19 Oct On being gentle
If you hang out in our house for more than, say, 20 minutes, you’ll hear me say this to Bronwynn:
“B, you can choose to be gentle, or you can choose time out.”
I say it as she hovers a wooden toy a few inches over Miles’ head, threatening to drop it. I say it as she is reaching over to pinch his leg or pull on his shirt. I say it as she leans in to give him a bear hug that’s sort of a hug but not really a hug as much as a ploy to tackle him to the ground. I say it as she swipes toys out of his pudgy little hands.
And usually, most of the time, B responds “I choose be gentle, Mommy.”
Because the alternative is much less fun.
Our dear friends Jes, Austin (3) and Oliver (1) were visiting us this past week, and I probably said that line to B a hundred times. And usually, most of the time, she chose wisely. And when she didn’t, I hauled her kicking-and-screaming body to time out where she wailed for 3 minutes and then apologized to whomever she had wronged. And THEN she chose to be gentle.
After a few days of this, Jes said to me that she thought I was a much gentler mother than she is with her boys. She felt like she was harsh by comparison (she has a zero-tolerance policy for whining, which is actually very gentle and very effective).
I suppose on the surface I may appear gentle as I quietly carry B to time out. But I feel so far from gentle. What Jes can’t see, what no one sees and few mothers talk about, is just how much our kids can make our blood boil.
I say “our” because I mean “we.” Mothers. I know I’m not alone in this.
I may be calmly putting my child in time out and setting a timer for 3 minutes. I may be offering choices and creating boundaries around the toddler behavior. But under the surface? Rage. I’m surprised you can’t see the smoke seeping out of my ears. My primal, cave-woman response to seeing my 3-year-old intentionally hurt my 1-year-old? I want to smack her. I want to scream. I want to make her cry so she knows how it feels to be hurt. I want to strap her into her carseat and drive far, far out into the country somewhere and leave her in a pasture to be raised by sheep.
But I don’t. I never have. That’s MY choice.
That’s not to say I don’t express anger. I take “Mommy time outs” when my fuse is about to blow. Or if I can’t take time out, I step outside and let the fresh air wash over me (something about a breeze on my skin, sun on my face, birds chirping, or even cold raindrops, always snaps me back from dark places). And I let B know that it’s okay to scream into your pillow, or punch a stuffed animal, to be PISSED, or to just be alone, or to cry if that’s how you feel.
‘Cause here’s the thing. I grew up in a household that was not gentle, where those options were not presented, and I still bear some of the scars from that. Denying that we have angry feelings, stuffing them away, pretending we’re perfect? That’s what crazy feeds on. And so I choose each day (sometimes each minute) to create a healthier environment for my kids. I try to cultivate honesty and authenticity. It’s not easy. It’s parenting in the dark, without a road map. Starting fresh. Creating a new legacy. Still imperfect, but better than what I had.
When Jes said to me that she thinks I am gentler than she is, we were drinking martinis, unwinding from a long day with our toddlers. I almost blew vodka out my nose. I thought she had to be joking. Because I felt the EXACT same way toward her. I thought I was being cruel and impatient with my kids while she is this bottomless well of nurturing love and patience. I felt weak. I thought she was strong. I felt like a failure every time my kid was screaming in time out. But never once did I consider her a failure if she had to discipline her boys.
And then it hit me: I’m not gentle with myself.
I’m not even sure what it would look like to be gentler with myself, but I’m going to try it. It’s been an interesting year. A truly joyous year full of new life and deepening love and new adventures. Truly. But also really really hard in too many ways to count. And I wonder if I could tip the scale more in my favor if I was a little kinder to myself. Stopped judging myself so harshly for every. little. thing. …Maybe if I learned to ask for help more, and gave myself time to let this move take root instead of demanding happiness from myself every waking moment. And what if I embraced the toddler tantrums that are SO developmentally normal, and rejoice that my children are never going to be afraid of me if I can help it, because I will be gentle?
See there? Even now I’m judging myself for having judged myself. This is hard.
I recently watched B playing “mommy” with one of her baby dolls, and it was like holding up a mirror. The way she cradled her baby. The way she said “oh, honey” and “it’s okay, sweetie,” with a pat pat pat to its back, and sang to it, and yes, even gave her baby choices and presented consequences in a loving tone.
Where did she learn all that?? Oh, yeah… The realization made me weep.
So that’s where we are. Choosing to be gentle.
Because the alternative, for me, is much less fun.
Because the alternative, for me, is much less fun.