Wednesday, February 22, 2017

anger management

At some point in my life, I decided that injustice was the only thing it was okay to get angry about. It could be a small injustice or a big one. It could be a boss blaming me for something that wasn't my fault, or it could be, like, homophobia.

I still think it's a good goal not to be the asshole screaming at a CVS clerk because your prescription isn't ready, but you can probably guess that my "injustice only" stance on anger has run into some problems. Because 1) anger isn't a decision, it's an emotion, and 2) there's lots of shit to get pissed off about that is no one's fault.

I spent many therapy hours and blog posts sorting through the rage that bloomed in the wake of infertility-miscarriage-cancer. None of these things was anyone's fault, but they were also categorically unfair and shitty. But weren't most of the good things that had happened to me (being born into a middle class life, having parents who loved me) equally unfair? That's when I'd get tangled up, at least until I discovered it was possible to harbor genuine gratitude and genuine rage simultaneously.

My anger has curly hair and a chocolate croissant in her hand.
My Anger Years were healthy for me, a good girl conditioned to bite my lip or cry or eat my feelings rather than yell at anyone. I did a lot of rage-blogging and filled my drafts folder with (mostly) unsent emails to people who pissed me off. My Anger Years were not always easy on others.

One nice byproduct of all that therapy is that it allowed me to enter parenthood with relatively realistic expectations. I expected to fail constantly, and I have, albeit in smallish ways SO FAR. I staked my money on love, resiliency and basic physical safety, and figured the rest would sort itself out. Despite the unspoken bargains I made with the universe, along the lines of If you just give me a baby I'll be good and grateful and graceful all the time, I never expected that I would actually be good and grateful and graceful all the time.

I am often exhausted and sometimes disengaged; I'm on my phone too much and I feed Dash granola bars for dinner too often and I let him drink milk before bed without brushing his teeth. But to my surprise as much as anyone else's, I actually do feel grateful most of the time. 

Or I did.

Dinner at our house often resembles Sad Desk Lunch. Lunch at work is also sometimes Sad Desk Lunch.
No, I still do. But as he fully blossoms into the two-ness of being two (AK and I have text exchanges that end with a resigned "#two"), there's something new growing alongside it: I get pissed off at my kid.

I know, shocking. 

In a rare moment of realism in Sex and the City 2, Charlotte breaks down and confesses how guilty she feels, having longed for her children for years and now needing so much to get away from them. Of course, she's breaking down in a deluxe hotel room in Abu Dhabi. 

Charlotte as harried mother, with a white kitchen and spotless apron. It's like they know us.
My most recent breakdown was on the floor of Dash's room on Saturday afternoon. It was raining. AK was out. Dash wasn't napping. Our deal is that I'll lay on the floor and look at my phone while he jumps around, cries, sings to himself and eventually knocks out. One time he climbed out of his crib and I caught him on his way down. But it seemed like a fluke, so I postponed the inevitable. 

On Saturday he decided it wasn't a fluke anymore. He kept climbing up and balancing on the crib railing on his tummy. Each time, I gently--then somewhat less gently--pushed him back in his crib with my bare foot or my hands. He thought it was hilarious. Then my toe grazed his chin and he pouted. 

"A Mommy!" he said, patting his mattress. Lately he'd been wanting me to climb in with him. Sometimes it was cuddly and sweet. More often it was anything but restful for either of us. Saturday he grabbed my hair and hit me and laughed. I held his wrists and pried his fingers open. All of a sudden sleep had become the stressful wrestling match it was when he was eight or nine months old.

"Stop. It. That hurts Mommy. That makes me feel ow." I wasn't yelling, but I wasn't quite achieving the "calm but firm" thing I was going for, either.

A terrifying movie of an angry mother, abused child and DCFS intervention flashed before my eyes. 

Instead I decided to be honest with myself: I was mad at Dash. It wasn't the first time, but this was the first time I didn't transfer my anger to AK (If she hadn't messed up his nap schedule yesterday, this wouldn't have happened...) or chalk it up to pure exhaustion. 

I had a flash-forward glimpse into the messy heart of our intermingled psyches. I understood--really understood--that Dash was a person with a complete and distinct personality, and we'd both go through the full range of emotions that any two humans in an intimate relationship experience. The kitchen of our souls would be as messy as our actual kitchen.

I also felt frustrated with my own frustration. What was the point of it? Not only had no act of injustice been committed (at least as far as I was concerned; Dash may have felt differently, and I guess that's part of the story), but something shitty and unfair had not even occurred. It just felt shitty and unfair. In reality, the events that were unfolding were perfectly developmentally appropriate. Two-year-olds are supposed to test their parents' limits, and parents are supposed to work with them to find and enforce those limits. 

I climbed out of his crib, stomped to the laundry room and returned with an Allen wrench and a screwdriver. I used the former to dismantle his Ikea crib. He used the latter to "help." Together we cleaned the dusty spot that remained with baby wipes. It was actually kind of fun.

Wait, it all makes so much sense now.
After the election, I shared some of my Trump rage with my dad--rage that is absolutely about injustice at like 75 different levels, and when I think about Hillary winning the popular vote it still makes my blood boil, not to mention the part where Trump treated America like his personal, typo-laden vanity publishing project--and my dad said something along the lines of "He won. There's not a lot of point in getting angry about it. We just have to elect someone else four years from now."

He conceded that if rage fuels activism, it might be useful. I countered that it has a purpose beyond that: "Anger helps you figure out how you want to be treated. If you were walking down the street and someone came up and kicked you in the head and then ran off, you could say 'Well, there's nothing I can do about that, so I guess I'll just get on with my life.' But that would be saying to yourself in some way that it was okay that it had happened. And then when someone else came up and tried to kick you, you'd think on some level that it was supposed to happen and you wouldn't run or fight back."

Later I realized I was describing at least one reason that people who get raped once are more likely to get raped a second time (there are undoubtedly others). 

So I'm going to try to take my own advice. In this case the person who kicked me in the head happens to be adorable; I happen to adore him; I would throw myself in front of a train for him. (He would happily exclaim "Train!" because he's on a train kick these days. But after that he'd miss me.) But I don't like getting kicked in the head. I don't like having my hair pulled or my house trashed. It is okay not to like those things. And the "point," I guess, is that my anger motivates me to teach him how to live in a world that has other people in it. People whose bodies and stuff you have to respect.

Ideally I'd throw myself in front of one of the trains from Chuggington. They seem nice.
This morning, before 7 am, I'd already cleaned up cat poop, changed a poopy diaper and wiped up coffee and milk he'd spilled. Dash has been demonstrating great gentleness and impulse control toward the cats lately, but not this morning. He kept pulling OC's tail, then looking at me, waiting for my (angry) reaction and his ten-second time-out. He was working something out about boundaries and consequences, and I was angry that he was working it out at the expense of a relentlessly friendly 16-year-old cat. 

The only kind of cat that's safe around Dash is a large wooden tiger.
"Tail!" Dash bemoaned as I pulled him away for the fifth time.

"OC's tail belongs to him, not to you," I said, not very kindly.

I woke up AK for her shift. "My morning is going okay, and this isn't a guilt trip," I prefaced, "but can I vent about everything that's gone down in the last hour?"

I concluded, "I'm doing my part to tackle rape culture by teaching Dash body autonomy. There. I have to pretend I'm doing something bigger and more noble to make myself feel like I'm not just hitting my head against a wall."

And it's not pretend--raising a kind child should be valued more highly in our culture. I am part of a great movement of unsung teachers and nurturers, goddammit, and no matter how much you love and pursued and longed for the opportunity to teach and nurture, it's not easy. Or at least this is the story I'll tell myself next time I'm up to my ears in poopy paper towels and we're on the fifth time-out of the morning.