Last night we struggled through dinner. It got taken away from her at least twice, but we want her to eat something, so we persisted. Bath time came and went with reasonably little problem, but then post-bath routines were subverted and undermined with insidious cheer. And then came bedtime. If you’ve read any blog post of mine from the last six months, then you know bedtime is the bane of our parental patience. Mommy actually lost her temper first; I suppose I could take some small comfort in that. But I lost mine about five minutes later, and it is not at all unfair to say that every child ever would prefer my spouse’s anger to mine. Her fury is but mild testiness compared to my fury. I yelled; I carried her roughly back to her bed; I held the door closed when she tried to come back out. She matched my fury, screamed at the top of her voice. If our neighbors had called Child Protective Services, it would not have surprised me. It sounded like The Exorcist in there.
I tried to cool down. She’s frustrated and scared, I tried to convince myself. She’s only three, she doesn’t know how to handle this. Then she pleaded, “I’m ready to say I’m sorry!” I opened the door and knelt beside her. “What do you need to say?” I said as softly and evenly as I could.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” was what she apparently needed to my face.
Unbelievably, we actually repeated that several times. Proof that parenting is an insanity-producing state, because the third time I opened the door thinking she would actually apologize this time, I was just as infuriated to find her screaming in my face again. At that point, the rational, unprimitive side of me lost its temper, too. I left the apartment, went for a drive, contemplated whether I should turn around before I got to South Carolina. (I did; life with a psychotic dwarf still appeals more to me than life in South Carolina.)
As I drove, my anger began to recede, leaving shallow pockmarks in the sandy shores of my heart that were immediately filled with bubbling shame. How could I go back, terrible father that I am? What happened to me? Indeed, what happens to me nearly every night? What keeps me from living up to the ideals I have in being the kind, gentle, safe, and loving parent that I deeply believe my child should have? What happened to that one resolution I made a week ago?
If this were a better blog, this would be the paragraph where I offer the redeeming insight of this whole ordeal. Some shining example of recovery and growth, a renewed sense of comfort as I move forward. Of course, if I were a better parent, we wouldn’t be having these ordeals at all, right? We’re the only people with whom she is this defiant; her grandparents, teachers, Sunday School leaders all report to us that she is sweet and fun and easygoing. I could interpret this as proof that we are the only people she feels are safe enough to let her act out so strongly. But I don’t. Instead I interpret it as proof that we are the only people who don’t know how to handle her.
I’ve written plenty about the concept of “good enough” parenting, but I don’t feel at all good enough these days. Maybe it’s the transition in our lives over the last six months. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s three-and-a-half and her body and mind literally do not know how to process the world she lives in. Maybe we really are terrible parents who need some kind of European super-nanny to drag a camera crew into our home and brutally shame us into being better parents for a week. I know, however, that after each of these terrible scenes – and they happen often – that I am far more forgiving of her than I am of myself. Because, you know, she’s three, and I’m a grown man with extensive knowledge of child development.
Shame is a powerful, terrible thing. I can’t seem to shake it. What frightens me most is that I know my child can feel it. My anxiety impinges on her own sense of well-being, preventing her from feeling free to explore her own world and compelling her instead to take care of me. So there’s even more shame for me to feel because of how my shame harms my child.
I should probably give myself some credit somewhere. I could be a much worse father. (Thanks to Mark for pointing this out in a comment to an earlier post.) I don’t curse at her or call her names, and I’ve never verbally put her down. I’ve never spanked or hit her. I also don’t relinquish boundaries, or let her off the hook for her bad behavior. I’m always seeking the good for her, always wanting things to be right between us. It also seems I’m always somehow failing her.
When I got back to the apartment, everything was quiet. She wasn’t asleep yet, but neither was she screaming. Mommy was reading on the couch. I went into the office and sat down. Her bedroom door opened – she does it so often every night at bedtime that I immediately recognize the sound. She tip-toed into the office up to my chair. We didn’t speak; I was exhausted and embarrassed. She put her head on my shoulder and rubbed my hand. “I love you, Daddy,” she whispered.
Perhaps she was forgiving me. Perhaps she was just managing her own anxiety, taking care of herself by taking care of me. Whatever it was, it broke my heart. Because, you know, she’s three, and I’m a grown man, and I wish I could offer myself the same grace that she offers me.