My little boy just hung his head
And I put my arm put my arm around his little shoulder
And this is what I said:
“Sonny I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
Honest I do honest I do, honest I do
— Randy Newman, “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do”
On my 9th birthday, shortly after my father died, my mother did something cruel. This wasn’t unusual for her in the early years after my father’s death, but on this particular day she seemed bent on teaching me a lesson I wouldn’t forget.
I had gotten up early and began to drum with my hands on the hall carpet. There was no particular reason, other than it was my birthday and I was looking forward to the party with a kind of joyous energy. I must have woken her.
She came out of her bedroom and asked me why I was making so much noise. There was no mistaking her quiet tone.
“I guess … it was an urge,” I whispered.
She walked into my room and knocked over the roll top desk which contained my various art projects.
“Pick it up,” she said.
I gathered the pencils and crayons that had spilled out on the floor and set the desk upright. Again she knocked it down and ordered me to pick it up. The ritual continued for several terrifying minutes as my world spun out of control.
“Why are you doing this,” I said through unstoppable tears.
“I had an urge,” she said.
The day did not turn out a happy one.
I wouldn’t be telling this story now except that last week I got angry with Nick, who was not listening to my limits, and I noticed that I had a queasy feeling in my stomach. I thought of the Randy Newman song. I thought of my 9th birthday.
I realized to my horror that the feeling I had was an impulse to terrify Nick into behaving himself.
We had been on an overnight with Nick’s school group at a coastal campground. It was time to go. I had packed away Nick’s two-wheeler under a mountain of gear. The plan was for everyone to hit the beach before returning to the city. But several of Nick’s friends had gathered for one more bike ride first.
“Get my bike out,” said Nick.
He kicked me and ran off.
Striking a parent is a cardinal sin in our house. Nick knows that it isn’t permissible to hurt someone else’s body. Bodies need to be kept safe, and Nora and I have devoted considerable time and effort to supporting that limit. It’s an effort that has paid off, nearly.
Perhaps, when he kicked me, I should have invited Nick into the car then and there and driven home. But it was an awkward moment and I decided to wait to address it. Over the next few hours, my anger built up, uncoiling along my back like an angry snake. It turned itself into a fine rage on the trip back to the city.
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
— William Blake
After we got home and unpacked the car I turned to Nick. “This hitting and kicking stops now,” I said.
But I didn’t just say it. What came out of my mouth was a hiss, then a growl. It had the menace of a cobra, the righteous ferocity of a bear.
I said other accusing things on the order of, “Do you know what would have happened if I had done to my mother what you did to me? Well? Do you?”
Nick looked scared. Good, I thought.
“Dada, I’m sorry.”
The line, “It’s not good enough to be sorry,” popped into my head, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t say it because these were words that had often been said to me.
I wanted to go on being angry but there was something too satisfying about the rage I was feeling. My world was out of control and the anger gave me power. Power even to right the wrongs of my own childhood.
I had, I realized, become my mother.
. . .
This is the first post in a two-part series. The Wounded Parent concludes next time with: Something helpless
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
How a Mad Dad Can Become Better — practical suggestions for monitoring your anger, from Fatherhood Factor
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Any thoughts about limits or raging bears? I bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.