“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Jack Kerouac
I like the water hot. Almost burning. My skin turns pink, and then red, but it’s bliss. It soaks through to my bones and it feels like the sun. I want to keep it trapped in my skin. It always fades. But those moments with the hot water and the steam and the whirr of the fan are my own, I can’t hear anyone else. Their voices are thick and far away through the fog.
I didn’t realise this was part of who I was, this daily ritual of burning and renewal. I thought it was just a shower.
He came out to find me in the living room, ‘You can’t get mad at her,’ he said.
So I got up.
She was huddled in bed.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘lets clean you up.’
Last time I was exasperated. This time I was ashamed of last time.
I smiled at her and she smiled back.
Relief for both of us.
Wet clothes hit the floor and I tested the temperature of the shower.
She hopped in.
‘Will you come in with me?’
I like the water hot.
‘Of course,’ I said.
We drew faces on the glass.
We ducked our heads under the shower-head for three seconds. Then five.
My skin was cold.
But her heart was warm.
I used to think a day was it’s own unit of time. ‘Did you have a nice day?’ Yes/No.
It’s not though; it’s a thousand choices. And you can’t tally them to see whether the day is more positive or more negative because it doesn’t work like that. There’s no overall score. Just the choices.
I’m trying to make better choices, and I’m not letting myself add them up.
A day isn’t good or bad. But I think the choices can be, sometimes.
I’ve written about anger a couple of times. I grew up in a house where anger was unpredictable and scary. When I was a child I felt that this anger in our household which was directed towards me was often not actually about me – it felt unfair. Yet, I couldn’t fight against it, I couldn’t explain myself or justify my position to an angry adult. I told myself many times that I would not hit my children, or yell at them, or scare them; and that I would listen to them when they wanted to explain their apparent ‘bad’ behaviour. I’ve kept a lot of these promises, but not all of them. Children have a way of forcing you to deal with those issues hidden in the back of your head, and it’s not by controlling their behaviour, it’s by controlling and understanding your own.
I was/am a loved child. A wanted and cared for child. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t handed some of my parent’s own issues that they hadn’t resolved. I’m seeking to resolve my own issues, I’m sure some of them will be handed down. I’m even more sure my kids will develop their own. But I want them to see me taking responsibility for my own actions which affect their lives. That matters to me.
Without further ado, my most recent, but probably not the last article on mental health and trying really hard to be a peaceful parent to tiny weirdo’s on very little sleep 😉
“Our experiences in childhood are still part of our lives, they inform our unconscious reactions and ability to respond to parenting stress. We may think that we’ve left those experiences behind, perhaps through therapy and self-care, perhaps through time and distance. However, there is nothing like raising children to teach you that you really don’t know anything, even about yourself.
Everyone has voices from childhood in their head. Some of them are comforting and speak to us of our strength and bravery. Others shake us to our core and cause us to whisper to our children in fierce voices “I will not do that to you.” Sometimes we do it anyway.
Why? Why do we become the very thing we swore never to become?”
Continue reading psychology stuff and how I chucked a tantrum here –
Motherhood can feel risky, there is no other experience where perfection is so encouraged and so laughably out of reach. Every decision I make feels like it has consequences. I can never be entirely certain if I’m doing the right thing in the choices I make both for you and with you. However the hours I spend talking with you, watching you and playing with you make me confident that these choices and risks are right for you. Even the ones that look a little mad. Especially the ones that look a little mad.
I’m watching you climb the webbing in the playground. The sky is above you and the grass is below you and the words ‘be careful!’ are rushing to my lips but I bite them back. I’m watching you and you are being careful, you are being so careful. Your hands are wrapped around the rope so tight and you’re tapping your feet along the next one before resting any weight on it. I know you’re really considering your next move because your eyes have the same focus usually reserved for picking spinach out of dinner.
You are being careful and the last thing you need is for me to act as if you’re not. If you can swallow down your fear and place tiny feet on ropes in the air with such trust then I can swallow my fear too. I can trust you, I can trust that you know the limits of your body and you’re learning how these muscles you own move in the wind. You’re learning that you’re strong, and careful and capable. I’m learning to let you be these things without acting like I have any part in it, because I don’t. I don’t know where your limits are – I can tell you that I’m worried so I’ll just stand underneath you, I can ask if you want help, I can point out a difficulty I think you’ve overlooked; but ultimately it’s up to you and the risks you think you can handle. My yelling out at you would just tell you that I don’t think you’re being careful, that you obviously need to be reminded to be careful when plainly you are devoting every inch of determination you have to conquering this ridiculously bright spider web on the beach – carefully.
You take risks. You are glowing when you jump down. Your cheeks are red and your smile is wide and you are loving yourself sick.
‘Did you see me? I went up to the top!’
‘I was watching you the whole time! You chose the places to put your feet so carefully!’
You nod, a sage in this small lanky body, ‘it’s tricky and I wanted to be careful.’
I take risks too. But not with your heart. Sometimes it feels like I’m swaying in the wind, choosing where to put my feet and hoping for the best. I can see the sky above me and the ground below me, and I feel the risk in being your Mama. I take risks with you every day – crossing the road, figuring that a sandwich that fell on the floor is probably alright because I’ve seen you lick dirt and the only after effect was my own sense of nausea. But, I won’t risk your heart. I choose my words. I think about your point of view. I explain things. I hold you when you’re having a bad day. I tell you you’re my favourite in the whole wide world. I ask you what you would like to do. I follow your lead.
You drive me crazy. You make me laugh. It should not be possible to talk all day. I gave you three biscuits so I could relish silence for a few minutes. You sprayed crumbs at me while still chatting and it sucked. The sugar gave you enough energy to tell me all the things you’d already told me, but louder. You ask questions and walk away just as I’m getting really involved in explaining the answer. You insist that a tea-towel is all that’s needed to dry your pants when you were fully submerged in a puddle. You walk slower when we’re running late. You have a pathological attachment to weird-ass t-shirts and a crocodile onesie.
I’m careful. I make decisions that feel right for you, not for any other child – just for you. I may grip the ropes tightly and close my eyes for a second, and I may question these decisions a thousand times but the end result is the same – I’ll keep climbing to the top because this works for us. I want you happy, and healthy, and safe, and confident, and ridiculous, and caring and I want you to never doubt for a second that you are valuable.
Maybe, when this is all over (I know it’s never over) I’ll also look back on the risks I took and think ‘It was tricky, but I was careful.’
I’m watching you play out the front with your Daddy, he’s gardening and you’re pretty sure you’re gardening too but technically you’re pulling the heads off those flower/weed things. You are super proud of your flower head collection. It’s quite a chilled little scene, which is nice because I got so angry with you earlier. I had my reasons, and none of them seem quite good enough now. I regret the way I sat you down and used my Creepy Whisper Voice to tell you how disappointed I was. To tell you that I had expectations and you had patently failed to meet them. You crossed your legs and hid your head in your lap and I thought ‘oh good, he understands how upset I am.’ Look at me, providing discipline and boundaries, except I’m not at all confident that’s what I was doing. Sometimes I think I should just find a nice pack of wolves and be like ‘Hey guys, wanna give this parenting thing a shot?’ Wolves seem pretty confident in their choices, and they have a strong sense of family, which is nice. You’re already a pretty fast runner, so they’d have some basic material to work with there. It could go well. Romulus etc.
I’m trying so hard to walk this line of intentional parenting and not go fucking crazy with being empathic all the time when occasionally I just want to scream ‘IT’S ACTUALLY MY TURN TO MELTDOWN NOW. MY. TURN.’ But experience has taught me that you’ll look at me quite seriously and hold my hand as you say ‘Mummy, we don’t yell at each other in this house.’ Yes, you are immensely capable of being calm when other people are losing their shit and it should be testament to the fact that I am a better mother than the pack of wolves but in those moments it kind of feels like you’re being aggressively sweet on purpose.
We haven’t made up yet. Which is sad, because usually we’re really good at going back to being a team. I’m not quite sure I can walk out there yet, not quite sure I’ve recovered enough to deal with another round of ‘everything wrong with the world is Mummy’s fault’ even though I have consistently explained that I am not in charge of the world. Everything is changing for you at the moment. Our life is changing and I forget that of course you’ll react to that. I forget that I don’t have a monopoly on anxiety and instead of downing chardonnay or rubbing lavender hippie shit on your temples you demand control in other ways.
You don’t fit into the spaces around you at the moment. You’re edges and angles and everything rubs up against you and is cut to ribbons, including me. You have no patience and no time and you’re so quick to get angry and you hold onto it and I can’t get you to share it with me so instead you’re throwing it at me in these short, sharp bursts that take my breath away. I need to find you, to find a way past these edges, edges that I’m sure are cutting you into pieces too. They say all behaviour is communication and you are bursting with pain right now. You’re still so little. I’m watching you count your decimated flowers and I’m counting up the times I’ve lost my shit with you recently vs the times we’ve cuddled and laughed and read books about terrifying animals that you love so much you big weirdo. I’m remembering the late nights you’ve had and how you begged me to play with you earlier today and I said ‘later’ which we both knew meant ‘no.’Maybe I can take the bits of anger you’re throwing around right now and turn them into something else, something that feels less like me vs you and more like the team I know we are. I can hold you close and remember that hurt and anger are so close together and you’re using every tool you have to let me know how you feel; and some of those tools suck but you are trying so hard to tell me things you don’t have words for. Maybe we can figure out what hurt feels like together, because you’ve been doing it on your own so far. I’m so sorry for that.
In the meantime, you’re carrying in handfuls of decapitated flowers and I suspect the wolves have enough issues raising their own young. I’m thinking I won’t start researching handy places to find wolves just yet, because maybe I can do this. We can work out how to blunt sharp edges and how to move through hurt to healing, together. If I see a pack of wolves, I’ll just tell them that I’ve got this, they can move along because I have books about terrifying animals to read to a Small Boy who gives me flowers. Well, bits of them.
No-one is born scared or ashamed, it is something we are taught – that there are bits of ourselves that are bad, worthless and should be kept hidden. We are told to give our children consequences, but what about the unintentional ones? What about the consequences that teach them they’re incapable when they’re still learning, or the ones that teach them they’re bad and disrespectful when they’re still figuring out what respect looks like. Children learn from consequences, yes, but not all consequences are equal.
I loved books as a child. My parents would buy ‘life lesson’ books, and with hope in their hearts they would place them on the shelves and trust that eventually their children would stop jumping on the furniture while they napped on Saturday afternoons. I remember reading about Susie, whose Mummy thoughtfully made biscuits one day. Susie climbed up on a chair to reach the cooling biscuits and CRASH! Biscuits and Susie were both crushed. Susie was contrite, she apologized and was forgiven. These books always ended with the same sentiment ‘and Susie NEVER disobeyed her Mummy and Daddy again.’
I always disobeyed Mummy and Daddy again. Then I was given consequences. Those consequences hurt.
Even at the tender age of five, I recall listening to those books and feeling a mixture of shame and awe at these children who demonstrated such majestic self-control, while I obviously possessed none. I would make up my mind to do better, and I would fail. Particularly when there were biscuits involved. While these books are clearly from another era, the sentiment still exists. Children should learn appropriate behavior quickly and effectively. Otherwise, there will be consequences!
Consequences are not linear, we cannot control what children learn and what they don’t. There is no direct relationship between spanking or yelling at a child (a commonly held strategy for ‘teaching children’) and subsequent behavior. Children are emotional beings and they throw their own interpretations around. We’re not handing them resilience and respect through spanking or yelling, we’re teaching them how to be violent. Altschul, Lee & Gershoff (2016) found that spanking was associated with increases in child aggression over time, above and beyond initial ‘expected child aggression.’ Parents weren’t trying to control an aggressive child; they had created an aggressive child, and the more they spanked the angrier the child got. When children get pushed out of the way for being slow or tutted at for running in public, we’re not teaching them how to behave in public spaces – we’re potentially teaching them it’s ok to push people who annoy you.
Words, unsurprisingly, can be worse (*heavy sigh*). Grille (2002) found that phrases thought to be relatively harmless (eg, You always do this! You’re so lazy!) have long lasting consequences to a child, often showing up as shame and low self-esteem years later. The words we use to describe children often become the words they use to describe themselves. Shellenbarger (2014) found that yelling was damaging when it was a personal attack, calling attention to a child’s faults rather then the situation. There is always a difference between a child’s behavior and who they are, and understanding this distinction can be the difference between shutting down a conversation by saying ‘Bad Boy!’ and opening one up with ‘Are you sure that was the right decision?’ Shaming children is particularly insidious, because unlike anger or fear, shame doesn’t have a physical emotional outlet (Grille, 2002). We can’t cry shame away, or shout it away, it doesn’t go out – it goes in, into our minds, into our hearts and there it sits. Waiting.
My autistic son has consequences, but I don’t always get a say in them and this breaks my heart. We went on holiday a little while ago, and on the last day we were lining up, waiting to collect our luggage and go home. Everyone was tired and a bit grumpy. My son climbed into a woman’s chair after she left. His back was to the world and he’d curled his head down as far as it would go, blocking out as much of the noise and the light as he could. Self-regulating. But she came back. She asked him to move, it was her chair and she was tired. Ok. I put a hand on his back and whispered to him. ‘No!’ he yelled. ‘Hurry up’ she said. He curled tighter. Then he climbed into my arms, pushed his head into my neck and screamed and screamed and screamed. ‘What a bad boy,’ she said, ‘he needs consequences.’ Later, he whispered to me ‘Am I bad? Everyone was looking at me.’ So yes, he has consequences, he has shame, and it’s my job to take these unintentional consequences and turn them into something approaching resilience. My job to shatter them without shattering him.
I am not a perfect parent, some days not even an ok parent, I fail, and I make mistakes. I have bribed and yelled. I have three loads of laundry to do, a freezer full of oven chips, a habit of recklessly throwing things labeled ‘do not put in dryer’ into the dryer, and an unshakeable belief that baked beans are a nutritious dinner. However I try to be aware of the unintentional consequences I hand my own children and those other children we meet as we go about our lives. I will not describe any of them as naughty, or bad, or selfish. I will not make predictions regarding their future because I do not own a crystal ball and if I did the cats would knock it off the table anyway. I know what shame feels like; I know how it sits heavy in your heart and the lies it tells you about your worth. I will not contribute to that. Fear and shame don’t have to be a part of consequences, only learning does.
Altschul, I., Lee, S. J. and Gershoff, E. T. (2016), Hugs, Not Hits: Warmth and Spanking as Predictors of Child Social Competence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78: 695–714. doi: 10.1111/jomf.1230
She wanted a ride on the merry-go-round. Of course. We line up while she hops from one foot to the other (this is called waiting patiently). When it’s her turn she and her Daddy dash off to find a horse.
I watch, but I’m not really seeing.
Then there’s this moment as the merry-go-round spins, and I’m struck. Tinkly music swells through the air and sunlight strikes the strands of gold in her hair and I love her. There has never been day of her life when I haven’t told her I loved her. But every so often it’s a break-your-heart love, a love that cracks you open, fills you up and makes you realize how deeply and utterly in love you are.
Part of me wishes we could stay here, in this moment. I want to tell her: We could stay here and I could always be your Mummy, I could always watch the smile tiptoe from your lips to your eyes and down into your hands as you throw your arms out wide and shriek ‘wheee!’ in the rushing wind. I wish the farthest the world would take you away from me is the other side of that merry-go-round, and that it would perpetually bring you back. I wish you would always seek me out, eyes roaming through the other people who are waving to their pieces of their hearts riding on painted horses. You see me, you have one hand gripping a cheap golden rod and the other waving frantically. For me. Half your joy in this ride is for yourself, but the other half is sharing that with me.
I remember when I was pregnant and crying one afternoon- a mess of belly on the floor. I knew I would adore you, love you and already loved you with each heartbeat that drummed through me, but I was crying because you would love me back. You would love me. It would be built into your survival, part of your DNA. I am imperfect, and I will hand you some kind of uncertainty in one way or another; and you will love me still. There is no-one in the world that could love me as much as you. My baby. No-one who will seek me out, need me, cry for me and wait for me with every single tick of the clock like you will.
I cried for the beauty of that love, but also for the weight of it. I want to be worthy of your love, but you will give it to me whether I am or not.
Back at the merry-go-round the lady next to me speaks. She’s older, with silver hair and fine lines flowing across her cheeks like cracks in a beautiful vase. She’s watching her grandchildren just as intently as I watch my daughter. ‘Your daughter is an angel,’ she says. ‘Thank you,’ I give my usual smiling shrug, meant to convey unbridled love but tempered with reality.
I keep watching, truly seeing now.
Everything is condensing into this moment. The music, the sun, the gold chipping off the paint and the clear blue eyes that look for me with each revolution.
‘This is what you will remember’, she says, ‘moments like this.’ I nod, I can’t look away from my girl, I’m trying to remember. She’s right. You’re an angel.
I think of all the people who have watched children they love go on this ride, watched them as they carefully or haphazardly chose horses, watched innocent hearts examine the patterns on saddles and waited for the whirring to begin – a slow circle of childhood. There is always someone waving, a heart seeking a heart to make a connection – an endless ‘do you see me? Do you see how fun this is? Do you see me?’ This is what we will remember.
The ride ends, she slips off the horse and runs to me. She smells like sunshine and the grass she was playing in earlier. She is lit up. Glowing. I pick her up and notice how heavy she is now. Her whole body used to fit between my collarbone and my belly button, and now her legs trail down almost to my knees.
She loves me with every piece of her heart. The weight of that is not a burden, it is a gift. This is what I will remember, the love, the moments in the sun: this is what we all remember.
Sometimes my kids look like ‘those’ kids. Those rampaging, loud, possibly naked and undoubtedly dirt encrusted kids. The ones that shout ‘No!’ and flat out refuse to leave the park, even if I pretend to walk away (which I read somewhere is actually ‘withholding love’ so I felt super guilty about trying it out, and then just annoyed because it didn’t even work and if you’re going to do something as heinous as withhold love it should jolly well work right?) I worry that not only does my daughter not always share but occasionally she actually picks up all the toys her teeny arms can carry and runs away, possibly cackling. The concern here is that I might be raising what looks like an entitled child.
The thing is though, children are entitled. They’re entitled to be adored when sticky. They’re entitled to have bad moods and be outrageously grumpy for no obvious reason. They’re entitled to be learning, continuously and constantly learning. They’re entitled to make mistakes. They’re entitled to have fun and be impulsive. Their brains are still developing, and there are concepts they just cannot grasp, and what they truly need is time and understanding (Best & Miller, 2010).
This can be tough.
My daughter does ballet. I say ‘does ballet’ when realistically she romps around in a dinosaur shirt and rainbow tutu and follows *maybe* half the instructions. She also has a complete blast. On Ballet Days she has her chosen dinosaur shirt on hours before class starts. She races into the building and greets her classmates (who are always dressed in pink with brushed and ponytailed hair and I have no idea how that even happens). When the teacher says ‘OK Dancers, time to trit-trot like ponies!’ my daughter says ‘No, I’m a bunny!’ and hippity-hops around. The first time she’s asked to ‘March in line!’ I realise she has never lined up in her entire life. She has no concept of lining up and her subsequent zooming around the room was unsurprising. She practices a version of ballet that is not taught in the ballet class.
This was challenging for me. It was testing to see her so obviously going against the norm; she was putting her preferences into action (preferences we’ve encouraged her to have) in a situation where compliance was expected. No one was outright telling her she was wrong, her teacher would gently ask her to join the other dancers and eventually she would. However, I still struggled. Two sessions into the term, I pulled her aside mid-lesson: ‘You need to listen to the teacher! Do what the teacher does!’ ‘But why?’ she asks, ‘Because you’re here to learn ballet!’ I whisper. Her head drops and she walks back to her friends. She does not trit-trot like a pony. She does not hippity-hop like a bunny. She lowers her head and drags her feet like an unhappy puppy and occasionally throws wounded eyes back at me.
I feel like shit. I have stolen Ballet and replaced it with Sad. She’s just turned three. She’s not really there to learn ballet, she’s there to learn how strong her body is, she’s there to listen to music and pay attention to how it makes her feel. Most of all she’s there to have fun. I did not teach her about impulse control by telling her to follow instructions. All I did was hissy whisper at my kid and teach her that I don’t delight in her obvious, incredible, ridiculous love of Not Quite Ballet.
Children are entitled.
Punishment makes no difference to impulse control (Straus, Sugarman & Giles-Sims, 1997). Yelling at a child or getting physical with them for running in the opposite direction when you call them to the car will not make them less likely to high-tail it away from you next time. I was told to sit outside many times as a child, and not once did I use that time to ‘reflect on what I did wrong,’ instead, I reflected on how misunderstood I was and plotted quiet revenge. Sometimes, I even drew a diagram.
Research found punishment is more likely to result in distress than learning (Straus, Sugarman & Giles-Sims, 1997). What does work is talking, it’s our ‘inner voice’ that teaches us impulse control (Kemick, 2010). Our inner voice needs to be helpful, positive. It needs to tell us we’re good people, we can do this; we can keep going when things are hard and we make great decisions. While they’re little, kids aren’t great at seeing the big picture. But they listen to what their parents say about them, and they believe it.
Trust your child. They will be capable, maybe not yet though. Maybe they just need to practise Not Quite Ballet, maybe they need ten-minute reminders of when it’s time to leave the playground, maybe they can’t share because first they need to know what not sharing feels like. When their brain is ready they will follow instructions and they will share. More than that, they will know they are good people, people who are learning and making mistakes and learning again.
My daughter and I resumed ballet – the other children imitate arm actions and my girl is looking at me and jumping around furiously. I blow her a kiss, ‘Look at you jump!’ She jumps faster, smiling. Ballet is back.
When the time comes for her to learn why we follow instructions, she’ll be there. But right now, she’s learning about herself – her skills, the things that make her happy and crucially – the way people she loves view her. I will try to always be a safe place for her, my acceptance of my badass girl isn’t based on how compliant she is. It’s based on her: her strength, curiosity, bravery and ability to rock a dinosaur t-shirt and tutu with the best of them.