I was raised in an angry family. My parents fought a lot. It was very clear to me at a young age that my mother disapproved of my father’s gambling, and my father disapproved of my mother’s close relationship with her siblings. There was not a lot of restraint when things got heated and family members expressed their displeasure.
I’m happy to report that no one ever said, “You’re stupid,” or “You’re ugly,” or cursed at the children of the family. My parents never used the “F” word. However, there were lots of other ways to verbally attack, including a constant litany of nasty quips and remarks. Once I cried while I confided in my mother that I felt like I didn’t have any friends. The next time I displeased her, she said, “No WONDER you don’t have any friends.”
I vowed to be different. I was going to enthusiastically support my kids in whatever they were interested in doing and pursuing. I was going to understand their foibles and weaknesses and not exploit them. If they made childish mistakes, I would be patient and tolerant, unlike my father who made me write “I will think before I act” 100 times, after I accidentally dropped an egg (I was probably 8 or 9 at the time).
Whether learned or genetic, anger was programmed into me as my default emotion. If I got upset or scared, I reacted in anger. If events didn’t go as I had planned them, I reacted in anger. If I made a mistake, I got angry at myself, but it spilled over into the general family atmosphere.
It’s well known that kids think that, if their parent is sad or down or distracted, it must be caused by the kid’s misdeeds. Unless someone tells the child that this is not so, it is the logic they use to make sense of the world. How many comedians have explained that they got their start trying to cheer up their gloomy mothers?
There were problems in my first marriage, as there are in every marriage, which made me very angry. I had issues with my family of origin, who still held the power to wound me emotionally…to which I would react in anger. I was part of organizations in which people acted stupid, according to my rules. It made me angry when parents at the daycare where my kids went got annoyed about snow days, because it meant they had to take a vacation day. I wanted to scream, “Well, what did you expect when you had kids? That you could just hang them in the closet and never be inconvenienced?” Because these were not family members, I held my tongue with them. But I was still exuding anger.
So my kids grew up in an angry atmosphere. I remember one horrible moment where my son David was signing a birthday card for one of his friends, and got distracted while writing “Love,” so he went on after making the V and wrote “Lovid” as if he were writing “David.” He was probably 6 at the time. I got angry at him. I yelled. I said, “Pay attention!” I am ashamed of that now. I hope I apologized later, but that wouldn’t have erased that awful moment that my son experienced because I was unable to control my anger. The lesson was imprinted on him forever: you can never make a mistake, even if you are a child. Just like my father with the broken egg incident, I passed on that unreasonable message.
When I met my second husband, he had an 11-year-old son. We spent a lot of time together, and when his dad and I got married a few years later, he became my stepson. Like all teenagers, he was annoying at times, thoughtless, forgetful, and displayed all of those traits that are incompatible with adult expectations. But I held back. I didn’t get as angry with him as I did with my birth sons. I FELT just as angry, but I didn’t feel I had the right to take his head off verbally as I had done so freely with the others.
Example: hair left in the shower drain, after repeated reminders. I remember yelling at the first 2 sons and threatening to leave the slimy wad of hair on their pillow if they forgot again. It was the epitome of inconsiderate behavior, I felt at the time. Wrong. I realized later that it was just an absent-minded error. Teenage boys have lots of things on their minds, and being tidy is not one of them. Neither is thinking about the next person who is going to use the shower. It’s just not on their radar.
Of course, as a mom, it was my job to teach all of my sons good manners and consideration of others. But there are many ways to get that message across without yelling and threats and sarcastic tones of voice. Apparently I knew them, since I was able to use them with my stepson.
SO MANY TIMES I found myself hesitating, mulling over my irrational rage at something he had done, and putting that rage through several layers of filters until it came out of my mouth in a much more subdued way. Why? Why was it okay to let loose on my first two sons but not on the third one? Did I really believe that blood relatives had some kind of right to shred other blood relatives with impunity? Apparently I did.
I spent a lot of time going to therapy during those parenting years. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know how to fix it. I started to realize how my growing up years were impacting my present methods and beliefs. Intellectually I knew to forgive and be kind to children, but emotionally, that short circuit to anger overrode the rational thinking again and again, until I was forced to face my misguided impulses when dealing with my stepson.
One of the things I learned from my first two kids is that they perceive anger coming out of me even when I am not angry. One of my sons accuses me of “yelling” at him if I disagree with something he’s said. Well, that’s because I used to yell all the time, over things large and small, and that’s what he still hears, even if I’m not yelling. Both of my sons feel the oversized cudgel of disapproval coming from me, again if I only disagree or express a point of view different from theirs. I don’t like that and don’t want them to feel that way. As a result, there is a LOT more explaining and apologizing going on among us these days.
I still get angry much too easily. One of the things I love about my job is that I am actually paid to act upon my righteous indignation at various forms of injustice. It’s the perfect job for someone with anger issues! But these days, I make much more of an effort in my personal life to dial it down.
I am of the belief that parenting children is not something graded on a minute by minute or even day to day basis. If you mess up once in a while, you get a pass if you have created the overall tone of caring and loving and understanding. You can apologize when you mess up and your kids will learn from it. My two older sons absolutely know I love them with all my heart and always have. But I parented angrily for much of their childhood, and I can’t erase that with hugs and birthday cakes. I was wrong, and I am sorry.