Other Mothers Aren’t Like This
I hit my daughter. Once. Hard. She was almost three and had been throwing tantrums about everything for a year-and-a-half. I cut up her banana and put it in the wrong bowl or made her leave the playground an hour after her playgroup was over or gave her the blue sweater instead of the pink jacket for wearing outdoors. She was asserting a will that was stronger, more vocal and physical than anything I’d ever displayed or seen. In her room, she threw all her books off the shelves, threw herself to the ground, legs and arms thrashing wildly, threw her voice into a high decibel shrill, and threw me into alternating fits of anger and despair.
I don’t remember what set off the fateful rage the day I hit her, but we were in her bedroom. She’d hurled all her possessions to the floor.
“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! ” she screamed at me.
I believed her. At the moment I felt her hate like bamboo torture sticks under my nails. We were both shaking with furious emotion, and I wanted it over, wanted her to reach the point of meltdown, and of exhaustion and contrition, an inevitable process that often took hours, the only way to return to short-lived equilibrium. With one arm, I grabbed one of her arms to hold in her place. With the other arm I reached behind her and swung at her butt. I felt my hand smack against her leggings, pink with multi-colored hearts, her muscles caught unaware yielded a bit as the sting traveled into her body.
This was not the reasoned spanking I’d read about in parenting books and had discarded as a discipline method. The kind where you calmly and quietly explained to your child what she had done wrong. The kind where you sat in a chair, leaned her across your lap, and measured out a specific number of short controlled slaps, determined by the severity of offense. You hit hard enough for the child to cease and desist in the crime, but not hard enough to bring welts or tears.
Nor was this the kind of spanking my mother tried, briefly and ineffectively, to administer with her yardstick when I was young. Her tiny swats left my sister and me united in deceiving her with false tears and giggling when she left the room. It certainly wasn’t like the spankings I received from my father as a child. Those had been delivered with a wooden paddle he’d taken glee in making with his jigsaw. He drilled holes to aerodynamically improve the sting and painted the device black and red, demon colors. Those spankings were delivered with a force that brought instant tears, internal seething, and a frequency that diminished greatly after my father left us, and the paddle, behind.
I hadn’t hit another human being since I’d tentatively slapped my younger sister as a child, and then, the way I remember it, it’d always been in self-defense, cowering in our bedroom fending off the chairs she threw and kitchen knives she wielded. After our family broke up, words replaced paddles and ‘yardsticks slaps’ as the only tools of discipline, and their sting lingered. “I’m disappointed in you,” left marks.
I felt sick, lightheaded, the mottled brown carpet vibrating beneath my gaze, as though I was disassociating. Any second and I’d be floating above myself, watching the imagined scene play out—my long hair swinging across my face, obscuring hers, while I whacked her over and over until she crumpled limp to the ground, flayed on top of her strewn books and stuffed animals, compliant at last. I dropped my hand to my side after the first slap.
My daughter was outraged, indignant, and rightly righteously confused.
“Why did you hit me?” She yowled, breath ragged, cheeks flaming.
Why? Why had I hit her? Because I was tired and grumpy at nine months pregnant, afraid of what another child might do to my tenuous grip on sanity? Because I’d been worn down, home alone with her day after day, year after year, my reality shriveled until the only thing I wanted, needed was her obedience? Because her rage terrified my anger, something I’d caged in the basement of my consciousness all my life, a monster that could no longer be ignored? Why indeed would a mother hit her child? Especially this mother who’d devoted herself wholly, abandoning her job and any ambition, however nebulous, to nurture a new life.
“I’m sorry,” I said, remorseful, wanting to hug her, to make it okay, but she wouldn’t have it.
I was the perfect mother when I was pregnant, approaching my new life with the vigor and belief in research and the scientific method I’d brought to my college studies. I read every parenting book and magazine I could get my hands on. I didn’t drink alcohol or coffee. I refused cold medicine, took my prenatal vitamins religiously, practiced my Lamaze breathing and delivered my baby naturally. I was near-perfect that first year, breastfeeding on demand, introducing the right foods at the right times, following the immunization schedule, providing black and white toys for mental stimulation, rocking, reading and singing every day and night. Then she became a toddler, and NO! became her favorite word. I reeled from my demotion from supreme and benign deity to thwarter of her impulses and desires.
One night, when she was about two, I sat on the toilet lid, my daughter’s torso wedged between my thighs. In one hand, I held her toothbrush, with the other I attempted to pull her chin down to open her mouth. It had been three days, and I was going to brush her teeth, whether she liked it or not. She clamped her jaw shut, shook her head from side-to-side, screaming through her closed mouth. I imagined dropping the toothbrush, grabbing her skull with both hands, and slamming it against the cold porcelain toilet tank. Bashing again and again until blood streaked from her forehead, oozed from her mouth, and she collapsed on the floor. That would teach her to brush her teeth.
I pushed her away. “Get out of here. Go to bed now.”
She ran to her room, raging.
Who was I? Every night I prayed for her to grow up healthy and safe, whole and happy, my baby the last thought before I surrendered to sleep. I taught her Sunday school class, for God’s sake, wearing finger puppets and singing songs about love and how each little person was precious. I knew other mothers were not like this.
The dozen mothers I knew were friends with each other, but not with me. They lived a few blocks from each other. I lived across town. They took their children to story time at the public library (which is where they found and invited me to join), and had older children who were in preschool and kindergarten together. They came to playgroup with their public personas coiffed and smiling. I would get a glimpse of the less guarded private personas with my second child when our playgroup met in each other’s homes. But these moms gently redirected their children when they snatched a toy from another and patiently explained, “We have to wait for our turn on the slide.” I was the only truly new mother raising a first child, and it was as if I’d received a list of taboo topics with the free diapers when I was discharged from the hospital with my newborn. No one talked about how physically and emotionally exhausting motherhood was. I was too embarrassed by my perceived shortcomings and too shy to venture the topic. The only thing the playgroup moms complained about were their husbands, how sloppy they were and how inept with the children, as if life would be easier without them.
I couldn’t imagine anything being easier without my husband. He was my lifeline to the adult world, the cord to the person I’d once been, and the person who kept me afloat in the sea of motherhood. I shared everything with him, except my anger. I didn’t tell him I hit our daughter that once.
The next time I was at wit’s end, I clenched my fists, stepped away and screamed, “You fucking bitch,” words I’d never before spoken aloud. I shoved my daughter into her bedroom, slammed the door, then kicked it, and instead of the satisfying noise I’d expected, left a Frisbee sized hole in the hollow core. Shamed and contrite, this time I had to confess to my husband when he arrived home from work that it was my foot, purposefully placed, not a wayward toy, that had caused the damage.
Later, when he was kissing Jennifer goodnight, I heard her say, “Mommy called me a bucking bits.”
“A what?” he asked.”
“A bucking bits”.
He and I did not swear. We spoke politely. I worried that if he knew how I’d treated this child we loved so fiercely he would look pointedly at me and say, “You’re not the person I married.” He would pull my suitcase out from under the bed, toss some of my clothes inside and hold the front door open while I walked out. He would find another, more suitable mother for our child.
He never asked me about it. I never told. I didn’t know how. I’m sure he didn’t either.
I wonder now what would’ve happened if one of us had been capable of the least bit of humor in the situation. If the corners of my mouth had twitched a fraction, or if he could have raised an eyebrow at the ridiculousness of an adult woman—who had grown up with impenetrable wooden doors and expected her foot to thump and rebound—smashing in the lower portion of a door with one wimpy kick, I might have stumbled into a tiny portion of grace. Twenty years later, there’s a slim possibility. Then, though, the situation was deadly serious. My husband, who had little spare time, left the hole in the door unrepaired for weeks. I believed it was my rightful punishment, undeniable evidence and proof of my danger to society. My daughter needed protection. I wanted to be sentenced and sent away, but no jail would take me on spec and incarcerate me for a crime I might commit.
I had to lock myself out of the house the next time I lost my temper. The only door that locked inside our funky cabin home was the bathroom. It latched with a hook and eye on the inside of a glass-paned door that sported a plaid curtain for privacy. In a time-out, no matter which side of the door my daughter would be on, she would’ve slammed against the panes, shards ripping her hands, blood everywhere, necessitating a trip to the emergency room. How could I explain it without having her taken away from me? But wasn’t that what I thought I wanted? Somewhere the rational part of me said no. So I sat in the gravel driveway, weeping at my inability to control my temper or my daughter, my complete inability to maintain peace in my own home, in full view of the neighbors, so that they would see without a doubt, as my daughter vilified me through her open bedroom window, bawling and shrieking, that I was nowhere near. Couldn’t reach. Couldn’t hit. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t hurt.
Every day since I became pregnant I read parenting books. First about pregnancy, then about infant care, then, after Jennifer was born, magazines like Parents and Parenting because I didn’t have time for books. I read about The Terrible Two’s, but Jennifer’s tantrums seemed longer and fiercer than any scenario in a thousand-word article, and I never read anything that explained the appalling and consuming rage and desperation of my emotions. Probably, I was suffering from post-partum depression. Maybe a round of Prozac would’ve eased me onto ground solid enough to explore the roots of my distress.
Growing up, through a revolving door of parents, I had always been the good, cooperative child. I never allowed myself to be angry or sad over my parents’ absences or divorces. I gave my heart to my stepmother and stepfather when they came into my life and didn’t acknowledge they’d broken it when they both left a few years later. Unlike movie couples, none of my parents ever fought with each other: no one yelled, slammed doors, or threw objects. It seems to me now, though I didn’t see it then, that I learned from them to let anger and resentment simmer unspoken until there was no choice but to leave, like they did, or explode, like I did.
I also didn’t realize how much I counted on order and control to compensate for the lack of it when I was young. I kept a tidy house and a tidy life filled with advanced planning from meals to vacations to to-do lists. I developed daily rituals and routines to keep order and control: my defense against chaos and my attempt to keep family and friends in sight so they couldn’t abandon me. Then I had a child, and everything from sleeping to eating to thinking, was unpredictable.
When she was an infant, I used my body—breastfeeding, rocking, holding—and my voice—I spoke softly, sang lullabies, told stories—to soothe my daughter. I thought that would always be enough. I would be a mother of hugs and explanations, not scowls and because-I-said-sos; I would provide answers to the inevitable why. I would never yell and never, under any circumstance, hit my child. It hadn’t occurred to me that a child of mine wouldn’t be satisfied with my explanations nor wouldn’t be swayed by logic and reason. I was completely undone by a tiny person twenty-five years younger than me. My rage was quick, volatile, and was triggered, like my daughter’s tantrums, by the smallest injustice. It was as if I, too, after years of holding in the pain of my childhood, wanted to yowl and stomp and slam at life’s unfairness. At moments it seemed there were two toddlers in the room, neither having the skills to articulate their distress.
During the worst of it, the observer in me, the part that floated above me in witness, would make her way back inside my body, and pull me away from the terrible thing I longed to do. I found a therapist, a woman who came to my home, who watched my daughter using me as a jungle-gym while we talked and told me I needed to set boundaries. She asked me to keep a journal and instead of talking about my immediate problem, which I saw as how to make my daughter behave, we talked about me: How did I feel and why, and once I allowed myself to have a feeling (like anger), how might I change my own behavior, which would in turn naturally lead to a change in my daughter’s behavior. Sitting on my living room floor with my counselor while my daughter played with toys, we talked about my childhood and how mothering brought the abandonment and pain of it to the foreground. This was the safe space I needed to discover that all my life I’d never felt “good enough.” If I’d been good enough, my parents wouldn’t have left me. I named my anger Ivan, imagined it chained in the basement, and pictured opening the trap door to file its sharp teeth, trim its dagger claws, snap on a collar and a leash, and gradually introduce it to the light.
When Jennifer was three, her sister was born, and although our youngest had definite opinions as a toddler, she didn’t throw tantrums as ferociously as her sister. She could also switch from one activity to another with relative ease and didn’t need to be told in advance the details of every activity that would be coming her way, as Jennifer did in order to avoid a tantrum. I tried not to compare my children, but the differences were striking. Much later, when Jennifer was in fourth grade, struggling with spelling, reading and arithmetic, and having meltdowns every day after school as she had had since kindergarten, I took her to a learning specialist for testing. Her teachers, who never witnessed her massive frustrations, kept insisting that she’d catch on, but I was exhausted by the daily battles over homework, and though I continued on and off with counseling, every parenting technique I’d tried wasn’t working.
The learning specialist said Jennifer had dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder, one that didn’t allow her to filter out stimuli. Everything in her world came in at full volume. He also referred us to a developmental psychiatrist who ordered a noninvasive brain scan to determine whether she had ADD or ADHD and whether medication would be helpful. The results of the scan revealed what the psychiatrist called a “stuck cingulate,” meaning the part of the brain that helps process emotion and learning couldn’t make the transition to new thoughts, feelings, and information in Jennifer the way it was supposed to. It got stuck like a broken record. Interestingly, I saw that trait in myself, especially looking back at elementary school report cards with low marks in self-control (when they graded such things) when events didn’t go the way I expected. It was a relief to finally know why my daughter was so overwhelmed, a pressure cooker without the regulator, why her only release had been eruptions, and why her father and I hadn’t been able to help her.
Talking with the psychiatrist, we opted for medication to help her brain function. I knew Jennifer needed a break from the regular classroom. Therefore, the next school year, though I was terrified I wouldn’t do it “good enough,” I homeschooled for her fifth grade year, allowing Jennifer to pursue her own interests at her own pace. We listened raptly to books on tape such as Rascal, Charlotte’s Web, and My Side of the Mountain as I drove her to educational therapy and tutoring appointments twice a week. For the first time in ten years, most of our days together were peaceful. She no longer shouted, “I hate you,” stomping to her room and slamming the door. I no longer yelled back, “Good!” or “Fine!” Now that I knew what was happening inside her mind, I was more aware of times when frustration was building and tried earlier to alter the environment. And when I couldn’t, I responded more compassionately than I had in the past—when I’d felt she was railing at me—understanding now that she was frustrated with herself, and with the same issue that upset me, too: being unable to control my world or my reaction to it.
Jennifer went back to the regular classroom for sixth grade, with a little help from the Resource teacher, and stayed on medication throughout high school and into college. I cherish that one year we had together, mornings spent in pajamas watching taped PBS specials about Lewis and Clark’s journeys and the history of humans conquering Mt. Everest, sharing sandwiches at the local deli, sitting on its patio downtown with her spelling book on sunny days, talking, relaxing, enjoying each other’s company. That year offered a chance to heal, to start fresh, a gift, a blessing I never expected.