It's hard to admit to the feelings I share in this post, but I think many mothers have these feelings sooner or later. As I tell my children, "I am your mother, but just like you I am a human being with my own feelings and flaws." I think we mothers sometimes forget that we are not superhuman.
When Aidan was half way to his third birthday, he committed a minor infraction that earned him some alone time in his room. He refused his sentence and, as I carried him up the stairs to enforce it, he pulled my hair so hard that he gave me a subgaleal hematoma. For six weeks after the incident, I had swelling over most of my scalp and sharp pains that radiated down my left arm. To this day, the skin on the while left side of my head is extremely sensitive. In the days immediately following the incident, I was very angry with him. But I knew that he had no way of understanding the potential consequences of his actions and he was very sorry for what he had done. So, I obviously forgave the little guy and moved on.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, this incident was the first in a long string of Aidan’s attempts to inflict pain and one of the more successful ones. Looking back, I realize that Aidan was always quick to show his emotions physically. When I needed to wean him to go on chemotherapy, he fought it, biting my breast and crying. He bit other children at school and his older sister whenever he was frustrated or angry. Even when he began speaking he preferred to express his emotions with every part of his body except his vocal apparatus. Doctors insisted that he was a normal boy with perhaps less impulse control and more intense emotions than average. “Make sure his rested and fed, give him a lot of praise when he is good, and firmly correct him when he acts out,” we were told repeatedly. We did all those things and more. We tried behavior modification, reasoning, yelling, crying, threatening, and (very briefly) spanking. Nothing seemed to work. By age 5 Aidan no longer bit but he threatened us physically with whatever was nearby – knives, knitting needles, pens – while we stood there helpless. Nothing in my life had ever stymied me the way handling Aidan’s outbursts did.
My dirty little secret is that some days I didn’t like Aidan. Three years into dealing with his behavior on a daily basis, I felt like I was always walking on eggshells and never knowing when something minor – like the night’s dinner menu -- might launch another one of his tirades. I dealt with at least one tantrum a day. Some lasted only 5-10 minutes, but many lasted hours and left me unhinged. One day I was particularly ineffective in halting his inappropriate behavior. I retreated to the living room to pull myself together. He followed me there, climbed into my lap, and slapped me – softly – as if to say I can hurt you if I want to and there is nothing you can do about it. I jut sat there detached; the only way to cope was to feel nothing lest he see that he could reduce me to an uncontrolled mess of tears. There were days when I want to put him into the car, drive to a remote area, and leave him there. What kind of mother feels that way? And to whom can she admit such horrible thoughts?
Aidan’s struggles left me questioning not only my parenting skills but also my capacity to love. What were the bounds on “unconditional love? At what point did self-preservation trump parental devotion? Exactly how much can you let a child hurt you when before your own humanity demands its rightful due? Can you love a child that you do not like much of the time? I want what is best for my children, but I cannot care for them if I cannot care for myself. Like they say on airplanes, “Secure your own oxygen mask first and then secure your child’s.” If I allowed my son to treat me like his whipping boy and still come back for more, what was I teaching him? Would he grow up to believe that he could treat women badly and expect them to love him anyway? And was I teaching my daughter that sometimes love hurts and you just sit there and take it? Were these the valuable lessons that my “unconditional love” conveyed?
“I love you Mommy,” he said from his carseat after a particularly bad morning that included threatening me with knitting needles and repeatedly banging his trampoline against the door after being put in time out.” “Really?” I replied with an air of dismay “It’s hard to tell that from the way you treat me, Aidan. The way you treated me this morning? That is not love. That is NOT how we treat the people we love.” “Fine,” he replied then added viciously, “I guess I don’t love you then.” I sighed, “I guess not.” He apologized later that day and, I’ll admit, I had to force myself to accept it because I know that it is my responsibility to teach him not only how to behave but also how to forgive. So no matter how much or how often he hurt me, I had to keep coming back to him. I had to teach him to manage his feeling and express them in other ways because if I surrender this responsibility, there would be no one else to do it. But there were days when I wondered how long I would be able to keep forgiving him.
Aidan had been seeing a developmental pediatrician, but a year into therapy Aidan’s outbursts were becoming increasingly violent. At one visit my eyes filled with tears as we discussed the situation. The doctor raised the possibility that I needed anti-depressants. “Anti-depressants,” I thought to myself, “I’m not depressed: I’m Italian-American. We emote.” I didn’t need drugs to “take the edge off parenting” as the doctor had suggested; I needed skills to teach my child to behave.
On the advice of our general pediatrician, we sought the care of a psychologist. During our two visits she probed every nuance of Aidan’s personality – his sensitivity to smells, clothing tags, and loud sounds; his persnickety approach to food and clothing; his boundless energy – and determined that he likely had Sensory Integration Disorder. She referred us to occupational therapy where they confirmed the diagnosis. For the next four months, Aidan attended weekly one-on-one therapy sessions where he learned to regulate his behavior. My once impossible little boy learned to express his emotions verbally. He started saying things like, “I feel very angry and I want to hit something” and “I’m in a bad mood.” His tantrums and physical abuse waned substantially. I learned to help him cope with his negative emotions. The decibel level in our household plummeted, as did our stress levels. We started to find even keel.
While Aidan’s difficulties are no longer as severe as they once were – he’s largely ceased threatening family members with the nearest potential implement of destruction – he continues to struggle with those strong emotions of his. His threshold for frustration and discomfort of any kind are terribly low. On a good day, he removes himself from stressful situations, but on a bad day he just turns bad to worse.
On Saturday evening he was growing increasingly restless on the trip home from Philadelphia. He continually hit Amelia with the seat belt. Our friends, Greg and Dave, who graciously gave up their Saturday to pick up the kids so that Bill could stay with my puffy self, were growing increasingly frustrated and running out of options. Greg finally turned around and firmly told Aidan that he had to stop hurting Amelia immediately. Fortunately it worked because they probably wanted to pull the car over and just let the kid out on the side of the highway.
When I heard about the ride, I told Aidan to go upstairs and get ready for bed. I also told him he could not participate in our family weekend ritual: sleepover in Mommy and Daddy’s room. He started to unravel and yell at me. He tried to get me to commute his sentence. I refused to yield and walked away.
When I joined him upstairs he was brushing his teeth and crying. He can out of the bathroom and lobbied unsuccessfully one more time. When I again refused he cried, “I am so disappointed” and threw himself on the floor. “I know Buddy, I know you are disappointed but there is always next week,” I assured him. I left him alone, which, Bette Davis like, solves a lot of Aidan’s emotional crises. Shortly thereafter he picked himself off the floor and crawled into bed. I went into to sing his lullabies, "I'm proud of what you did out there. You told me how you were feeling instead of yelling and hitting. You did a good job pulling yourself together." He happily listened to his lullabies and drifted off to sleep.
I walked back to my room and tried to shake off the anger and frustration welling inside me, “Why does he have to be so difficult?” I thought. But then I looked over at Amelia. Amelia could have been born in the jungle and raised by apes and turned out fine. She came with the easy child program installed (although I think the warranty expires at age 11 or 12), but Aidan is a more challenging model. Mothering Aidan has demanded a lot of me. I hade to learn to be at my best with him to deal with his ever-changing moods, to walk away in he heat of the battle, to accept that some battles are simply not worth fighting. Most importantly, I had to make him aware of the feelings that lay beneath his physically intense outbursts, which demanded that I be aware of my own psychological motivations.
It is hard to admit that on particularly bad days, I sometimes wish Aidan away. He can be that difficult, that infuriating. But he can also be incredibly sweet, spontaneous, and loving. Like all of us, he had his vices and his virtues. So we continue to muddle through, he and I. We both practice using indoor voices and “I” statements, we both take responsibility for our mistakes, we both say “I’m sorry,” we both try to listen better. He has demanded so much of me and forced me to become not only a better mother but also a better human being. And I suppose that makes the struggles worth it. Surely we are here to teach our children but I think it is equally true that they are here to teach us.