I’m standing in the wooden doorway of my youngest son’s bedroom. It’s a small bedroom – him being the third child – only just big enough to fit a smaller-than-standard high bunk bed and a thin, tall but still too small chest of drawers. Piles of his stuff and toys sit on the homemade, wonky shelves underneath the bed – I keep tidying them but I can never get rid of the sense that the room is in a perpetual state of unloved disarray. It is one of the resentments that Zach has about being the youngest child. But that’s another story.
Today we are arguing about bedtime. Again.
He is standing halfway up his small ladder, his boyish face full of undisguised anger toward me. In that moment the feeling is mutual. I have a battle going on in my head between two voices, two instincts, two different views of the world. And I can feel my body too: tense, scared, pumping adrenalin, getting ready to fight.
I hate this place. I hate it with a passion, and with a fear that I cannot seem to get away from, get over or control. I visit this place often in my parenting life and it is the root cause of all my feelings of shame and unworthiness.
This is because being in this emotional place scares me into not loving my child.
In this emotional place I choose to protect myself rather than my child. My love for him cannot speak in this space, it’s like I cut it off, just to save myself. What makes me do that? I’m a mother for goodness sake – aren’t we meant to protect our children to the death?
What makes me do that? What am I so scared of? These questions have been on my mind for a while now. For years and years, in various forms. Through the ups and downs, and through depression. Long enough for me to now be really curious about the answer rather than mulling over it as a way of beating myself up. Long enough for me to have extended enough love and compassion to myself despite acting like this, despite feeling I don’t deserve it. Long enough to begin to forgive myself for this treacherous, unmotherly vice.
So we fight. But this time I notice what I’m thinking and feeling. I desperately want to get to the bottom of these questions, which means I have to be mindful. I have to notice.
Here’s what I notice: I hate feeling so out of control, because it makes me act in mean and horrible ways. I’m also feeling ashamed because I can’t control an 8 year old, and that triggers the shame of being a failure and a bad mum. I’m ashamed that I react so emotionally to such a normal parenting problem. So I’m angry at myself, but I’m also angry with him because he is spoiling everything. It’s all his fault because he doesn’t need to be this unreasonable, this mean, this angry – it’s entirely unnecessary. Why can’t we all love each other and be nice to each other? Then I notice that I’m wracking my brains trying to work out what to do (not easy when you are so emotionally triggered). And this not knowing what to do is the ‘caught in the headlights’ moment. Do I fight or flee? My brain senses that I probably don’t need to do either – being calm and kind would probably solve the situation best of all, but that is impossible given the adrenalin already pumping through my veins. It ain’t gonna happen – unless I walk away and calm down. I think about this for a second, then my ego steps in and shouts in my ear: But HOW DARE HE? So I’m back in with my boxing gloves on. How dare he ignore what I say, and speak to me like that? In my own house, when I sacrifice EVERYTHING for him! How bloody dare he!?
So all this is going on in my head as I stand in his doorway unable to love him like a mother.
I don’t remember what happened in this instance, and I hope that I walked away. But I probably didn’t because is has ended very badly many times. I’ve screamed at him until my throat is hoarse. Or in an ice cold rage I’ve stood holding his door shut while he’s been crying inside. I’ve even turned his light off and held the door while he is screaming in fright. My little baby, begging me not to be mean to him. Why and how could a mother do that? Because she needs to protect herself. Now can you see why I hate being out of control? It’s all about the emotions ‘making’ me do things I wouldn’t normally do. Being who I am not. Except I must be, because this is me acting like this.
So why and how can a mother act like that? I’m only trying to protect myself, like an animal caught in the headlights. Believe me, I know how weak that sounds. But here’s the worst thing. Here’s the completely fucked up thing that is going on.
I’m trying to protect myself because I’m scared. But the very thing I’m scared of is the thing I do when I’m scared. So being scared makes what I’m scared of happen.
So my fear is really a fear of the fear. Which makes the fear come true. That’s so messed up.
How on earth have I got myself in this situation? Another question for me to answer.
After mindfully noticing what was going on on the threshold of Zach’s room, I began contemplating why I was so scared in the first place.
Firstly I concluded that there must be some trauma from my childhood embedded in my psyche for me to be so scared of negative emotions. True my parents weren’t a whole lot emotional, but I can never remember being aware consciously that emotions were bad. Maybe somewhere inside me I was damaged and I needed to find out exactly what had happened so that I could heal myself and move on with life without getting so triggered by my uncomfortable emotions.
Next I read a book by Miriam Greenspan called Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair, and I understood that these emotions come along because we are human, and not necessarily because anything specific happened when we were children. It might have done, actually the probabilities are high, but either way we’re going to feel fear, grief and despair in our lives whoever we are. It’s actually the fear and attempted avoidance of the fear, grief and despair that makes things seem so much worse. She even argues that it’s only by accepting and working through fear, grief and despair that we can really experience and enjoy gratitude, faith and joy. Brene Brown also argues that we cannot selectively numb; when we numb pain we also numb joy.
Then I thought about how my ego might be involved with all of this? My ego: that protective, monkey-like, child-like, scared, cheeky and rightious, easily humiliated, legacy part of my evolved human brain. How big a part was it playing in all this fear and fear of fear? Well probably quite a lot, mainly because I’ve allowed it to. I sometimes think my ego is really me, and it’s voice is really my voice. So I listen when it says ‘How dare he?‘ and I agree, ‘yes, how dare he!‘ and I let my emotions whip up again. And I listen when it says ‘if you let him speak to you like that, you are the biggest failure as a parent that the world has ever known! Loser!‘ And I say, ‘yes, you’re right. We can’t let that happen. Better make him know his place. Better make him sorry.’ (Note: this never works…it only makes children and adults want REVENGE.) And I listen when it says, ‘if you walk away now, he’ll have won. And then you’ll never be able to control him because you are conditioning him to act like this. Ramp it up baby! Ramp it up!‘ And, sadly, we all know how that ends.
So I realised that this wasn’t me being an awful, terrible mother. This was me being human. And probably (I dared to hypothesise) it was all actually pretty normal, and not particularly unique to me. Please let it be so.
Here’s my current theory about what’s going on. Long ago I established some reliable coping mechanisms to deal with negative emotions. I took on the role as peacemaker, an emotional-smoother-overer, trying to make sure everyone was OK. And I suppose it worked a lot of the time. I could create harmony out of impending chaos or collaboration out of potential arguments. It felt good, so I did it more. However it doesn’t work all of the time – and nor should it – emotions are there for a reason. So my increasing failure to keep or create harmony when bringing up my family meant that each time a potential emotional situation reared its ugly head my fear ratcheted up a bit more, because the stakes were raised. The threat was higher, because defeat was more probable. So then the fear went up some more and so on until I find myself screaming at my 8 year old – my gorgeous sensitive loving 8 year old – for getting out of bed. All because my coping mechanisms from years ago don’t work any more and I’m getting carried away by fear induced hormones that trigger my inbuilt flight or fight mode. All the while aided and abetted by a very loud and unchecked ego.
Mmmm. What now?
My challenge is to work with my fear. My fear of my fear of being a horrible mother.
First step – more noticing what is going on when fear visits.
Second step – more saying no to my ego and the stories it tells me.
Third step – more walking away when I feel triggered by fear and/or my ego.
Forth step – I don’t know. That’s another blog post I imagine!
Let’s see what happens.
Wish me luck!
Written: At home, on the table in my bedroom overlooking the garden.