Oct 6 2009

Like Mercury

When I was her age, I don’t think I believed in my own opinion anywhere
at_the_park_3near as much as she owns hers. At six – not even, she’s still a few weeks shy – she has an abundance of self-esteem. She stands, solidly planted, unquestioning in her dominance. At the park she reigns. She barks out orders and her friends comply without complaint. They seem happy to do her bidding. Nobody messes with Buddy-roo.

Yesterday an argument between sisters came to blows and resulted in two girls in tears. Buddy-roo, frustrated at her sister’s unwillingness to follow orders. Short-pants, annoyed at the repeated, relentless, nagging request that would not accept a polite, or even an impolite, no. It was one of those situations where a brief separation was the best solution.

Buddy-roo sulked beside me in one room, refusing to discuss or debrief the angry encounter with her sister. “I’m not talking to anyone,” she said, “even you.” Sometimes when I’m mad, I just need to be mad, so I understood. I read my book while she curled into a ball beside me. She wanted me close, but quiet, which is just as well because I don’t know what I could have said that wouldn’t have just made things worse. I could equally query one about being relentless and the other about being inflexible. Three sides to every story.

I overheard De-facto in the other room telling Short-pants about his grandmother, how when she was 2-years old – or so the story goes – her grandfather, a man with a friendly Irish name but a gruff Irish disposition admonished her for climbing up a bookcase. Much to the surprise of the rest of her assembled family, all of whom trembled before the overbearing man, she glared back at him over her shoulder from the third shelf and retorted, “You don’t own me.”

De-facto always has a good story, and knows exactly when to share it; this one perfectly timed to strengthen Short-pant’s intended resolve against her bossy little sister.

Short-pants returned and stood in the doorway. “You don’t own me,” she pronounced. Buddy-roo regarded her, unimpressed.

A little while later, I heard the two of them playing together upstairs. They fell into their imaginary world of pet-shops, fairies and princesses, as though nothing had ever come between them.

I have a childhood memory – it can’t be exactly true and yet it resides in my visual recall – of playing with a ball of mercury. Maybe it was in a science class? Or else a thermometer had broken and maybe it was my brother showing me but not letting me touch? I can’t remember, except for an image that is engraved in my mind. The wild silver ball slipping around the ring of a porcelain saucer, the force of its motion breaking it apart into dozens of little balls and then easily fitting itself back together in one seamless piece. How immediately it could fracture. How permanent it looked once re-bonded.

Sometimes my experience of mothering two daughters is like looking in one of those three-paneled mirrors in a department store fitting room. I see myself straight ahead in the center. Flanking me, one on each side, I see the girls, turned slightly toward me, surrounding me, reflecting at me their actions and dramas, reminiscent of some part of me. Oh, there I am, part defiant, stubborn and bossy – as a young child I confidently wrote letters to my teachers pointing out their errors, and there are abundant teenage tales about how I head-ached my parents. Oh, there I am, the sensitive, uncertain one, eager to please – I was always compliant about things like homework and helping with the dishes, and I excelled at making polite conversation while serving hors d’œuvres at my parents’ cocktail parties.
Oh, here we all are.

I suppose it’s natural, but it’s downright creepy sometimes, how these two girls produce this reflection of me. I’m not sure if I want to encourage them heartily or apologize profusely. But I need only turn the other direction to observe my own mother, and to see – stunningly – how much of her they must see reflected in me. How much of her – I finally understand, now that I’m mothering – is now so much part of me.

It’s like we’re all part of that ball of mercury, temporarily split apart but within view and shouting distance, so clearly made of the same shiny silver substance, and yet separated from each other – except in those rare, complex, and rather profound moments when we can all see each other for who we really are.

Feb 25 2009

Anger Management

Just so you know, sometimes she gets mad at him, too.


Feb 24 2009

You’re supposed to feel

Somebody always has something to say about how you’re supposed to feel. Once I worked for a man with bad hair, and he accused me of being too sensitive. “How much is sensitive enough?” I asked him. A lover once told me I was too mental, “You can’t think through your life, you have to feel it.” Both of these comments came at about the same time. I didn’t know what to make of it; was I too feeling, or not enough?

When I was pregnant – this seems like ages ago – I was informed by others, often complete strangers, how I ought to feel about becoming a mother. There were, apparently, designated emotions of excitement, anticipation, and joy, and the fact that I felt other feelings like dread, fear and suffocation – not on the condoned list – meant I’d crossed a line, putting the sacred institution of motherhood at risk. “Oh but you must be so excited,” people would correct me, denying me my inalienable right to feel miserable.

So I felt it anyway, just more quietly.

This inspired me, once I hatched small beings into the world, to be very mindful of the casual language we end up using around feelings. “Don’t be sad,” we say unconsciously to a small pouting child. What is that about? Telling a child that the rush of sadness that came over you just now is somehow wrong, you shouldn’t feel it? You have to be one of those happy shiny people all the time?

Not that we should overindulge their sadness or anger. But sometimes, doing a little bit of nothing does the trick. Emotions, like waves, follow their course, crashing on to the shore and receding back into the larger body of water. One wave follows the next, and they just keep coming.

Yesterday Short-pants was angry at me. She made this obvious by putting her feelings in writing and slipping the large note loudly under my door. I didn’t try to talk her out of it. “You are really angry,” I said, like I learned in
mean_mamaa book about how to talk with kids. And just like the book promises, if you wait a beat, the whole story pours out about what she wanted and what Buddy-roo wanted and what I did and didn’t do…the whole crisis is illuminated. The anger, once expressed, begins to dissipate, sometimes merely from the fact of not being denied.

Maybe anger has a half-life, and half of it goes away when you get that it’s just plain okay to feel that way for a little while.

But what about me? What do I do with my pent up I’m-fed-up-with-all-this? How do I get to express my longing? Or my sadness, my fear? Little eyes are always watching. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, just to have a moment alone to process. But little fists learn quickly how to knock incessantly. And besides, why should I shield them from what’s real?

Of course I try to contain the more difficult feelings, but when I can’t keep them in, I simply don’t. I’ve stormed into the girls’ room in a rage, their little faces shocked and their little bodies recoiling from the force of my angry words. I’ve backed up against the wall and let my body slide down it until I’m sitting with my forehead against my knees, heaving tears. About these outbursts I do not apologize; I explain. Later, when the feeling has ebbed, we sit on the stairs and I say something like “Mama was pretty angry, I wish I hadn’t been so loud that I frightened you,” or “Mama was pretty sad, wasn’t I?”

But what if something happens and you don’t feel anything? Like when you’re supposed to feel and you can’t figure out how? Or you’re just, numb? Can they see that too? Which is more damaging to them, I wonder: to witness rage, fear, and sadness or to watch their mother stoically stand at the counter, sponging over the cutting board in a circular motion again and again and again, just to get at the nothing that’s brewing within?