(Before we get started, note that I use “yelling” as a catchall for the many ways in which our voice expresses anger, exasperation or plain old done-with-it-ness. I was reminded of that by my 9 year-old daughter this morning who accused me of “yelling at her” during church when I asked her to take her feet off her brother. I told her that had I been yelling during Consecration, everyone would be looking at me right now. It wasn’t yelling but it wasn’t exactly sunshine and ponies either.)
Yelling challenges are not what your children think they are. Paul — my husband — and the children often have a yelling challenge whereby everyone is encouraged to yell as much as they can for one minute. Those are the things you can do when Dad is in charge. Moms are challenged to steer their children in the right direction without getting angry.
I have done my share of yelling and paid my dues to the stop-yelling-challenges clubs of everywhere. With the help of carbon dating, I can pin my first hopeful foray into calmer parenting to my pregnancy with David in 2005-06. My fourth child was 4 years-old and this fifth baby felt like a new beginning, a chance to be the non-spanking, non-threatening, attachment-minded parent I admired. I’ve been trying ever since.
Here’s what happens when I stop yelling or threatening: stuff stops happening. The truth is that no one moves until I yell or threaten. You know what I’m talking about right? I call it the “Oh Shit” threshold.
What is that about anyway? Some say that children spend so much energy keeping it together for those who sorta like them — friends, peers, teachers — that they have none left for those who love them unconditionally. And while I find comfort in these platitudes, I still wonder why my children are so much nicer to their father than they are to me. I find no truth in the suggestion that my children’s attachment to my husband is faulty, that they perceive his love as conditional, that he exists in the periphery of their emotional lives, among the friends, peers, teachers and daycare workers. My husband is equally submerged in the murky waters of parenting. I can’t reassure myself with the myth of perfect attachment causing children to act like jerks.
So here I am, just a girl, standing in front of her blog, asking it why she has to choose between doing everything herself or turn into a screaming banshee. Both options have led me straight into the pits of burn-out and depression and I’m wondering if I can crack this nut or if I’m condemned to parent from a place of perpetual angst.
As adults we often forget how often children have to do things they’d rather not do. We take their dependance for granted and even resent it at time. We earn a living for them, hunt, gather, provide the shelter and safety that they are incapable of providing for themselves. In return, we expect them to eat the food we provide and stay in the shelter of our choice while we parent ourselves out of a job. Immaturity leaves children with little true agency. We may try to give them the illusion of agency while we lift them out of Ettenmoors but nobody is dupe. The process of maturing is where our way meets the highway: it’s the lifelong tug-of-war between our desire to go as far as we can on our own steam and our realization that we need others. In many ways, parenting is teaching our children to make room for others.
We were all born in a struggle between the individual wanting to grow fast and wild and the need to keep other people in our lives. Human babies are born with nothing but the need to form relationships. This is the only way they can survive. The back-and-forth between needing others and needing to be our own person creates that “oh shit” threshold. How far can we refuse to do something without compromising our survival (or if you are a grown-up, the survival of your marriage, the keeping of your job, the avoiding of the prison…). The relative height of this threshold and how often it will trip us as we learn to manage it vary with our individual temperaments and personalities.
Parenting is the work of sculpting a functional individual out of the primary matter we are given. The influence of the artist and the proprieties of the matter are present in every work of art. That’s why some people grow into functional members of society and others act like 3 year-olds well into adulthood. Lack of self-control, sulking, selfishness, impulsivity, helplessness: we were all 3 year-olds once. Adults who can’t flush their toilets, wipe their microwaves or return a favour without sulking exasperate those who have done the work of growing up, of letting the individual be formed and molded. The irritation is not born of being completely foreign to these lower instincts but from from having reluctantly grown out of them.
When I stopped yelling and blowing my lid, I expected that there would be a time of painful transition where nothing would happen. I reasoned that if my husband, who is the calmer, more respected, parent faced a lower “Oh Shit” threshold, lowering the pitch of my parenting would naturally lower the threshold. The children would not suddenly snap into respect mode but if I remained equanimous through the chaos, the balance of the universe would eventually be restored. It’s easy to slide back into old patterns when new patterns don’t bring about the needed change. I had the support and understanding of my husband and I knew that this change would be positive regardless of how long it took to see results.
So when did it all turn around? Well, I’m still waiting. Kind of.
I never saw results in the compliance department. My children are very impulsive — apple, meet tree. When I ask for something, most of them say no and walk away or simply ignore my request, leaving me with a choice between calmly doing it myself or losing my ever-loving mind. It’s difficult. I’m burned out from the amount of work I have to do without help. Every day I have to choose between burning out from doing everything for everyone or burning out from yelling at everyone. There is no smooth sailing. It’s my life and it’s a complicated dynamic of temperaments, personalities, habits and education. My biggest concern is not that don’t have a gaggle of compliant Stepford Kids but that the image of motherhood I project is one of constant exasperation. I wish they saw me doing something well instead of seeing me struggle with the simplest tasks, like bath time and meal time.
Yelling, like spanking, is not a decision, it’s a reaction. To eliminate the yelling, we have to eliminate the irritation. Our sensitivity to our children’s lack of cooperation is not a factor of how egregious the provocation is but of how burned out we are. The same light touch on the arm causes no pain on healthy skin and excruciating pain on burned skin. And it’s hard to heal a burn when something is constantly poking at it.
The yelling challenge is not to lower our voice but to lower our pain. It’s the impossible task of healing while walking through fire, of containing the uncontainable, of giving more than we were given, of paying one without robbing the other. It’s the challenge of loving unconditionally while acting like we don’t care.