrown out of preschool, but I know another ill-behaved boy would take his place(and Julianna would be the first to find him).
My inheritance is my hyper-vigilance, my desire to save my child from a danger (both internal and external) she may never face. But, if she does face it I want her to be ready. I want her to be strong.
So, I repeat our daily lessons. One morning she tells me her baby doll also goes to a school with a boy named Paulie who pushes. “She doesn’t say stop, and she doesn’t call for the teacher.”
“You both have to learn,” I tell her.
“Every time, you say stop or call for help you are teaching Paulie that he can’t push people,” I tell her. I can tell that the thought appeals to her. She already wants to be the fixer, the one who makes it all better.
As her mom, I have no such illusions. I cannot control her curiosity or attractions. How can I? I can’t even control my own.
But I can understand a little better about what makes me tick and why. How my parents’ bad marriage may or may have not affected who I am today. And who I am to my daughter, and how she is in the world.
And even as I remain vigilant to outside threats—the boys who use their bodies instead of the words—I have to remember that sometimes the scariest things of all are inside our selves.
Amy Ettinger writes for the New York Times, Huffington Post, New York Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and four-year old daughter.
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