The first time I ever yelled at my son was at our back door on our way out to preschool. I was pregnant, feeling awful, and my steady supply of patience had suddenly evaporated. It was downhill after that. My bubble as a “perfect parent” popped, again and again, particularly once I became a mother of two boys.
That said, I had a strong skill set for parenting. I had been the oldest of eight and an elementary school teacher by profession. In fact, I had been my son’s preschool teacher for 2 years until he fired me: “Mom, would you leave like the other Mom’s do?”
When I left the preschool the following year, I was given the job of coordinating an ongoing parenting workshop in our district. I was an eager participant as well. I explained that I held so much personal power in the home that I wanted to be sure my boys came into their own. The majority of the others complained that their children never listened to them.
“All I do is yell,” confided one mother.
I’ll never forget that admission because her sadness touched me, and I also wondered about it. Why did she yell? Didn’t she bring her boys up to listen to her? It takes persistence, but it can be done; and it’s much more effective and empowering than yelling.
It would be ten years before I realized that I had become that mother. It didn’t happen over night. It crept up on me, like a slow, growing fungus. Frustration played a part, fatigue did too, as did the diminishing return of being a perfect parent.
My oldest was 10 when the fungus picked up its pace. It was time for violin practice, and he not only balked, but refused. When I insisted, with accentuated volume, he had the audacity to leave. He ran out the door and hid behind his rock pile. My husband encouraged me not to follow him.
But when he returned, there were fireworks. I’ll never forget coming face to face with my own powerlessness as we yelled at each other at the top of the stairs; or the desperate absurdity of my next move: “I’m going break all your toys,”I said.
There was a long pause while we absorbed my threat, followed the expansion of our mouths into a smile, and then laughter.
It was time for my role as Commander in Chief to change; and to tell the truth, looking back now, seven years later, as my son rounds out the last semester of high school, I did a pretty good job with the transition. We still like each other; and even though the fireworks have increased over time, they are more frequently followed by understanding and acceptance and even… affection.
Lately, this emerging adult confides that my personal power is intimidating. That even though I listen and consider and even change my mind at times, I have such a commanding manner, that even when I’m giving, I can be taking away.
I resent this. I want everyone to find their own power. I don’t want to diminish mine just to make them comfortable. I’ve worked hard to claim this power in my life; it’s what enabled me to transcend a great deal of pain and to create the beautiful fulfilling life I have now –which includes a positive relationship with my teenager.
It seems a shame to be giving up my voice just when I’m coming into it as a middle-aged woman with dramatic hormonal surges of clarity, but I listen and consider and begin to shape a plan; because that’s how much I love these men–not only my husband and my teenager–but his younger brother, who at 12 is still a sensitive soul who can’t bear these heated arguments.
I know that the last handful of years has taken its toll on my youngest; and that by the time his brother is off to college, he’ll begin his own adolescence. Perhaps this second act will be less intense, simply because it’s no longer a complete unknown. Maybe it will feel as easy as it did when he was born and we had already endured the initiation into parenting so that we spent much of the time coasting. Maybe we’ll be more relax more this time around with a teenager, knowing that we didn’t totally fuck up the first one.
But you never know. Things can be going on swimmingly, and then a tidal wave comes out of nowhere. Like the day before last. When my oldest and I went head to head at breakfast and I banged my fist on the table like I’d seen my father do. My younger son resigned himself to leaving the room, while my husband rebuked us, again and again.
Growing up in what could be a volatile home, my husband was afraid of anger, and rarely expressed it. He was also the middle child, the peace maker, and so his first-born wife was infuriated each time he stood the middle ground instead of rolling up his sleeves to tackle the intensity of parenting a teenager. “I’m raising a man!” I’d rant with all my mid-life fury, challenging him to tell me what he was after.
This is how the intensity built on Sunday so that what started out as a typical disagreement between two parents and their son mutated into ongoing fireworks between husband and wife; only I was the only one launching anything of color. By the time my husband truly engaged, at the tail end of a tiring day, he was fully loaded–with pain. The pain from a lifetime of witnessing volatility, the pain of fear and powerlessness, and the frustration of facing my angst and anger without expressing his own or without being able to communicate how toxic the build up was for him.
The result was–chilling and sobering and a wakeup call–for both of us. His–to more fully explore the pain he never felt or flushed; Mine–to realize the impact that my own volatility might have on my family.
I decide to go on a diet. A volume diet. A power diet. I will not relinquish my hard-earned voice, but I will cultivate it on the inside so that my sons and my husband might have more space to cultivate their own.
I check the calendar and discover that “lent” begins tomorrow. What a coincidence! (I’m not even Catholic.)
So there it is, 40 days without raising my voice.
Kelly Salasin, February 12, 2013