“I’m Angry at You!”
By Sue Sanders
I lugged the laundry basket filled with freshly washed and haphazardly folded clothes into Lizzie’s room and dropped it on her aqua shag rug. Lizzie was sprawled on her bed, absorbed in a book. A mountain of clean clothes was piled on her desk, where they’d been sitting for the last few days.
“I’d like you to put away all your clothes any time before dinner. And when you’re done, please bring the basket downstairs. I need it,” I said. Lizzie’s room, a Bermuda Triangle for laundry baskets, was starting to resemble a rummage sale.
She put down her book and glared at me as though I’d demanded she drown a litter of kittens.
“I’m angry at you!” she spit out.
“Sweetie, it’s fine to be angry with me. I’m glad you’re telling me,” I said evenly as I left her room.
I’m happy Lizzie feels comfortable telling me she’s irritated. Lately, though, these bursts have been occurring more frequently, almost as if they’re volcanic rumblings, to prepare me for the temperamental eruptions of an older teen. When Lizzie is furious, most of the time I smile and calmly tell her she’s going to be mad at me a lot during the next few years—I’ll love her no matter how she feels. Then I ignore the sighs of exasperation and say something like, “That’s my job: to annoy you as much as possible. . . .
“I’m getting pretty good at it, huh?” I add.
Young teens can be emotional vortexes. I try not to get sucked into the drama. Sometimes Lizzie states her sentiments clearly and other times Albert Einstein couldn’t figure her out. It would be much easier if she were just expressing the usual teenage anger, but with her it’s more complicated. Her biological father and I split when she was three. Jeff came into our lives when she was four. I think a subconscious part of her may still worry about how she fits in to our family—if she gets too angry at me, would I choose Jeff over her? Of course the rational part of her knows this is nonsense, but, like everyone, she’s got bits of her past lodged in her psyche. And I’m sure, locked away in some small cells of her temporal lobe, she’s got to feel some residual rejection from her biological father disappearing from her life when she was so young. We do talk about these things, but although she denies they’re issues for her, I can’t help worrying.
Reading Lizzie is like tearing into a book on astrophysics. I may be able read the words on the page, but I have absolutely no idea what they mean. This is when I have to whisk out my supersecret decoder ring so I can decipher what she’s really saying. What seems on the surface to be normal conversation often has a very different meaning. And at times my words need interpreting, too.
Here’s a translation of a recent conversation Lizzie and I recently had one day after school in our dining room. I was sitting at the table, working on my laptop, and Lizzie had just brought in a snack of milk and tandoori naan from the kitchen.
|We said…||We meant…|
(looks up from computer)Hi, sweetie. How was your day?
|Lizzie:(looks down at plate, not smiling, not frowning)“It was good.”||“It was not especially good.”|
|Lizzie:(takes bite of Indian bread and chews, staring into distance)|
|Mom:”Oh?”||“I’d love to hear more. I know that you’re not telling all.”|
|Lizzie:”Yeah, I didn’t do such a great job on my English essay.”||“I’m not happy with it and I suspect you will be even less so.”|
|Mom:”As long as you’re taking your time and not rushing. Did you understand what you could do differently next time?”||“Will she get into college or will she end up working the counter at McDonald’s?|
|Mom:(his SAVE on laptop and closes it, deciding to ask about an incident that occurred that previous week)“Hey, how was Jill today?”||“Was Jill as mean as she was on Friday? I dislike her very, very much.”|
|Lizzie:(takes a slug of milk before answering)“She’s okay.”||“She’s a jerk. But I don’t want to say that because I’m not mean like she is.”|
|Mom:(quiet, trying to decide exactly what to say)|
|Lizzie:(smiles, eyes sparkling)“Lunch was good. I sat with Eleanor today. She’s nice.”||“Lunch was the best! Eleanor is great!”|
|Mom:(grins)“Sounds good!”||“It does sound good. I’m relieved that awful child is no longer a ‘friend.’ For now.”|
The word okay, though short, is long on meanings that I try to translate based on context and inflection. If Lizzie says something is okay, most of the time I know that it’s really not and I don’t want to let it stand. I want to call her on it, but in a way that will allow her to save face. So when she says something like “Jill’s okay,” her father or I might ask: “Is she okay or ‘just okay’?” When Lizzie admits someone is “just okay,” we know they usually aren’t. We keep talking, keep translating her feelings, and let her know that anything she feels is okay and not “just okay.”
Recently, Lizzie became furious at me for no reason I could fathom. We’d been sitting on the sofa one rainy Saturday afternoon, each reading a magazine that had arrived in that day’s mail about a half hour earlier. She had an issue of New Moon and I had one of New York. I could feel the atmosphere in the living room suddenly shift, as if a cold front had arrived unexpectedly. Usually there’s a chore to trigger a mood—a bathroom to scrub, a dog to walk, rules to uphold.
“I’m angry at you!” she shouted, and marched into her room, slamming her door and leaving me mystified. Unfortunately, her room has two doors, one of which is connected to my office and which happened to remain ajar. When I went into my office, I peered into her room through the open door. Lizzie was sitting on her bed, fuming, tapping angrily on her iPod’s tiny keyboard.
“Sweetie, slamming the door doesn’t have quite as dramatic an effect when the other one stays opened,” I said evenly. I smiled, determined to lighten the situation. I wanted to give her an out, if she desired one. Lizzie looked as though she wished I’d be teletransported to Jupiter, and then she appeared to do a quick mental calculation. She tried to force herself to look angry and failed. She laughed. One crisis diverted. Seven more teenage years’ worth to go.
I was an angry kid. When I was a child, we didn’t really discuss our feelings. Instead, my anger built up like a pressure cooker, ready to explode. I think there was a real fear to get emotionally honest in my family. Anger was perceived as messy and something that couldn’t be controlled. And my dad loved control. My theory is that it goes back to his childhood. My dad was four and lived on an army base in New York when his father was killed in the Netherlands during World War II. His father’s death upended his life. His mother became a distant presence, unable to cope with three young children. My father, who was not a difficult child, was sent away to boarding school, in effect to deal with his sense of loss on his own. It’s not unexpected, then, that my dad doesn’t like surprises. He has spent his entire adult life trying to plan for everything. Dinner menus decided weeks in advance; mealtimes like clockwork. And real emotion expressed honestly? Forget it—because who knew where real emotions and unchecked anger could lead?
By the time my teenage years rolled around, my parents and I hadn’t talked, genuinely, probably ever. And I’d built up an emotional Kevlar vest.
I could be, to put it mildly, difficult. I was not a cuddly teen, all rainbows and ribbons, floating around in a cloud of Love’s Baby Soft. I was black concert shirts and tight Calvin Klein jeans, moving about in a cloud of marijuana smoke.
“You’re a piece of work!” my dad yelled after I’d challenged yet another rule. Ping. His shouts hit the vest and ricocheted right back.
We’d been slowly retreating into our corners for years, and when I finally came out of mine, I came out swinging.
“Fuck you both!” I screamed at my parents.
But what a defiant kid says and what he or she means are two different things. I wish my parents had been able to interpret my angry words for what they were—the words of an adolescent who wanted independence but was frightened by it (and pretty much everything else). Because what a furious teenager wants more than anything is to be understood and to be told, “I’ll love you no matter what. I know you’re testing limits, and you can try all you want, but if you break our rules, there are consequences.”
Even if the parent has to lie and force these words out, even if he or she is really thinking, Who the hell is this child? I hate her.
And if the kid says, “Fuck you! I hate you!” she really means, “Yes, I am filled with animosity, but I actually love you even if I don’t and can’t show it right now. I’m trying to assert my independence, and you’re throwing a big wet blanket on my parade.” I wish I could time travel and hand my parents a teen/parent phrase book (or, more likely, throw it at them)—so they could translate what I was saying and what I really meant.
It’s no surprise that as an adult, I also have some unresolved anger. I try to deflect it with humor instead of sending it in a lightning bolt of words toward my husband, but I’m not always successful. I sometimes feel the steam building in that old pressure cooker and still have trouble finding the release valve to let some of it escape. I don’t want Lizzie to have the same frustrations, so I talk to her about emotions, letting her know it’s okay not only to be angry but also to express it. Some family traditions shouldn’t be handed down.
This is excerpted from Sue Sanders’ new book, Mom, I’m Not A Kid Anymore. Sanders’ essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brain, Child, the New York Times, Real Simple, the Rumpus, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, The Morning News, Salon and others.
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