The wounded parent, part 1: Lessons

by Wolf Pascoe on June 16, 2011

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punishment desk

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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”

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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.

LIMITS

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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.

rage-bikeWe 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.

“No.”

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.

. . .

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This is the first post in a two-part series. The Wounded Parent concludes next time with: Something helpless

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RELATED POST:

I’m not your house elf

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

How a Mad Dad Can Become Better — practical suggestions for monitoring your anger, from Fatherhood Factor

. . .

EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Any thoughts about limits or raging bears? I bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf June 16, 2011 at 10:55 am

It’s interesting for me to read this now, having just pondered the issues of angry outbursts – and the fact that we need to tolerate anger from our children so they learn that it’s natural, and how to deal with its aftermath.

It’s not a bad thing that they see us lose our tempers, or that they be allowed to “cross the line” a few times, and figure out the consequences. It may however be challenging for us to know when to keep our mouths shut, when to snap back, or when to keep it to a grumble.

As for those triggers (“I became my mother”) – another story entirely. More learning for us…

And maybe it doesn’t matter so much (the “zoom out” theory) – as long as they have plenty of security in our love, their safety, and a balance in the emotions they observe and are “allowed” to display.

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Wolf Pascoe June 16, 2011 at 10:52 pm

I’d like to hear more about this “zoom out” theory, BLW.

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BigLittleWolf June 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Zoom out. Okay. And hoping you don’t mind my sharing two links with you here.

First – for those of us who have experienced terrifying (and often disproportionate) rage on behalf of a parent – especially if she is the only parent present – I’m not sure we ever entirely shake the depth of the experience. We don’t get over it so much as we step outside it, recognize it when it reverberates through us, and we choose as adults to take a breath and, as you did, hold our tongues – as well as our actions.

Might I offer this – It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady – by way of my own experience.

As for being a mother – for years I did not anticipate having children because I was certain that I couldn’t possibly be any good at it (having an abusive mother, how could I be anything but an abusive mother myself?) – and I did have children – in my late 30s. And ironically, have largely raised them solo.

But one of the advantages of being older when you have kids is that ability to stop yourself. To take a breath.

Anger is triggered by a variety of actions and words as you well know – and more so when we’re tired or stressed. The hitting incident obviously triggered something in you, but you have the maturity to recognize that the rage is anger gone overboard, that it comes from some other place planted in you, that to do more than what you did would be disproportionate.

And so you stop. You breathe. You hold your tongue. You zoom out – though zooming out as I call it, applies to many things including our scrutinizing (and flagellating) ourselves over our parenting, our words, our imperfections. But your mother is part of you, those experiences are part of you, just as the good ones are. Just as my experience of my own mother’s cruelty and excessive anger is palpable at times, and flows through me.

I’ve learned to take steps back. To zoom out. Including – if I do lose my temper – to apologize when appropriate, and put it in context when that is appropriate.

My way of coping I suppose. And doing the best I can, knowing there is no perfect – and maybe that’s just fine.

Zoom

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Wolf Pascoe June 18, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I was behind in my reading and hadn’t gotten to the Zoom post when I responded to your first comment. Yes. Yes. Yes.

It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady is breathtaking. It reminds me once again, you are il miglior fabbro.

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Barbara June 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Reading this brought the memory of that feeling back to me – that feeling of rage at your child. I would be surprised if there’s a parent out there who hasn’t felt it. It scared me how quickly it could get out of control and I learned to put myself in a ‘time-out’ before it had a chance. But I do think it’s good to let your kids see your anger – for one thing, they see anger is normal. And I think it’s important for them to know there are lines they can’t cross (kids are always looking for the boundaries) and consequences (or rewards) to actions. It’s also a chance for us to show them the right way to express anger. The trick is to express it the right way!! Good luck! (I confess I still mess up sometimes.)

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Wolf Pascoe June 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I agree. It’s good to let your kids see your anger on occasion. I also think it’s good to model–even narrate–for them the steps you take to keep from losing control.

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Charles Bernstein June 17, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Wolf, I somehow think that your mother would not have written a beautiful, helpful blog after kicking over your desk. You captured a moment and a fear that all of us parents have wrestled with at least once or twice. Lovely.

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Wolf Pascoe June 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Thanks, Charles. Much appreciated.

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Fox June 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Dear Wolf,

How sad I am for you on many counts. What you experienced from and with your mother on your 9th birthday was clearly awful. Perhaps the rage you experienced at Nick’s behavior will cleanse you of the emotion of your experience and put it into perspective from the mind of a mature adult. Your dad died, as did your mother’s husband (same guy), not long before your 9th birthday. It appears that you were the unfortunate target of her anger and grief – and on and on.

You are certainly not your mother, at least I hope not, for your sake and for the sanity of Nick and Nora. One cannot right the wrongs of childhood. But, these can be examined from an adult point of view. I wish you luck and good health.

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Wolf Pascoe June 17, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Thank you, Fox. What really interests me, and why I tell this story, is the mechanism of how rage gets passed on. I think it needs to be understood to be confronted. I suppose that’s what you are calling the adult point of view. More on that next time.

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Privilege of Parenting June 18, 2011 at 1:28 am

It’s good you tell and quell the wrath, and heal the boy inside as well. So sorry that you suffered this way as a child, no doubt your mother felt much shame at her behavior mingled with pervasive fear (that she discharged into you). It’s good to connect and heal our own shame through connection and deepening understanding—particularly about disorganized attachment and the possibility of us earning our security when it was not bestowed organically in the beginning.

Empathy and All Good Wishes

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Wolf Pascoe June 18, 2011 at 7:20 am

Earning our security. I’ll be thinking long and long on that one, Bruce. Many thanks for the visit and good counsel.

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Selina Kingston June 19, 2011 at 12:47 am

Unfortunately, I became my mother many years ago. You described me here in this post – the cobra, the bear. It knotted me up inside reading this. I recently joined an anger management course. I’m on the second week. It’s great and I have learnt a lot already and recognised my behaviour but I’m not convinced it will help the next time the red mist comes down
Great post – thank you

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Wolf Pascoe June 19, 2011 at 1:39 am

Selina,

I have a lot of ambivalence about this piece, but your response has convinced me it was right to post it. Thank you.

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Alameda June 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm

I used to work with my dad during the summer months and every weekend I had the chance. when I was 15, on a summer day, I got mad at him. I don’t remember the reason of my anger. He was sitting at the breakfast table, having his breakfast and reading the morning paper. I was so mad that I threw a vase at the glass door that was next to him and broke it. He said nothing but stared at me. He did not move but stared at me. Needless to say I never forgot that stare. I felt horrible and wished I could turn the clock back. I never got mad at him again. I cannot express my guilt. Also, I was 15- I knew more about right and wrong than an 8 year old.

I got mad at my kids at times, actually very mad. I always walked away for fear of doing something and regretting it.

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Wolf Pascoe June 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I love this story of your father’s stare. This morning Nick refused to put away his toothbrush. I stared at him. I didn’t reproach him or walk away in disgust. I stared. After a while, he put his toothbrush away. I’m not sure why. He said, “I get an extra minute of screen time for this.”

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