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Okay, this one's definitely a mommy blog. It's a Mommy Fail blog.
I was considering closing out this blog altogether and focusing on the new "Sacrilicious Sunday Services" blog, but then I had a bad Wednesday. I'm still dealing with it, so I thought it was important enough to share with friends. I think I might make Sunday Services a vlog, anyway, since it seems like, logistically, it's going to be easier to make sure it happens on a Sunday that way. And some people prefer vids to blogs anyway. Look for links on alternating weeks.
I'll jump to the punchline - last Wednesday somebody recorded me yelling at my boys on the street. In the throws of a very bad mommy moment, I looked up to see someone across the street with his camera-phone pointed at me. It was the very last thing I need to see right then. I don't remember what I yelled at him, but it was not pleasant and probably had a good bit of profanity in it. I couldn't hear what he said back to me, and I didn't try to hear it. He never crossed to talk to me directly and eventually went away.
I don't know if this has ever happened before, if someone has recorded me breaking down in public. But this is not at all the first time I've been like this with the boys. I actually came up with a term for it: Ugly Mommy. I use the term with the boys so they understand when Mommy is getting frazzled and my patience is about to snap. I don't use it like a threat - "Watch out, or Ugly Mommy is going to get you!" It's more like a plea. "I'm getting frustrated and I need you to listen now - I don't want to be Ugly Mommy." It kind of works. They fully understand what's coming. But we all have our days, and Wednesday was bad for all of us.
I've been grappling with this since Henry was born. I've read up on it, I've talked to doctors and therapists, and even taken a class about accepting and processing strong emotions. And sometimes I am the very model of maternal bliss. People compliment me all the time when I'm out with the boys and tell me how wonderful and calm I am with them. I'm never quite comfortable with the compliments, because I know how bad I have been and how bad I sometimes still get.
I know it's hard to understand how someone who adores their children, who recognizes that they are just little children, can still yell and scream and swear and spank them. I never thought I would do any of that ever. I know it's all futile. I know it is the least effective way to teach them how to behave and, more importantly, how to handle their own emotions. At their age, to a large degree, they biologically can't control themselves. And Henry has something else going on, though we don't yet have an official diagnosis.
Every child is a little OCD with something (doors are one of Henry's biggest obsessions). But Henry has always been a little excessive compared to other kids. When he gets an idea in his head, he just cannot stop himself much of the time, especially when he's had an off day. Not enough sleep, not enough to eat for too long, and he gets a little more than cranky. The shriek. That's the worst. He has the kind of piercing scream that causes people to knock on bathroom doors and ask if everything is okay in there. Or people in restaurants and on the street to whip their heads around and make sure we're not beating our kid. All of which we had already dealt with that day.
I had dared to take them with me that morning to my physical therapy appointment and tried to set them up with some toys. Sometimes they're angels. Not that day. I ended up with more pain by the end of the appointment because of continually lunging to separate them, or hauling them up sideways to plop them on the table where I was not getting a massage. I did not yell or spank them in there - just had an internal meltdown. But crying in doctors' offices is kind of my catch phrase. I didn't lose it on them until we were outside and Oliver ran into traffic.
When I finally got them in the car, for the first time, I let lose on them the fear that someone will hear them screaming like maniacs and they'll think I'm hurting them and then people will come and take them away from me. We all cried for a while. A little later, we pulled it together enough to go get cheeseburgers (screw being vegetarian for the day) and we visited daddy at work and got lots of hugs. I thought we were past the worst of it.
I dared go out with them later and things hit the fan.
Henry started up in the Starbucks and I just said, "Okay. We're done. We're going home." That made him scream more, but I knew it would. But he kept going, and my pain was beyond my back then, and every shriek pierced my eardrums till they were ringing. I yelled at him for running away from me as we were trying to leave, because I had to leave Oliver in the stroller to go after him. He started following, but ran off again. I locked the stroller and grabbed him and flipped him upside down and yelled at him.
Sometimes being inverted distracts him from the shrieking enough to interrupt it and I can redirect him. It's not a good technique - no one is going to recommend it. It just sometimes works. It didn't then.
It was probably at this point that the guy started recording me. I had flipped Henry a couple of times - not for long, and not in a threatening way. But couple that with yelling at him to "shut the fuck up"... and there goes that Mom of the Year trophy! I yelled at him for screaming and causing mommy so much pain. I yelled at him for running away and making me leave Oliver alone again, and how he was going to get somebody hurt. Stress and pain and lack of sleep and not enough to eat and guilt and frustration and hopelessness...
And then some sanctimonious voyeur with a Baby Bjorn and a smartphone.
I was already tacking sideways off the rant and just starting to calm myself and my boys. Henry was reaching out and wanting to cling on to me... Oliver, too, whom I had not forgotten and I knew was upset by all the yelling. We were in the heart of downtown and being in public made me doubly sick. All I wanted was to pull it all together, calm my children, and get to the car.
All I could do after yelling at the stranger to leave us alone, was cry, not look at anyone else, not speak... I swapped the boys so Henry was confined in the stroller and couldn't run away. I continued to kneel there and hold them both, rub their backs and let them cry.
I noticed the guy with the smartphone had eventually walked away - down the direction we would have to walk. I noticed a lady who looked like she might have understood. Someone came by at one point and asked if we needed anything. "Water... maybe...?" I kept my head down and just shook my head. It was raining a little. I appreciated what he was trying to do but I couldn't tell him so. He had to have seen some of it at least, but I don't know how much.
It took a little while to make it the block to the car and get home. I told my husband to pick up a pizza, and when he got home I went into the other room, curled up on the floor, and tried to not feel like a monster.
My first impulses were to feel horrible about myself, then angry at the interloper, defensive... then guilty and sick, then angry at everybody again, then compassionate... and so on for the last several days. I've come up with a couple important takeaways.
First, I have to not let myself or anyone else stick me into a good mom or bad mom category. I have good mom moments, bad mom moments, and more in-between. You have to allow people to be something beyond what you judge them to be. Grace. Everyone needs to a little grace. Forgiveness. Compassion.
I'm going to assume, first, that this person meant well, that they heard something and weren't sure what was going on or what exactly to do, and they chose to document what was happening just in case they had to file some kind of report if the authorities needed to be involved. I'm also going to assume that this person can assume the best of me, that I was clearly not having a good day, that I was not at my best, but that I love my children and will try to do better every day. I'm going to assume that he didn't upload the video to YouTube with the title, "Look at this horrible mother."
The other takeaway is a little broader. I've realized that we really have no idea how to deal with things in our society. When we see or hear something troubling, something that could indicate something bad is taking place, we don't know what to do. We don't know how to approach other people. We don't know how to help or what to say. We just get uncomfortable and stay silent, mostly. Or we get adversarial. Confrontational.
I can't think of any movie or television show that showed a character approach another and say, "Hey, now - I can see you're in a bad place and I think it's time you take a moment. Let's de-escalate this before anything gets out of hand." Or something like that. Almost categorically, if one character approaches another, someone's going to take a swing, if only a verbal one.
We are not taught how to handle our own feelings. We are not taught how to handle each other's. We are not taught how to not take things personally. Telling kids to "shake it off" when they get called names at school doesn't really teach them anything. Try telling them, instead, that the other kid is doing that for their own reasons that have nothing to do with you. A bully's words have no value. In fact, they are the damaged ones to be treating people like that, and they deserve pity and compassion. Which is difficult to believe, and more difficult to practice, in the face of ridicule... or a thrown punch. But it is the right perspective and the right starting place for dealing with the situation.
Not that I knew any of this when I needed to. And not that it does much good now. But it is the right perspective. I feel better having written this much. The damage has been done with me and will take a long time to undo. All I can do is hope that being open with my boys will help them understand their own difficult feelings and that, while we can all be ugly at times, we can still keep trying to be better people. They'll have some tools, some perspectives, to try to deal with things as they arise over the years. I can't say they will get out of their childhood mentally unscathed, but I'm hoping that they will remember more good than bad, and that they will have a head start on their emotional maturity, over my own.