Last week, I almost slapped my daughter.
The brutal urge chilled my guts. The image came through crystal clear. It seemed nearly real.
Shaking, I stepped away from my girl. I retreated to my room and paced. My heart raced, but my head was surprisingly clear. I watched myself buzz back and forth, feeling the dust on the carpet as I pounded with my bare feet. I heard the air scrape in and out of my chest like a blacksmith’s bellows.
At the same time, I replayed the awful mental scene in my mind. I felt lightning flash from my belly to the tip of my hand. I heard a brittle crack that brought a sting to my palm. It felt horribly good, as though the hot, tense energy from weeks of escalating frustration was suddenly released.
In my mind’s eye, I saw my girl’s head snap to the side and back. I saw her mouth open, fingers splayed in shock. I watched her little face crumple as she lifted her gaze to mine and raised her hand to touch a red patch blooming at the corner of her mouth. I saw her shrink away from me as a scream began to peal from her throat, so high-pitched it barely made a sound. Then, the noise suddenly swelled, and the piercing wail made my brain tremble.
I couldn’t watch anymore. I came back to myself in my room and looked at my hands. They had almost done The Really Bad Thing, something of which I thought I was incapable.
On seeing the truth that yes, I was indeed capable of striking a child, my first thought was, “I am a monster.”
But luckily, I know better. I can thank a really filthy bout of prenatal and postpartum depression, and the counseling that got me through it, for teaching me how to see through this shattering mental spiral.
Peace and security, knowing that my children are safe in my care and that I can cope with this frustration, comes from peeling back all the layers of the truth. The process is ugly, but it is only by facing the ugliness in my heart and mind that I can deal with it and stop it from lashing out through my hands.
These are the layers that I found:
Truth: I am capable of violence. I am essentially no different than other people – my father who spanked, my mother’s father who went further. We all encounter pain, helplessness, and rage, and we all have a limit beyond which we can lose control.
Truth: I can hurt the people I love. Loving does not shelter us from that possibility; it only makes the consequences more devastating.
Truth: I am responsible for how I handle my fear and rage. No one else can see it, tolerate it, and process it for me.
Truth: Rage can be resolved, but it requires determination. It is uncomfortable and it takes time, energy, and humility.
Truth: It is hard to admit that I need help, but doing so is the only way to save my relationships, my soul, and my life.
As I remembered this, the blood in my face started to cool. My eyes welled up, and I admitted to myself that it had been a hell of a couple of months.
The stress between my daughter and I had reached titanic proportions. She and her baby sister kept taking turns getting sick, each receiving a handful of sleepless nights, while I volleyed, bleary-eyed, between them. This began at the end of January, and is just waning now, in the middle of April.
The big girl and I have been a mess. We both struggle through our mornings, slip-sliding on the slop of our brains. We constantly fall off track and our tempers spew out of nowhere, scalding each other like treacherous geysers. Every breathless, clenched-teeth late arrival to preschool makes both of our hearts sink in shame.
Week after week, the misery has been rising. My big girl’s behaviour has become increasingly defiant and demanding, and she melts down like Fukushima over the tiniest denials and disappointments.
I have been gripping the shreds of my patience desperately, but they keep slipping. I snap and yell. I keep getting filled with a scorching desire to put my fist through the wall. I keep shoving it back down into the darkness, but it keeps bobbing back up.
The image is so satisfying – a bang of exploding paper and plaster, a white mushroom cloud of dust, a delicious burn in my scraped knuckles and stony-clenched fist – I think I might have been secretly harbouring it, while letting myself think I was letting it go.
Everything came to a head last Thursday morning, when I had finally coaxed, cajoled, threatened and reprimanded the four-year-old into the bathroom. I asked her to open her mouth to let me brush her teeth, and she flopped down onto the floor with the fiercest, “Nooooo-ooo!” that her thin little chest could produce.
My fantasy-self wound up and let loose on her, as though ridding me of all of her infuriating reflexes, throwing all the stress she had caused me back into her face. My punishing-self thought that pain would finally teach her, where firmness and explanation had failed. I thought it would end our war.
My rational self knows that it wouldn’t work, but like many burnt-out parents before me, I felt the destructive compulsion.
Why do these poisonous impulses surface when we experience anger?
I think it’s because violence sells. It gets our attention. Anger has a message for us; something is threatening us and we need to act. If we ignore our anger, it swells into rage. Rage speaks through visceral images and urges. Like a dream, it can access all of our senses and transport us into a vivid scene. It is like a waking nightmare with a warning. Also like a dream, we need to dig deeper into our dark visions to decode their message.
The fury that slashed my brain wasn’t really shouting, “that kid needs her bill slapped ‘round backwards like Daffy Duck.”
It was whispering, “Laurie, you’ve got to do something about your girl’s stress and behaviour. It is pushing you toward violence. You need to change it. Find a way.”
It was a hard truth to take, because I felt overwhelmed and at a loss for a plan. But seeing where our path was leading, all I could say back was, “Hell, no. We are not going there.”
It made my overwhelm and doubt suddenly unimportant. That horrifying view of my darkest potential gave me strength. It opened my eyes and made me determined to choose a better outcome.
The next day, I did some things I had been thinking about for a long time, but kept putting off.
I emailed my daughter’s teachers and admitted we were struggling at home. I asked for their input; were they seeing the same anger and anxiety from her at school?
I had been avoiding asking them. If they said no, I was afraid they would think I was either a neurotic, overreacting parent who saw problems that weren’t there, or worse, a hot-headed, incompetent one who was causing her own problems with her child.
I was afraid they could be right on either count.
If they said yes, it might mean there was more going on with my daughter than typical childhood boundary-pushing, something that needed more attention. Where would I possibly find more attention?
Next, I sat with my husband and told him about my chilling moment, and the email to the school. It made him freeze up, like I knew it would, because he is even more fearful than me of how people see us, and of receiving bad news about our children.
To his credit, even though he was distressed, he didn’t walk away. I eventually managed to reassure him that reaching out for help would gain us information, and possibly resources, that could help our family.
We are moving forward.
What I learned from that Dickensian vision of my darkest potential is that I need to get over my self-consciousness and find concrete answers for my girl. If that means revealing my imperfection to her teachers, so be it.
Perhaps, though, with them seeing me come panting into the class with her, late, day after sweaty, grimacing day, I think that particular cat may have already left the bag.
Of course, this blog is out there, too, proving to the interwebs that I am a messed-up mom. I don’t mind, though. I know I am going to do something productive with this mess.
And I trust you all to take my stories and see the truth, that there is strength and hope for you, too, in your darkest, most honest moments.
Don’t be afraid of the dark; see it, hear it, and take care of it.