Becoming a parent later (how’s that for a euphemism?) is as much about deciding the kind of mother you don’t want to be as deciding the kind of mother you fully intend to be.
If you’re an Old Mom like me, everyone you know has already had their children, so you’ve done your research. You’ve had plenty of time watching your siblings and cousins and friends raise children to cherry pick the techniques that effectively turn crazy animals into small civilized humans.
So, I decided long ago I wasn’t going to be a yelling mom. I do yoga. I meditate. I drive a Prius. I was going to be all mellow and zen and ‘Honey, your feelings of anger are pure and valid and crucial to your dual brain hemispheric development but please don’t drop your all wood cash register toy on the dog’s head.’ I do my yelling in the car. But I figured yelling in Priuses cancels out my carbon footprint.
Then my kid threw a fresh hot plate of pasta- (pasta, by the way, that wasn’t frozen Trader Joe’s Mushroom Fettucini, I’d cop to that) that I actually took time and effort to make by hand, all over the newly mopped floors and I hollered like, well, like my mother.
I grew up in a yelling house and so did everyone I knew. Yelling was what people did in the sixties and seventies. And quite possibly the eighties. I know yelling went extinct in the nineties because that’s when ‘time outs’ started making the scene. But in the sixties and seventies, when I grew up, Mom yelled at us, Dad yelled at us, Dad yelled at Mom and we all yelled at the dog. Hitting and spanking your kids was extremely acceptable, unless you had a family that didn’t read Dr. Spock. Those un-Spocked families parented free-style, incorporating hitting, shaming, publicly humiliating and yelling.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom tried to hit us, but she was short and we were fast. She had a long wooden spoon that she whacked wildly in the air as we tore ass away. When that wooden spoon connected with a calf or a shin, it stung like a bee. I recall some belt-snapping too, but it was more for show than anything else.
Our father was too massive to lay a finger on us, but would punch holes in doors to make a particular argument linger in our memories. One fist sized dent in my bedroom door was as an eye level reminder that Sanford and Son was always going to beat The Partridge Family for Friday night family TV viewing.
Yes, I grew up with one television. One phone. One car. One bathroom. Five People. Yes, all that sharing made us closer, but all that proximity was a breeding ground for yelling. When my sisters and I fought, yelling was just a warmup. We’d wing Dr. Scholl wooden sandals at each other’s heads. But now that we are firmly in the new digital century, I can say that I’d rather be yelled at than have my kid tune out with Dr. Dre beats and torch me on Facebook.
My sisters became parents long before I did. My younger sister has a daughter two years out of college, I have a three year old just out of diapers. Guess who planned out her life and married smart, early on. That’s right, not me. This sister is also a clinical psychologist who raised four daughters almost completely single-handedly while her husband worked crazy long hours building a successful law firm. I have never heard this sister yell at any of her girls, all of whom are wonderfully thoughtful, funny and excellent students. My sister’s girls adore and obey her so thoroughly that they beg for forgiveness at the calmly delivered threat of potentially being yelled at. While my eggs withered, I planned all along on being like this sister.
My older sister has two teen boys. Her boys are delightful, charming, deeply creative, imaginative and incredibly kind. My older sister yells. She is simply a yeller. She doesn’t hit, but will freely admit she shaped her boys into unfailingly polite young men, by standing on their necks from two until… well, I think she’s still standing on their necks. More impressively, her sons never disagree (even when she’s not around, standing on their necks) with her parenting style. They have grown and thrived despite (or because of ) how they were (and are) raised.My yelling, door-punching father went on to have two more children with his second wife. Big yellers. Both of them. Even when they are happy, it’s all yelled. Yet, their older child is soft-spoken. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him yell, but his sister thinks yelling is speaking. She’s a loving, friendly, smiling yeller.
A witness to all the above, I never thought I’d be a yeller. But I also never thought I’d be menopausal while changing diapers. My husband does not come from yellers. His parents are unfailingly polite Maine farmer Unitarians- the kind of people PBS was invented for. Hence my husband is soft-spoken and calm to the point of prodding him occasionally to see if he’s still breathing. But when Grace dumped a hot cup of coffee on his head early Saturday morning, he yelled like, well, me.
The night that I yelled at my daughter, we went onto have a terrible bath, with her sobbing furiously as I rinsed unwanted bubbles from her hair. She ran away from me, all the way up the stairs to my bedroom, crying until I stopped her and calmly said,
“Look. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I yelled. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. But I’m really, really trying. Which might sound like I’m mad, but I’m just scared I’m doing it all wrong.”
She eyed me for a moment, then climbed wet and naked into my lap and gave me a deep hug I felt unworthy of. But when she wrapped her warm wet arms and laid her head on my shoulder, I could tell we were cool. She knows I’m an old yeller and she loves me anyway.
But what choice does she have? Until she is strong enough to open the refrigerator, she has to forgive me. I may not know much but what little I do know about being a parent and a child and a spouse is all the different ways to forgive each other. Forgiveness is love. Or it’s a damn good place to start.