By Jennifer Berney
Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life.
Sometimes I am that parent: the one in the grocery store holding her son by the wrist, hissing at him to watch where he’s going; the one hollering in the front yard beseeching my son to climb off the ladder—”Right now, or I’m going to lose it!”—as if no one else can hear.
I don’t yell at my kids all the time. I mean, it’s not my immediate response every time they annoy me. There are times of the day when I am calm and patient and can present everything in rational “I” statements. (“I’m feeling crowded. Please move your foot away from my face.”) And then there are the other times, like bedtime, when I’ve asked my son over and over to put his dirty socks in the hamper, or to stop pouring water on his brother’s head, and yet he pretends he hasn’t heard. I don’t count to ten or practice my deep breathing. I yell.
I try to keep my yelling in check for two reasons: First of all, it’s ineffective. Though I might get my son’s attention, his reaction is usually to rail against me rather than comply. Also, unlike a good cry, yelling doesn’t bring me relief. Instead, yelling leaves me feeling empty, deflated. Though I may try to keep a lid on my temper, I embrace the occasional flare. I want my children to see me—all of me—and the truth is that I’m often cranky, or tired, or sore, or overwhelmed.
I grew up in a household where anger was taboo. We buried our daily grievances, and kept our conversations formal, pleasant. If I sensed that either of my parents was in a dark mood I treaded lightly. I offered to set the table; I helped with dinner; I asked questions and offered compliments, hoping I could brighten the mood. “Did anything good happen to you today?” I might ask, cheerily. But it was like trying to plug a leaking dam with my bare fingers: immobilizing and impossible. My efforts may have warded off small bursts of anger, but rage became an event that hit my family in the middle of the night. As my parents argued on the other side of our shared wall, I hid under pillows and cried. The next morning I’d wake up, determined to be perfect. And so I did the laundry. I said please and thank you. I kept my voice soft. Because I spent my childhood avoiding anger, I couldn’t be all the things that I was. I could be sweet but not sassy, helpful but not demanding, competent but never bossy. All of those traits most common to children were traits that I resolved to squelch, and the effort left me feeling small, a miniature version of myself.
Now that I’m a parent, I want my kids to know anger as a normal part of daily life. I want them to see that I often struggle to keep my cool, sometimes I lose it, and that when I do I attempt to make amends. I say “Sorry,” or “Can we start over?” Or sometimes I say, “I’m not sorry for yelling because that ladder is shaky and you weren’t paying attention.” I don’t need to provide them with an emotional landscape that is flat.
As a result, my sons learn to live with my flaws, and hopefully they learn to live with their own as well. Though sometimes I worry that my regular outbursts will train them to fear me, so far, I’ve noticed the opposite result. “Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?” my older son asks me moments after I’ve lost my temper.
And at six years old, he’s already mastered the art of the apology himself. A bad morning sometimes sends him stomping into his room. He slams the door, and stacks piles of books so I can’t enter. But I can count on him to emerge ten minutes later, collected and loving. “I’m sorry Mommy,” he says, and hugs me at the waist. We put the books away together.
Rupture and repair, a therapist once told me, are the basis of a healthy relationship. And so I mark the daily ruptures as they happen and try to repair them swiftly, one by one. It’s not so much like plugging a dam as it is like patching the tears on a favorite pair of jeans. The jeans continue to hold their shape, their worn-in softness, but the fabric of the patches and the color of the stitching adds to their appeal. They are lived-in, not perfect, the way a family should be.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.