Some pretentious soul-searching going on here: please accept my apologies in advance, if you decide to read on. I’m an oversharer: a thinker and a talker and a blogger when I should follow the more fruitful examples laid on by my family and get on with things.
This article from Psychology Today popped up in my Facebook timeline recently and it set all manner of cranial gears a-smouldering and teeth a-gnashing. It’s concerned with the damage that angry or impatient words can do to children: which we are all concerned about, aren’t we?
That’s a troubling enough topic for any parent. When our J-Dilla was en route three-plus years ago, it was surprising how much talk there was about how parenting was a damage limitation exercise. It was practically all in jokey tones, but there was still a lot of chat about it, underpinned broadly by a gloomy Larkinesque philosophy about the terrible consequences of some parental choices and (worse) those choices that carers made without realising. The author of this article, Peg Streep, seems to have endured a terrible experience growing up with her mother; the hurt and anger rears up in flames from her words. Who could blame her?
But aside from it being a subject fraught with fears and guilt, something about the article really troubled me. Streep shared the idea from a recent book on child psychology and parenting that those looking after children can choose between taking the high-road or the low-road of parenting. The high-road is being the grown-up, being rational and taking a step back to take stock of the situation, keeping a cool head and focussing on what the child needs from you; the low-road is allowing the reactive side of the brain to take charge, unchallenged, and snap at the child or lash out verbally. Quite rightly, the effects of anger are discussed as being narcissistic, toxic, causing irreparable damage to the kid’s sense of self and values, continuing the chain of unhappiness and anger to the next generation. But then, Streep identified parents that fail to lift their game from the low road as ‘unloving’. Big ouch.
Now, this might might confirm the impression that I’m all about the narcissism, but I got quite reactive and angry about this idea. A nerve was definitely touched by the thought I was damaging J-Bird with any cross words I dropped on him from my 43-year-old height, but I felt that was a judgment too far, to say quite explicitly that because I sometimes fail to keep my cool with J it means I do not love him.
I’ve blogged before in an earlier incarnation about my emotional difficulties as a parent and as a human being. In the year or so since I posted it, in many ways things have got tougher as J-Chop has tried to work out his boundaries and pushed at all the buttons his sticky fingers can find. This is what happens with exploratory toddlers, with two-year-old terrors, with cheeky threenagers: they need to learn about the world through experience and it’s my role to guide him, not throw up more obstacles. I know it isn’t meant to be easy, the ‘hardest thing’ parents have ever done: I understand that. But the idea that because I fail to stick to the high road I simply do not love him, that opens a door to a very black box indeed.
When J was tiny, I fretted exhaustedly that I didn’t feel much of a bond with the wordless, unsmiling little creature; I felt that he would stare through me at three in the morning while I stared back, completely lost. Narcissistically, I took to Facebook to try and release some of the pressure in my head and many parents got back to me publicly and privately to say it had been similar for them, that the bonds took time to form. But it still worries me today that the reason I find it so hard to dissipate my irritation with him is that I don’t love him properly; surely, if I loved him fully, all the bad feeling would simply be washed away.
It should be difficult to set aside these unhelpful feelings of annoyance, to push the adrenalin out of my system with a firm injection of dopamine and other more caring, mammalian hormones, but the Psychology Today article also refers to the hard-wired nature of how we interpret danger, and anxiety and depression can be seen as the inappropriate overlay of these ancient responses to physical danger onto our daily domesticated lives. In the instant I feel a shout exploding inside of me like an atomic mushroom cloud I am shouting at myself, joining in a hateful chorus shouting about how I’m doing everything wrong AGAIN. It’s very powerful stuff and so instant that I often feel completely unequipped to divert or control or dismantle it. I’ve so thoroughly absorbed the idea that I’m a failure, that I’m incompetent, that I’m weak and bad, that I don’t need any convincing about how toxic and dangerous name-calling can be for any mind, young or old. As with Streep, this is exactly what I do not want to do – create an unhappy kid in the image of my own dark fears. Love can conquer all, light disinfecting the squalid corners of our murky innards when we can allow it in, but why aren’t I always convinced that I can feel it?
All these fears aside, what can I practically do to improve this situation? I’ve started to make sure that I do at least ten minutes of mindfulness each day again in an effort to keep my cool in general, which definitely helps. This was recommended by all manner of medical professionals that I’ve spoken to about this and my other anxieties, especially since my blood pressure has begun to climb: a dead Dad arguably being worse than an angry Dad. There are subtler measures too. This blogpost explains how the author decided to think about her children as babies and that helped her to keep her head when all the little ones were losing theirs. And I had a similar experience myself over the Xmas holidays.
After weeks of J-Boy getting increasingly frustrated with his life with Daddy, I decided that I had to give myself a good talking to, as it felt like battles between us were opening up on all fronts, every small thing was becoming a power struggle. That was a powerful sign that I had lost sight of what our relationship should be, that I strayed far from the high path and into the valley of squabbly darkness. As with the post above, it was the case of changing one word; however, being a narcissist, it was about changing my self-image, not the image of my child. Not directly, at least.
Instead of thinking of myself as a bad father, as an angry father, as an ‘unloving’ father, which I had been for weeks, I decided to think of myself as a loving father. It was that simple, changing the label, but it did some good. Almost immediately, I felt I wasn’t worried about the tiny disobediences that had been piling on my mind, burrowing into my grey matter, but just loved him and indulged him when what he doing was OK and talked calmly to him when it wasn’t. I couldn’t quite believe it. It felt amazing and he was calmer too after a day or two, especially once he had nursery to give him something new to think about.
There is still a lot of work to go and I’m still riven with doubt about whether I’m the human for the job. I have had some very dark thoughts about where I could go from here, but they are not a realistic option. The prize for overcoming the fear and anger is immense and I want to make sure that if I don’t quite manage to win it for him myself that I’m around to make sure my son is better equipped to get there.
Am I being over-the-top and theatrical here? Running on with the ideas a bit much into William Blake territory? Is everyone shaking their heads with opprobrium at my parenting abilities, sucking their teeth and thinking to themselves there should be child licences? Or just sighing that I should calm down and carry on?
Whichever way, wish me surefootedness on the high road ahead.