Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Power of Anger

I found myself confronted with a lot of anger recently - mainly from Leah, who is in the process of negotiating the tricky transformation from mummy -centered sweet baby-girl to her new preteen 6 year old self - and of course her little sister copies her any chance she gets. In the last couple of days, I ve been shouted at more times I care to count,  have been told to go away, to leave her alone and die (go to heaven and become an angel). I ve been cut with imaginary knives, fired at by spiderman's fists and kicked out of my  house to go and live in the forest (with the other witches).

Bath time at the end of the day was like negotiating a mine field after a whole week of sleep deprivation:  from undressing, to brushing teeth, to washing, to getting out of the bath and putting cream on - there was always something I totally blew. And subsequently got shouted at for.  Sometimes I ignorede the outbursts and simply got on with bath time. At other times I resorted to terrible threats: mama is going to be REALLY angry (yeah, right!) no tv, no reading in bed for years to come (haha, who cares, she's never going to stick it out....) So of course, nothing worked.

At some point on day 7 or 10 or 500, I finally cracked and shouted back that I was sick and tired of being shouted at every single evening and anyway, I had enough of this and they could just get themselves to bed without my annoying presence. And stormed out of the bathroom.

Which obviously did not help.
At all.

Two seconds later, I found myself crouched on the flooded bathroom floor, hugging two sopping wet and sobbing bodies to my heart, assuring them in the most soothing of voices (hoarse and sore from shouting outburst) that I was sorry, and they were so right: no mama was NEVER allowed to shout at her children. Ever.  And could they please forgive me (Nohohohoho) and sorry and sorry and sorry.

When they eventually passed out, still muttering "naughty mama" with their last waking breaths - I felt  guilty and exhausted and was wondering what on earth was going on. With me? With Leah?

I realised that I had fallen into one of the many traps of motherhood, where we allow our  primal instincts to jump to our defence  (on about the level of a 5 year old) instead of applying our better judgement . 

I also realised that my bad parenting moment was a direct result of my residual problem with: A N G E R

Growing up, it was a total taboo to ever express anger towards my parents. It was regarded as disrespectful to even critisize them, leave alone shout or rant at them. There was no acceptable outlet for anger (not for girls anyway) - and what I learned was to bottle it all up and pretend it did not exist.

As a result of this early conditioning,  I -like so many women of my genertion - never learned how to express anger in a healthy and appropriate way or - on the other side of the coin - how to stomach somebody elses anger in a calm and respecful manner. As women we tend to channel our anger into competitive dieting and being "bitchy" towards one another. Our anger hardly ever translates into power and healthy aggression  but tends to meander undgerground in sulking or "mood swings" explained away by the experts as pre/post or peri menstrual/menopausal symptoms. An angry woman is a symptom. And often pills are the commonly accepted remedy.

And where does it all start? With the little girl being told not to ever shout out her anger at her mother (and her father), to be quiet and respectful, to be "sensible" and sweet and never think an aggressive thought. As I was contemplating this sad truth, it dawned on me that I was setting my daughters up to repeat my history with anger. Which is the last thing I would want for them.

I also realised that my reactions to Leahs anger were to either punish (or threaten to) or ignore her outbursts, because in my adult world they did not make sense.

Where I always tried to acknowledge her feelings of sadness no matter how benign the reasons (to me anyway) because sadness does not "threaten" or "attack" me, I never gave the same safe space to her anger.

My mind invariably finds a way to shut down any reasons anybody in the world would be allowed to be angry with me  - leave alone a little girl who is shouting at me because I put cream on the wrong side of her leg first. Instead of acknowledging her anger and letting her be with it, I ignore it (because in my adult world it is ridiculous to shout at somebody because of the logistics of putting cream on a leg) or I argue with her and tell her she can't be angry because of something so silly.

 And this is why there had to be so many of these outbursts. I never allowed her to just be angry with me FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON,  at least none that was apparent to me -  I am sure she finds me intensely annoying lots of the time for her own good reasons. What I also did not take into account ever, was the fact that children can not always voice their anger in a way that makes sense to us. Feelings that overwhelm them during the day, when we are not with them, might just surface in the evening (hence: suicide hour - duuuh!) and to suffocate those feelings by trying to apply adult reasoning to them..... you horrible mama, just go live in the forest with the other witches and think about what you ve done to your sweet little children for the next 200 years....
So my resolution for the next couple of days was to allow her anger and see where this would take us.
This is what happened:

The next morning, we were about to get into an argument about what clothes to wear. Normally, in the spirit of just getting on with things simply to be able to leave the house before lunchtime, I avoid confrontations early in the morning and distract or bribe or threaten to get the result that I want, which is a dressed and fed child (two of them actually) in the car by 8am.  Not so this time. When she started complaining about having to wear long sleeves, I did nothing, but insisted long sleeves had to be worn, fully expecting her to rebel. Predictably, she started shouting, she hated long sleeves and I was horrible and she did not want to see me ever again. I did not disagree with her nor did I demand she stop shouting at me. Instead I stayed with her and when I finally got the chance I said: you are really angry with me, I can hear how very angry you are.

Which was followed by a re-energised outburst: Don't talk to me, don't even look at me.

So I averted my eyes a little trying not to smile ( because - believe it or not - in this moment I only felt huge love for her and the biggest admiration for the power of her anger) and let her shake her little fists in front of my face, telling her again that I found her anger very strong and even a little scary. She now actually started glowing and sizzling in a sort of  alien-movie-special-effects way. She then took me by the hand and sat me down on a chair (similar to what I do when my children have to sit on the mat - firm but absolutely careful not to hurt me). Now she was at eye level with me (clever move!!!) and could shout the rest of her anger right into my face.

I just sat there and processed it all, feeling a little shaky and emotional - because I never in my life had allowed anybody to be angry with me leave alone actually  love them throughout the whole process.  Maybe other parents do this all the time, but for me this was the biggest lesson ever (so far).  After not even a minute on the chair ( a long minute that is) her anger clearly peaked and after that her heart wasn't in it anymore. I could feel that she just carried on for the fun of it and told her that my ears were actually starting to hurt now and that I would just get on with getting dressed in the meantime. I invited her to come and join me in the bathroom when she was not feeling so angry anymore. I also told her that I loved her and that no matter how angry she was with me, I would always always always love her.

Surprisingly, she let me talk without starting to shout again, she just sort of looked into the corner of the room furthest away from me, with a big sulk on her face. But I could detect a hint of a smile around her mouth when I said that I was impressed with how strong she was when she was angry. I then left the room (without storming or being angry myself this time) and not even 1 minute later she joined me in the bathroom and started chatting about "baking day" at school - as if the last 15 minutes had never happened.

I was truly amazed. The rest of the morning was a breeze, and on our way to school we even talked a little about how we sometimes get angry and it just feels good to shout. I told her again how strong she was in her anger - as this really seemed to be her biggest sense of achievement in it all: to feel her own strength in her anger.

The evening outbursts stopped - (well not entirely of course, but ever so often I get a break )  and from now on, whenever my kids need to be angry with me, I try and make the time to face their anger and love them for it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I am still so overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of anger towards me that my defense mechanisms kick in and I deflect or avoid it - and that's  ok too, because in this process I am also allowing myself to be who I am (i.e. emotionally damaged and far from perfect)  but generally we are on a much healthier course now.

So I am declaring this month of November the official month to celebrate anger in my family. Anybody care to join?

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