Friday, October 9, 2015

There's a Monster in My House, and It Doesn't Live Under the Bed

Currently, my son is 8 months old, and my daughter is almost 3 years old ("on November 13th" she'll tell you). Before having kids, I expected that taking care of a baby would be difficult, but in my experience, having a toddler in my house is much much harder. 

If you have, have had, or have ever taken care of a toddler, then maybe you know how I feel. You're probably familiar with this scenario. I know that what we're experiencing is not out of the ordinary, that it is in fact, to be expected.

L is my daughter, M is me.
M: Sweetheart, how about you try sitting on the potty before we head out?
L: No!
M: I'd really like you to just give it a try, really quick.
L: Um, I'm sorry, I don't want to.
M: Why not?
L: Um, because I don't want to!
M: Okay, well, you need to try before we head out, so I'll ask you again in three minutes.
(some times goes by)
M: Alright sweetheart, I'd like for you to try sitting on the potty now.
L: Okay 
(starts walking to the bathroom, gets to the door, turns around, suddenly furious)
L: But I told you I don't want to go!
M: I need you to try, otherwise we can't go to the playground.
L: I don't want to go to the playground.
M: You don't?
L: I want to go to the playground!
M: Hon, if we're going to the playground, I need you to try sitting on the potty before we go.
L: No!
M: Okay, then I'm sorry, but we have to stay in.
L: (more furiousness, some crying, some screaming, some stomping, some throwing of objects, some hitting the air, some attempted swings at her brother, before going back into the playroom and reading a book) 
M: (starting to get ruffled, I don't even care about going to the playground, this was her idea to begin with, so whatever, let's just stay home, meanwhile Baby J is whining, he's been strapped to me this whole time, maybe getting a little warm)
L: (playing, standing near the bookshelf, pees, everywhere, all over her clothes, all over the rug on the floor, and stomps in it, flinging wet clothes on our new sofa, it's on the toys, it's on some books)

And this is when the monster comes out. It's quick, a flash, a hot feeling that creeps up behind my eyes, a gurgling in my throat, a hard and sharp pit in my stomach. I feel the monster spread to my hands, they shake, it's in my neck and head, they shake. And in this moment I understand how it is that some parents physically hurt their children. I understand how bruises develop on little bodies and how tiny bones are broken. I am so angry. As angry as I have ever been at anybody. 

Wow, that escalated quickly, Lynnette, you might think. Or, come on, Lynnette, aren't you exaggerating? But here's a bit of dark truth. If anything, I'm underplaying it. I've chosen a scenario that I think might draw some sympathy from you. In reality, there are many scenarios that are far more innocuous, more universally understandable, and that same monster shows up, just as quickly, just as angry, just as dangerous.

It's a monster I keep hidden well from the world. Even my closest friends, people who know me very well, over many years, have not met my monster. Maybe my husband has seen it; maybe a few times in our lives. Maybe. I reserve this terrible creature for my tiny, innocent daughter, who I love more than life itself. She's heard it in my voice; seen it in my eyes. 

Here's what I actually believe about my toddler. I believe she's developmentally in a stage where her job is to test her boundaries. I believe that her saying "no," and "I don't want to," are signs of strong and normal development. It means she is a bright kid, who is asserting her independence.
I don't believe a child this age is capable of being a jerk - she may be acting like one, yes, but she doesn't have malicious intent. I believe she's at a stage where she wants to try things on her own, but also needs badly to feel safe and protected. I don't believe she's a bad kid. I don't think she can be bad. I believe these moments of "rebellion" and "defiance" are her way of asking me, "am I safe here?" "will you have my back no matter what?" and "do you love me?" She needs me to endure the meltdowns, to make my expectations clear, but to find at the end that I am still here, not withholding love from her, and not punishing her for having completely age-appropriate feelings and impulses. Despite all these beliefs, and how much I want to say, "Yes! Yes, my darling, you are my treasure, and I love you, no matter what," I encounter this monster, over and over again.

I've seen this monster before. It's the same one that I glimpsed behind my dad's eyes when we were kids. It's the same monster that spanked me for reasons I can't remember. It whipped out my dad's belt and slammed it against the kitchen table. It banged a chair against the floor, a head against a wall. It lived in the raised red hand print shaped mark on my thigh; it lingered while I watched and waited for the mark to flatten and fade. It's the same monster that I heard in my grandpa's voice, yelling at my grandma, it seemed nightly, shaking the walls and floor beneath my sister's and my bedrooms, waking us up after we'd already gone to bed. And while this monster has not driven me to repeat history, I certainly recognize its growl, and the feeling of uncontrollable anger.

This is an incredibly "un-saving face" kind of blog post to write. Not the kind of thing a good Chinese daughter writes about her family, shining a light on unsavory family details, calling out a grandpa on his abuse, years after he's already left the earth. Why bring that up? Just take responsibility for your own monster, Lynnette, stop trying to blame it on your father, and your father's father.  
I think it's a common thing, to follow in your family's footsteps. It's why we have idioms about apples falling from trees. And so often we do the thing our family has done, in the name of respect, and honor. We default, as parents, to parenting the way our parents did. Sometimes we consciously choose to do what they did, saying, We turned out fine, didn't we?

I think this monster has been speaking to my family for many generations, and that the parents who have come before me have also heard what I'm hearing, a warning, "watch out, you've got to control this kid, make her listen to you, or else." Or else... or else you'll end up with a spoiled kid, or else she'll take advantage of you and others, or else she won't know wrong from right. We listen to this monster and do what it tells us, in an effort to protect, to teach. That's our job as parents isn't it? 

But I'm interested in saving a new face. The beautiful faces of my toddler daughter and my baby son. Lots of things get passed on through the generations of a family: the appearance of our hair and eyes, the tendency toward having bad vision, a talent for music, diabetes, alcoholism, and I also believe, monsters. I don't have much control over whether my kids end up receiving a lot of those things, but if there's anything I can do to stop this monster, I'd like to try. I'd like to save my children's faces from having to feel this monster creep up behind their eyes and ears. I'd like to save their faces from wearing any of this monster's scars.

So I think I'd like to swallow this monster. Better yet, I'd like to demolish it, drown it, burn it, make it small and powerless. I want to do to it, all the things it makes me want to do to my daughter when it appears. I'd like to wipe it off the face of this earth, end its relationship with me and my family, forget it completely. 

But I can't give my children a monster-less world. This world is full of monsters, and these feelings are real. Perhaps there's even a way to honor the old things passed onto me by my family, both the seemingly good, and the seemingly bad.

So I'd like to say thank you, dear monster, for your urgency, your passion, and your rage. I hope that I and my children will spring to action when we're needed, will find things worthy of our passion, and will know which things deserve our rage. I see you, dear monster, and I thank you for your warning, but you may go now, because I am not afraid of you or what you have to say.

I've been reading No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. It's helping me keep the monster at bay.