My small daughter stood anchored to the floor in her footed pajamas, glancing uncertainly first at me and then towards the bedroom door, in which direction her older brother had just run at breakneck speed.
Her round little face was still rosy from being scrubbed with a washcloth in the bathtub, her dark hair still damp against her forehead. I saw her expression—puzzled, slightly scared, and completely unsure what to do next—and I was immediately ashamed of myself. I watched to see if her lower lip might pucker, a precursor to a full-on eruption of tears, but she just stood there, almost stoic.
I exhaled and reached my arms out to her with a smile. She then relaxed, grinned, ran back to me, and sat down on my lap on the floor. I kissed her head, grateful for a do-over.
Just moments before, I’d yelled at her. She was a mere three feet away from me, all twenty-four pounds and thirty-two inches of her, and I’d yelled at her. Why? Because she’d gotten out of my lap and tried to follow her brother out of the room.
It was bedtime. I was solo parenting for the first of four nights in a row while my husband traveled for work. I was getting over a sinus infection. I was exhausted. I wanted nothing more than to get both kids to sleep as soon as possible so that I could go collapse on the couch. I sat down on the floor in my son’s bedroom ready to read to them both and hustle them into bed. At first, they both sat down, too, but then my son shot up and ran, hollering, out of the room. I called after him, already exasperated, but I also knew there was no way I was getting up to chase him. Gleefully, my daughter got up to follow him. I started with a quiet, “Ada, please come sit back down,” but seeing that she was paying no mind and was determined to head out the door, I shifted, unconsciously but instantly, into intimidation mode.
“ADA. I SAID NO! COME SIT BACK DOWN!”
This was probably only the second time this child has been yelled at, by either parent, in her entire life. And it showed right there on her bewildered little face. She was looking at a mother she did not recognize.
Unfortunately, I recognized myself all too well. My determination to cultivate a habit of gentle parenting stems in part from my memories of a less-than-gentle mother. My mother never hit me (there is a tale of one spanking when I was three and wandered into the street, but I don’t remember this myself), but she yelled. A lot. She stormed around the house and slammed doors. A lot. She sometimes grabbed my arm, pinching hard enough into the flesh just above my elbows that her fingernails left half-moon-shaped marks on my skin. She often grounded me, once for six whole weeks when I was only nine years old. And, perhaps worst of all, she gave me the cold shoulder. She would leave the room or close herself into another room until I finally went and apologized to her, even when I didn’t feel like the row was my fault.
I know my mother loved me. I don’t have any lasting scars, physical or emotional, from her sometimes-hurtful, always fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants discipline. But she has been dead for almost thirteen years now, and when I think about growing up with her, I remember more harshness than gentleness, even though I’m fairly sure that she was far more often gentle than harsh. But the harsh is what sticks with me.
It takes near-Herculean effort, during so many moments of every day, to choose gentleness with my children. Every so often, when both of them are climbing the walls and I’m in a hurry and I’ve lost my equilibrium and I can’t get one of them to do something I need them to do, I suddenly find that my head is throbbing and my jaw is tight and my hands are clenched. And I look down to find that one of my hands is clenched around the flesh of a little arm. And I am horrified. I have never left any marks, but I have come close.
My son and I have this near-daily ritual where I’ll catch his eye or pull him close to me as he walks by. I’ll playfully say, “Hey, you!” And before I can say anything else, he grins and says, in a sing-song voice, “I love you!” because he knows that’s exactly what I’m about to say. That’s what I want to stick with him.
I suppose I do want to leave marks after all. But I want to make sure they’re the right ones.