Before I begin, let me just say that my inspiration for this post came from the talented, generous, brilliant, loving, supportive, brave, kind, and overall beautiful human being, mother, friend, daughter, wife, activist, and artist I get to call my friend: Mandy. She talks about all the hard things — not in spite of them being scary, difficult things, but BECAUSE they are scary, difficult things. Thanks for being a light, friend.
My son turned three almost two months ago, and while he definitely has some “threenager” moments, I would far and away take this age over any of his baby years.
The seemingly endless frustrations over his sleep (I mean, how many sleep regressions are really necessary, Universe?), my own debilitating lack of sleep, years of breastfeeding, being a first-time parent, figuring out how to keep him not just alive but thriving, worrying over his development (Why isn’t he walking yet? Will he ever say more than ba-ba-ba? Is it really okay if he only eats bananas and puffs?), and trying not to disappear into a black hole of sadness, anxiety, and fear were almost more than I could handle.
I’m beyond ashamed to admit that on more than one occasion, I lost control and screamed — and I mean shrieked in the most guttural sense of the word — at my precious, beautiful, innocent, fragile baby. If any of you had an intensely felt labor, you know what sound I’m talking about. Except I was directing it at my child — my flesh, my blood, my pure little bundle of love. I was a walking zombie, all of my nerves were shot, and any time he kicked me, refused a diaper change, or screamed through nap time, it knocked down my reserves, one flimsy beam at a time. Eventually, I would reach my tipping point.
As you might suspect, I always immediately felt a heavy blanket of guilt lay itself down upon me. I would cry, and I would hold him tighter than I ever had before. I would shake, and I would tell him I was sorry over and over again. I would kiss him and tell him it would never happen again.
Through it all, I would wonder: What kind of message is this sending my son? What would it feel like to be a tiny 18-month-old child and have this giant human who is your mama — who is supposed to be one of the people who shows you the most love, patience, and understanding — screaming at you? How could that not be the scariest thing in the world to him?
I’m crying as I write this, because I have never shared this with anyone. I feel the guilt of this every day of my life. Every time I look at his sweet, perfect little face, I wonder how I could have been so horrible to him. Why wasn’t I stronger? How could I have let my frustrations get the best of me?
But, it got better. I got better.
Once I started getting some sleep, and he became more independent, and not everything was a trigger for my frayed nerves — I could control myself enough to walk away. I would be in the middle of trying to get him dressed or trying to feed him something new, and he would resist, or run away, and I would just walk away and ask my husband to handle him. I knew that if I kept trying, my frustrations would get the better of me and I would lose control.
I’m not trying to say that I don’t still get frustrated, or angry, or raise my voice to him. Sometimes it’s necessary (like when he’s trying to strangle the cat). But I have greater awareness of my boundaries now. When I start feeling that feeling, I just tell him I have to go away for a minute. Sometimes I stalk down the hallway like a petulant child, but it’s better than screaming. And when I am calm enough to stay detached from my anger, I go back to him and talk with kindness and patience. Even if he isn’t ready to hear me or doesn’t like what I’m saying, this interaction is far healthier than flooding him with my negative emotions.
The same goes for him.
When he gets upset and starts screaming or yelling at me, I tell him that we don’t talk that way to each other. I tell him that it’s hurtful, and that we can’t talk about what’s wrong if we aren’t being respectful of each other. I don’t tell him it’s not okay to be upset, because it most certainly is. I don’t want him to grow up thinking he can’t have feelings about things, or that he has to hide his feelings. I want him to embrace them, sit in them, and really try to understand how he feels and why. I want him to question his default emotions, behaviors, and responses, and think critically about how he impacts those around him. I want him to be okay with being upset or uncomfortable, because that’s how we learn, and listen, and grow.