Tuesday, May 27, 2008


So recently I've lost some of my patience with my kids. I hadn't had a decent break in quite a while and stress is starting to pick up with a big move coming up later this year. I was feeling bad and remembered I kept an article a few years ago for just such an occasion. It was written by Catherine Newman from her "Bringing Up Ben and Birdy" series. It helps me every time I read it. (Along with a couple of hours of mommy freetime.) I thought I'd share it with you, for those times when your little ones are bringing out your monster side.


Are silver linings in the eye of the beholder? But what if I'm the cloud, what then? Is the silver lining the mere hope that I will change yet, become more the person I want to be? Or maybe if I'm the dark and brooding one, then the silver is these children who shine out nonetheless, glimmering from the gloom like angels of joy. But let me back up a second, and tell you what happened to me today at Whole Foods.

The kids were with Michael at a friend's house, and I was meeting them there for dinner, picking up just a few things on my way. And if you ever, ever get a chance to go grocery shopping without your children, then you know what it's like: this kind of dreamy wandering around looking at this and that, not pushing that godforsaken car cart that moves like a cross between an amusement park ride and a beached whale on the sand, not pulling mysterious strawberry hulls out of your baby's mouth and shuddering to wonder where the strawberries even came from in the first place, not figuring out exactly how many microseconds you are from the bathroom at any given moment.

I love grocery shopping. I love grocery shopping by myself. So imagine my surprise when, in my gauzy-happy state, like I was meandering down the aisle at my own wedding, I took a cheddar cube from the bowl of "tryers" (as we call them) and was practically slapped across the face by the aproned cheese worker who darted out from behind the counter to scold me. "The toothpicks are right there!" he said, yellingly. Then: "Jesus Christ," while he whipped the whole bowl to the back, to be incinerated, I suppose, with the rest of the earth's Contaminated Things. Honestly, you'd have thought that my fingers were oozing with smallpox blisters.

And yes, I should have used a toothpick. I understand that. I've worked enough food service jobs in my life to know how irritating it is when people don't follow basic hygiene principles, like Don't put your lips to the mouth of the ketchup bottle or No vomiting on the glass front of the pastry case. But to be scolded so! I flushed crimson and my eyes filled with tears. Not that I felt so bad about the cheese cube itself — but oh, the shame of being chastised! My heart banged. I practically scuttled out of the store without even the lettuce and cilantro I'd been instructed to pick up.

Later, I wished that I'd recommended that maybe that guy quit his job. When everything anybody does constitutes proof, for you, of the evil and bankruptcy of human nature? Time to pursue a new line of work! (And again: I know the feeling. Once when I was waiting tables, a woman held up a slime-edged salad green and yelled across the restaurant to me, "Would you serve this to a guest in your home?" and I yelled back, "Would you yell at the host of a dinner party?" and quit. Okay, I didn't. But I wished I had.)


Are you wondering where the silver lining comes in? Or what on this green planet any of it has to do with childrearing? I'll tell you. Walking ashamedly back to my car, it occurred to me: This is how Ben must feel when I scold him. And it's one thing to be scolded because you behaved in a way that was unkind or frankly dangerous. It's another thing to be scolded because you made a mistake or were dawdling or had a negative feeling or were being a child, for goodness sake. I have so blissfully few opportunities to be reminded of that vulnerable/humiliated feeling that comes from being spoken to in that way. And here was an opportunity.

You see, this thing happened when we were in California — not such a big deal, but I've been turning it over in my mind. We were staying in a youth hostel on the coast, and in the kitchen there were lots of recycling bins and a special can crusher to make it all more compact. I thought it would be fun for Ben to try, so I called him over, and we popped his empty orange juice can in, and I showed him the handle to pull. Only when the can was halfway crushed, Ben grabbed it back out, said, "Mama, no!" and burst into tears. I was, inexplicably, furious with him. Partly, I think, because he was "acting like a baby" (ugh — I see how awful that is), partly because it was such an unpleasant surprise, his response, especially when I'd had this idea that the whole thing would be fun for him (our own expectations are always glumping everything up, aren't they?). Maybe I was hungry, too, and tired. And I spoke so sharply to him that I'm ashamed to write it here. I didn't ask questions, or bend down to find out why he was sad or worried. I just said, "That's enough, Ben! My god, it's a can. I don't see what you're getting so hysterical about." And I more or less grabbed it from his hands and crushed it myself.

On the bulletin boards a few weeks ago, in response to my having written about scolding Ben for lying, a reader wrote this:
"I don't usually chime in here — but I had to this time, to say, please, let's go easy on our kids. I felt so sorry for Ben in this installment. Lying by a 5-year-old — considering it such a terrible thing — seems overblown (and I know Catherine acknowledges that). As one wise poster has said, for the kids it's an experiment. When your world is fluid and your heart is good, lying is not such a big deal. I'm trying to remember to treat my 5-year-old more as I treat my 2-year-old — to relax and remember he's just a child. I hold his heart in my hands."

Yes! Oh yes! Every time I think of that line "I hold his heart in my hands" I practically burst into tears.

In the car, maybe five minutes after the can incident, I apologized to Ben for having been so unkind and so impatient and it was only then, when I finally asked, that he had the opportunity to explain his reaction to me. "Well, for one thing," he said, "the can was so pretty, with that bright orangey picture of an orange on it. But also," he hesitated here, "I thought that machine was going to put more juice in it! I didn't realize it was going to smash it up." I was stunned. I had forgotten to explain to him what was even going to happen. Imagine how horrified you'd be if you put your whiskey sour glass up on the bar for a refill and the bartender whipped out a hammer and smashed it to smithereens! Poor Ben. "I'm so sorry," I said. And he said, brightly, "That's okay! Can we get pancakes with strawberries again?" And I was forgiven.

But oh, yes, we hold each other's hearts in our hands, don't we? All of us? But especially those good ones, those small but enormous ones of our children. Gentleness is such a worthy goal. Doing no harm. I rededicate myself to that purpose.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I do every time. It might instill some guilt, sorry 'bout that, but I think it's more helpful than anything. And now my patience has returned, even if only temporarily. Whatever it takes to be a better mommy, I'm willing to try it.

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