Photo: Betty Miller
In my twenties, there were days – maybe weeks -- that went by where I never spoke much or even raised my voice. I had the comforting presence of a twelve-year-old girl walking quietly to church to sing in the choir.
Now I am this:
DON'T TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF!
DON'T HOLD THE CAT BY THE HEAD!
LET'S NOT THROW DIRT!
DON'T CLIMB ON THE CAR!
DON'T SQUEEZE HIS NECK!
DON'T EAT GLASS!
WE DON'T PEE ON OTHER PEOPLE, IT'S YUCKY!
The stuff I yell at my kids is insane. The stuff I THINK about yelling at my kids is even worse. Yesterday, three-year old Emma is crying when we leave the dollar store without buying anything, and she suddenly can’t walk, she’s so tired her legs hurt, and I pick her up and we have to go into the traffic to get to the driver’s side of the car and she’s crying that she wanted to buy chips when a minute ago she was crying because she wanted stickers because she hadn’t seen the chips until we passed them on the way out (Pringles, they are really fun to eat, in that can) but the traffic is whizzing by and I’m thinking HOW’D YOU LIKE IT IF I THREW YOU INTO TRAFFIC??! THAT WOULD STOP THE CRYING! Then I picture her gone and no more crying, but then I’d miss her, and then I’m remembering crying stops after a while and I’m strapping her, still crying, into her car seat and thinking, horrified, my mom wanted to throw me into traffic, too, because if I’ve thought it, everyone’s thought it, the horror, and how we live through our childhood amazes me again.
I was never a yeller or an angry person until I had kids. Now, man, I can YELL. I can say all sorts of annoying things (“Don’t hit people with a stick. We don’t pee in the living room.”) and I think even worse things (“I don’t CARE where your sock is. How ‘bout YOU find the sock. HOW ‘BOUT THAT?! I don’t care if you hate spaghetti, you’ve killed my spirit,” etc.) The police action of being a parent is the biggest drag. You have to police everything, or they’d be constantly scraping the paint off the wall with screwdrivers. And my kids are relatively calm. My husband is better at handling all of that than me, because he relayed an important and true fact to me early on – everything bad that they do, it goes in phases. The biting might be really bad and scary right now, but next week, it’s magically gone. It’s quick.
“YOU MAY NOT HURT ANOTHER PERSON!!"
"WHY DID YOU PUNCH HER??"
"WHERE DID YOU PUT THE PENNY?"
"SHE WANTS HER PENNY BACK!"
"WHY DID YOU DO THAT??"
"WHAT IS THE MATTER?!"
"WHAT'S GOING ON??”
I’m constantly yelling like a blind person being ignored at a loud party. I can never be ahead of the danger, I’m always slightly downstream from it, hearing the yelling escalating, trying to throw or wave my hat to get someone’s attention. Here’s what I realized – no one is listening to me. I'm yelling because no one cares at all what I’m saying. I’m the necessary white noise in the background. I’m the TV turned up really loud with just static playing. The kids are still having their fight in the car.
“The tortoise loves me more than he loves you…”
“NO HE DOESN’T!”
Me yelling, “THE TORTOISE LOVES YOU BOTH THE SAME!!" We’re in traffic on the Five freeway, there’s no exit out of this life that can come soon enough, I realize I’m going to be having these enjoyable yelling intervals not just for today until dinner time but FOREVER.
I am powerless. I can’t stop my mom from reading me the ingredients off a soup label first thing in the morning when I stagger out to make the kids cereal and she’s been up all night as a night nurse, and she’s telling me why each individual ingredient is important. I can’t help my brother who thinks Jim Morrison is alive and living in Oregon. I can’t stop the hole in the ozone layer. I can’t even get my kids to stop fighting for two minutes. Even with the yelling. Then I remember I never listened to my mother either as a kid. I never thought about my mom always yelling from the other room. Her anger was humorous, and not very interesting. My brothers and I would be having our battles over toys or food or the spot on the couch, or what to watch on TV, not thinking that the noise my mom was making in the kitchen had anything to do with us. Then suddenly she’d be looming over us, face severe, yelling something but none of us could really hear any of the words, because we were so struck by the comic look of her anger. Jeez, what’s SHE so mad about??
I see that look on my kids’ faces when I come in the bathroom and rip the squirting toy out of five-year old Nathan’s hand that he’s been using to spray soapy water directly into Emma’s eyes for the last fifteen minutes despite my rational voice saying don’t do that, if you do that again…don’t hurt another person… Then she’s still screaming DON’T DO THAT NATHAN!! And I come in and RIIIIIP, I throw the toy, the kids looked thrilled with this drama, I’m so mad and tired of the yelling and they stifle smiles and they watch me out of wonder for a second, and an ounce of pity, and then they’re happily playing again, for two more minutes, until the next disaster.
There’s futility there. I’m not really angry, I’m doing my job as the cop. I hate myself, too. The futility is that there IS no hope for this and every police action, except that you have to protect the injured party and establish and reestablish rules, constantly, every five minutes. They aren’t going to remember the yelling -- they don’t remember it a moment later. The yelling is reliable, like leaves falling in October. You count on it, but it doesn’t MEAN anything. The yelling is meaningless. Its presence just reaffirms for the kids that they aren’t living in a void. The mother duck will always come in and re-herd the ducklings. It’s just a louder kind of herding.
Also, when I yell, it makes Nathan yell, because he doesn’t like getting yelled at either. Then we’re both yelling, and making mean faces, and you can’t laugh because then they’d KNOW I don’t REALLY care if he runs after bunnies in the petting zoo or throws his sweater around glass ornaments in a tiny shop, or spits soda at the wall outside. Get off my car. GET OFF THE CAR! DID YOU HEAR ME?? Then there’d be NO rules, and there have to be rules or we’d be having candy for breakfast while painting directly on the furniture and dialing so many random numbers on the phone we’d finally connect overseas. The fireplace would be filled with gasoline and matches, scissors would be lying around everywhere next to permanent markers, and they’d be cutting up money and licking quarters. The fish would be drowning in handfuls of fish food, dirt and rocks would coat the bottom of the swimming pool, the bathtub would be ice cold, dirt would be the new shampoo and the Shrek soundtrack would be blaring. Wait a minute, things wouldn’t be all that different.
The kids don’t realize that I’m the only one working this party. They run the racetrack I’ve put down for them, and it’s a good run, that’s why there’s so much free time for all this glorious boundary pushing and the emotional joy ride I get of having to directly face my light side and my dark side, alternately, every minute of the day.
I’ll be glad to move on from this stage. I’d like to return Old Yeller to his former glory, a love story about a country boy growing up with his gentle yellow dog who suddenly goes rabid, and then there’s crying and a gun and tragedy looming in the background. But I loved that movie. It’s the love story that sticks with you.
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