This week, let’s think about the beliefs – personally, socially, culturally – that define our realities.
The most profound disappointment in life is when your truth is not believed.
When reality becomes distorted. By people who matter. And even by people who don’t matter.
But those close to you…that’s when the knife cuts the deepest. Because the hope hangs on. And on. And on. Maybe if this, maybe if that….then they’ll believe me.
Wait, I know that’s what happened. I was there. I heard it. I saw it.
But what if we are programmed from an early age to tell the world – or, more specifically, our world – family, friends – no everything is just fine.
My father would stare into the sad face of one of his children and chant over and over: Don’t Smile! Don’t Smile! Don’t Smile! Laughing…as he repeated his mantra. He’d crouch down and get right in front of a small unhappy face, his mouth stretched tight in a wide grin. His brown eyes, behind thick glasses, betrayed the frivolity. They were mocking. Perhaps fearful.
As if we presented the impossible possibility that one so small and helpless could struggle with an emotion so complicated, so fraught with need.
Need for compassion, understanding, some measure of support. Validation. That we mattered.
I understand now why. He had no idea how to respond. Maybe he was overwhelmed. As it reflected his own dark emotional beliefs. The message: Don’t Be Sad. Deny the Sad. It’s not okay.
Of course, it didn’t take long for our smiles to take shape. If for nothing else, to make the laughing father stop. Smiles did not match up with the eyes or heart. And especially they did not reflect our truth.
My mother, on the other hand, would ask us what we did wrong to cause this emotion that made her so uncomfortable.
Life seldom unfolds in straight lines. It’s not necessary to repeat the prompt phrase, but this week let’s think about the times when life has turned an abrupt corner, or caught us off guard.
This topic jettisons me back almost 30 years to one of those moments. Which caught me off guard…and remains clear in my memory even now.
You hear so much advice as a new parent. Or a young parent. It comes at you from every direction. Other parents. Friends. Family members. Books. Magazine articles. I’m talking pre-internet…when I was raising children.
In the midst of all this advice, there were times I neglected the inner barometer. My parenting radar and instincts still not fully developed.
My 3 year old son’s 8 month experience at a local daycare center was one of those times. When I should have picked up on the signs. That it wasn’t the best place for him; even at only 2 days a week.
Irritability. Anger. Clingyness. But not all the time. I increasingly felt something was off, but rationalized my uneasiness…as over-reacting to normal toddler adjustments.
Until an exchange one evening while changing his diaper. When paying attention became front and center. And a turning point for me…
I am a bad boy.
The words jarring and new…from a child who talked little. Dark green eyes glanced up at me, and then away.
I froze; his two ankles balanced between the fingers of my left hand as I tried to still their movement. He was anxious to be off the changing table. Arms and legs swinging up. Down. Sideways. Body twisting. Trying to roll over. Two damp middle fingers plunged deep in his mouth. No more words came as the sucking became rhythmic.
With my free hand, I smoothed blonde hair back from his forehead.
His eyes met mine. Sweetie…You are a Good Boy. A wonderful boy. And I love you!
I pulled the diaper up between his legs and gently held it on his belly. I let go of his legs. They scissored the air like bike pedals. Wrinkled fingers slid out of his mouth.
Bad Boy he repeated.
I leaned closer…You are the best boy in the whole world.
He strained to be upright. I pinned the diaper, pulled up the pants and stood him on the table. We were almost eye-to-eye.
I felt my outrage growing, the tears close behind….
You Are A Good Boy.
I kissed his cheek. Wrapped my arms around him. Lifted him up. He hooked his little boy legs around my waist and rested his head on my shoulder. His body finally still.
I knew there was only one place he could have heard those words…and gotten that message.
I withdrew him from the daycare center.
I quit my consulting job.
And when her biographer says of an Italian woman poet, “during some years her Muse was intermitted,” we do not wonder at the fact when he casually mentions her ten children.
Anna Garlin Spencer
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY
especially to all you mean mothers out there…
Adorning a wall in my former home was the following calligraphy print I bought at a local craft fair in the early 1990’s.
It appealed to me with its logic, simplicity and just plain common sense…
In 1993 I was inspired to write a story about a day in my life as a mean mother. I dusted it off for this blog post (who knew?…).
CONFESSIONS OF A MEAN MOTHER 1993
There are two kinds of mothers in this world: Nice Mothers (all the other mothers in town) and Mean Mothers (me). At least that’s what I’m told by my 11 year old daughter; my first born, my pride and joy, my reason for campaigning against Ronald Reagan.
She is right. I am a Mean Mother – married to an equally Mean Father. I have explained that we owe our success to Mean School. Where else would we learn how to set up “chore charts” directing her to strip and make beds (for starters) and our 5 year old son to set the table and fold socks? Where else would we learn about bedtimes earlier than all the other kids in town? And how to set an allowance that is less than the mortgage payment?
I often hear about Nice Mothers.
All the Nice Mothers let their kids stay up late and wait on them 24 hours a day. Children lucky enough to have Nice Mothers can also eat candy and chips all day long. My daughter has many friends who have no chores and watch whatever they want on TV.
“Their mothers let them,” she declares (fathers aren’t usually given credit for this). This surprises me because I think I’ve seen a few of these mothers at Mean School.
My daughter demands proof about Mean School. My son usually accepts these things at face value; but she, being older and wiser, is suspicious.
The subject came up again one recent evening.
Daughter: “Mom, can I watch TV?”
Me: “Have you finished your homework?”
Dtr: “I’ll finish it after ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ is over”
Me: “Now is better.” “Remember Mean School Rule #66: ‘Children must finish all homework before viewing TV.'”
Dtr: “Mom, would you just stop with this stuff about Mean School?” It’s SO ridiculous!”
Me: “Well…don’t you think I am mean? Aren’t I doing a good job?”
“Mommmmm.” She rolls her eyes. A practically perfect eye roll.
She hates to lose an argument. “There Is No Such Thing As Mean School.” She pauses for effect. “Like, where is it?”
“Only learning-to-be-mean parents know,” I admit.
Hands on hips…”I still don’t believe you!”
I turn to my husband who is sitting on the couch with our son reading The Cat in the Hat. “Don’t you think it should be obvious that we’re going to Mean School? We insist they write Thank You notes for goodness sake! And what about the no-candy-for-snacks rule? Now that’sreal proof.”
He looks up at me, right eyebrow raised. “Well, I don’t understand why she doesn’t believe us. Maybe we should take extra classes.”
“That’s IT!” “We’re not mean enough!”
She stamps her foot. “You guys are just fooling me. I don’t care what you say. There’s no such thing and I know it!”
Our son, eager to end the discussion, defends our position.
“You’re just a butt-head,” he comments to his sister.
Ignoring him, she crosses her arms and tries again: “And anyway you aren’t that mean…..”
My husband and I look at each other in astonishment.
“All that work! All those rules! All those lists!”
“And especially all those classes…for nothing?”
“We’ll just have to try harder, that’s all,” he admits.
I nod my head in agreement as our daughter flops down in a chair with a loud sigh and another eye roll.
“Well, kids,” I promise, “Dad and I are going to do the best we can to use what we learn in Mean School no matter what other parents let their kids do. After all, we have our position in the community to think of. Remember the family motto: if your friend jumps off a bridge, will you do it too?”
Our son laughs. “Yeah, right.”
Our daughter moans. “Oh forget it.”
We, as mean as ever, continue… “Please go pick up your rooms – we can’t see the floor anymore.”
[I am happy to report we were able to boost enrollment at Mean School by recommending it to several friends. Whose children also grew up to be fine upstanding citizens with great senses of humor]