in its deepest being
is something helpless
that wants help
— Rainer Maria Rilke
I was going to be so much better a parent than my mother. How had it happened that I turned into her?
Nick had kicked me. He had crossed the line into a way of behaving that I found intolerable. In that moment, I had responded with rage.
Years before, when I was Nick’s age, I had crossed the same line when I woke my mother by drumming on the stairs. That was as intolerable to her as Nick’s kick was to me. And she reacted to my ruckus as if I had struck her.
In some homes, joy and exuberance are punished. In others, aggression or lying. But there is a commonality underlying all punishment, and it’s this: when parents punish, they punish what is to them, in that moment, intolerable.
My mother and I found different things intolerable. But in our responses to what we found intolerable, we were not so very different. I can’t begin to express what a profoundly depressing realization this is. It means I am capable of practicing on my own son wrongs that were practiced on me. Worse, I may not just be capable of doing it. I may be called to do it. Like mother, like son.
THE COMPULSION TO REPEAT
The psychological phenomenon of traumatized people re-exposing themselves to situations which mirror the initial trauma has a name. It’s called the compulsion to repeat. It’s a familiar story—the abused child who grows up and becomes an abuser. But until Nick kicked me at the camp out I never understood the simple mechanism of how this repetition comes to be, never felt it operating in my body.
This time I did.
The longer I delayed expressing my anger at Nick, the more helpless I felt. The more helpless I felt, the more my anger turned to rage. In essence, feeling helpless is something so terrible that I will do anything to avoid feeling it. That’s the mechanism.
I know in my own parenting, I have chosen a path quite different from my mother in many ways, while holding to some of the tenets of my upbringing, that I’ve been able to see as valuable.
— Big Little Wolf
It may sometimes happen that people, if they feel they were wronged as children, set out to right those wrongs when they become parents. In my own case, perhaps because I was raised with punishment, I’ve tried to raise Nick without it. Consequences and limits, yes. But punishment, no.
Nora and I don’t want Nick squelched. We don’t want him afraid of his own shadow. We want him able to know and to speak his mind, to ask for what he wants, to have real choices.
It’s not easy raising a child this way. It’s even dangerous. So we do a lot of listening in our house. We have a lot of family meetings to thrash out problems. We rely on honesty rather than manipulation, negotiation rather than authority. We send him to a school, an un-school really, that does the same.
But it’s a messy and uncomfortable process. Nick gets to do a lot of things that Nora and I were forbidden to do as children. He’s constantly testing limits. There are times when I just want to lay down the law.
It’s those times, the laying down the law times, that are the most tricky. Whenever Nick appears willful to me, whenever he tests a limit, whenever he does anything I was forbidden to do as a child, then suddenly I am young Wolf again, with salt thrown on an old wound.
Nick is a messenger from my past. Watching him grow powerful reminds me of how helpless I was. Watching him free reminds me that I was not free.
KILL OR BE KILLED
If I experience Nick’s behavior as intolerable, it’s really the old helplessness that I’m feeling. And I know I’m in danger of doing anything to avoid feeling it, anything to squelch the behavior that reactivates my old wound.
It’s a choice, really. Either bear the unbearable news, or stop the messenger. Shame him, attack him, condemn him, hurt him. Whatever works. Whatever distracts me from what I don’t want to feel. Whatever gives me the illusion of power. Emotionally speaking, it’s kill or be killed.
On the day Nick kicked me, I gave in to rage. I can’t fool myself that I did it to enforce a limit. You don’t need to rage to do that. Rage was a defense against feelings that were intolerable to me. A defense against feeling defenseless.
And so I raged, because the alternative in that moment was to return to my eight-year-old bedroom, with my mother throwing my desk to the ground and life spiraling out of control.
And that was unbearable.
THE QUICKSAND UNDERNEATH
I don’t like telling this story.
I don’t like any of this.
I don’t like it that children routinely violate limits. I don’t like it that when one’s limits are violated, old wounds are re-activated. I don’t like it that unless one fully re-inhabits the old wound, one is in danger of inflicting a new one. Of course one needs to be strong and firm with an unruly, intolerable child. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the cost, the hidden tax, the quicksand underneath.
It’s never appropriate to shame and condemn and attack a child. If I’m feeling that temptation, I know I need to get the hell out of there.
The best I can do at such a time is to tell Nick, “You know the limit. I’m angry now. I need to take a break.” Then I have to get right with myself, in order to get right with him. Because that’s the only way (in words that Bruce Dolan used in a comment last time) to earn my security when it was not bestowed organically in the beginning.
This is the work of breaking the cycle.
. . .
This is the second post in a two-part series. Read The Wounded Parent, Part 1: Lessons
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Help For an Abused Family — from Motherlode
Memories of a Father’s Rage by Corbyn Hightower — from Motherlode
It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady by Big Little Wolf — from Daily Plate of Crazy
Enjoy is an odd word in this context. The first Motherlode article is instructive, but not enjoyable. The second two essays are another matter. In them, the authors raise their descriptions of an abusive parent to poetry. Read poetry not to be instructed, but transformed.
Childrens’ art credits: “Vitality,” poster colors, by Kim Kean J., Age 1, Singapore; “Playing,” chalk, by Hannah G., Age 4, Alberta, Canada; “Upside Down, and Inside Out – At Night Time the Sun Will Come Out,” Microsoft Paint, by Marina B., Age 12, Ontario, Canada. All images ©2011 The Natural Child Project. Used by permission. The Natural Child Project provides resources on unschooling and empathetic parenting.
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Ever felt helpless? I bestir, charge, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.