Perhaps it is not the smartest idea to publish this on the internet for anyone to read. Maybe I’m inviting scrutiny or criticism or a Child Services investigation. But I risk all that, and continue to post this, for two main reasons: 1) I hate myself and need some kind of absolution; and 2) I know I’m not alone.
The circumstances were this. Bedtime has become a battle. An epic, life-or-death struggle with stakes so high that it deserves a Don LaFontaine voiceover. After a weekend of non-stop fun with her Grammy, she was emboldened to take this battle to an unprecedented escalation Sunday night. Two hours – that’s right, two hours – of screaming, wailing, running through the apartment, refusing to stay in bed. Bargaining didn’t work. Positive reinforcement didn’t work. Negative reinforcement didn’t work. Ferberizing didn’t work. The Supernanny’s advice didn’t work. At some point during all of this non-stop drama, during which we were trying to eat our dinner with the constant sound of her air-raid siren wailing and occasional invectives about how awful we were, I found myself putting her in her bed for the thirtieth time and thought, “If I put this pillow over her face, I could get some peace and quiet.”
It wasn’t a dark joke. It was, instead, what felt like an inbreaking of a single honest and reasonable voice.
The voice of my superego responded, “But you’d go to prison.”
The first voice answered, “Yes, but I’d be better off in prison.”
It’s telling of how desperate I felt in that moment that my superego’s initial response was to appeal to my desire to avoid prison and not, you know, my love for my child. Any connection I had to feelings of fondness and affection had been decimated in the first fifteen minutes of Sunday’s Battle of the Bedtime. In moments like this, appealing to love and compassion is like expecting a magic potion to stop bullets. So my superego, having failed at deterring me with threat of life imprisonment, went to my true Achilles heel: “If you kill your child, you’ll be a failure as a parent.”
The absolute last thing I want is to be a failure as a parent. Usually, this is due to the love I have for my child. But, that being absent in that moment, my superego knew to appeal to my sense of shame and shaky self-worth. The first voice, that sinister voice that felt so coldly rational and temptingly correct, followed up with what felt to be the most painfully true statement of the whole struggle: “You’re already a failure as a parent.”
My superego, in a moment of shrill desperation, shouted, “But if you kill her, then everyone will know! You’ll be in the papers! Your trial will be on the six o’clock news! Everyone will see how terrible you look in orange and then they’ll know exactly how big a failure you are! At least right now, no one else knows except your child and her mother and maybe your neighbors upstairs who can hear her screams coming up through the floor.”
This was mostly convincing, but it was the interruption of yet a third voice, a voice that very well may have belonged to some divine intercessor, who helped convince me that filicide was not the answer. This voice said, calmly and reassuringly, “Nobody is failing here.”
This was an intriguing proposition. I left the screeching ball of ear-piercing anguish in her toddler bed and went outside into the hall to consider this. Was it possible that this terrible behavior on my child’s fault wasn’t a direct result of me being the worst parent in the history of humankind? Was it conceivable that there are things I’m actually doing pretty well? After all, she’s doing great at school. She’s sweet to her grandparents and friends. In fact, she’s sweet to us when we’re not trying to put her to bed. She entertains herself well when she plays, she eats well, she’s potty-trained (mostly), she doesn’t get up in the middle of the night, she eagerly reads books, she regularly cuddles with us, and several times a day she voluntarily tells us she loves us. This new voice said, “You are not a failure as a parent. Your child is not a failure, either. Now bear with me, I know this is a stretch, but maybe – just maybe – she’s pitching these epic fits for reasons that have nothing to do with you and are actually quite normal.”
A friend of mine who spent his first career in family medicine gave me this quote: “A toddler is a psychotic dwarf with a good prognosis.” Her universe makes no sense, poor thing. She doesn’t understand why it’s okay for her to play outside one minute and then have to come in and take a bath the next. She doesn’t see why she can’t wear the same pair of panties two days in a row, or why those old shoes no longer go on her feet, or why this page she just tore out of her book won’t go back in, or why Mommy and Daddy freak out when she runs around with food in her mouth or without holding hands in the parking lot or reaching for the stove. How does one live in such a strange and inexplicable environment? (“In a world filled with chaos…”)
As we say here in the south: Bless her heart.
This refreshing voice of my better nature talked me back from the brink. My homicidal id and shaming superego began to fade as my empathy caught up with me. Maybe it’s my empathy – my capacity to hear beyond the voices of my shame and rage – that ultimately keeps me from failing as a parent. It might even make me… well, if not a completely successful parent, at least a good enough parent. I would say that the bar for being a good parent should be set a little higher than simply not killing your child, but there may be some moments where that actually is where the bar should be set. Moments, say, like when your child has elected to make her bedtime the precipitating event of power struggle and rebellion. Absolution came in the form of this still, small voice whispering gently in my ear, reassuring me that we were all doing the best we could.
Good Lord is it hard, though. Which leads me to the second reason I write this post: bless my heart. And bless yours. If you are a parent of a child between the ages of, well, one day and thirty-five years, then bless your heart, too. We’ve all dreamed of being free of our children. Driving them out into the country and leaving them. Selling them to the circus. Shipping them off to boarding school. Throwing them off a pier. It’s a grim, dark thing to admit, I know. But show me a parent who hasn’t had these thoughts in some form, and I’ll show you a person who is in serious denial and dangerously disconnected from their own feelings. When you think about it, it’s actually pretty amazing that humans don’t kill their children more often. There are very few mammals on this planet who love their offspring enough to put up with the kind of shit we put up with from our children. That doesn’t make us saints; it’s just testament to the brilliantly flawed, broken, imperfect creatures who are trying to raise slightly less flawed, broken, and imperfect creatures. We’re all doing the best we can, and for the most part, it’s pretty good.
In the midst of this reprieve of impotent fury, standing in the hall taking deep breaths and reminding myself that she is a toddler and being a psychotic dwarf is her job, she came flailing back out into the hall screaming, “I don’t want you, Daddy!” That momentary peace was utterly shattered, but a shard or two remained embedded in my skin, which was just enough. I was reminded that her prognosis is good. My child won’t be three-and-a-half forever. (Or six… or ten… or fifteen… or even mine at all.) She will grow and develop concrete operational thought and feel more at home in the world and capable of reasoning and expressing her feelings. All that will no doubt bring new challenges that are, I’m sure, equally maddening. But tomorrow is another chance for us to have a day filled with good moments, which mostly outweigh the awful.
I would never willingly harm or abandon my child. That’s why it’s so frightening and unsettling to imagine doing so with any feelings other than disgust or horror. But these psychotic dwarves wouldn’t drive us crazy if we didn’t love them so much. So I offer to you what I tell myself in those dark moments of defeat when our thoughts turn cruel and spiteful. There are many great reasons not to give up on our children, but the one that never falls away for me is the prognosis of another day doing the best we can.