I wrote this three weeks ago, but couldn’t bring myself to publish it at the time. Then, the day after I wrote it, things got better. Not great, but better, and all that changed was me. Sometimes, asking for help is enough to receive it, even when we ask an empty room.
I have never deliberately hit my child.
I start with this, hold it out as an emotional talisman, to ward off the evil I from what I say below.
I have never purposefully hit my child, but I have hurt him, caused him physical pain through deliberate action as surely as though I had raised my hand to him.
My hand — this hand, gripping his as he struggles to pull away, as he screams “Stop! You’re hurting me! Let go of me!” I feel his ischemic skin under me still, can recall the grating of his bones as they attempt to twist away under mine. There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure, but aren’t there always? They feel like excuses, the same as any other abuser: I had to, he made me, it was for his own good. Did I grip tighter than necessary, in anger, squeeze more cruelly in my rage? I cannot say no and not know it a lie.
I feel still his flesh under mine, and the urge to hurt my hand in restitution (not revenge; its agony is too well earned) is a physical force, like gravity, pulling me to hit, to cut, to bruise and bloody and break until the feel of him pulling from me fades, until the blood pounding in ears is drained, until I cannot hear him pleading me to stop hurting him, mama, stop hurting me, let go!
This body of mine doesn’t deserve to feel good, to be pain-free, when it contains the tactile memory of harming my child, when it contains the potential to do so again. A part of me knows the uselessness of this limited thinking — pain begets more pain, healing begets healing — but I cannot convince the core of me it does not deserve to suffer for what it has done.
He won’t get in his car seat. So often, it comes down to that ridiculously mundane thing. I want to loathe the contraption, to curse the laws of state and physics that demand its use, but rationally I know it is little more than a symbol for both of us. If it were not the seat, likely it would be something else, some other point that would act as fulcrum and wedge between us, would be come the trophy in our struggle: his control, my freedom; his freedom, my confinement.
So often we don’t go out, not because he wouldn’t go — he’s happy to strap in when the bookstore or preschool is on the other end — but because the return is so agonizing. I have a choice, always, between the sedentary depression of staying home, or the awful antagonism of trying to return.
My impulse, so often, is to go out — when I am manic, to go and run and do, when I am depressed, to go and get away and be anywhere but here, when I am relatively well, to go and get things done. To be confined, trapped, at home or in a place not my choosing, unable to leave at all at my will, is not mere inconvenience: it is sickening. It is, perhaps, not unbearable per se, but sometimes it is more than I can bear, and often more than I am able to bear if I am to also, ever, have the ability to do anything but survive it.
At some point, the human body breaks down under stress.
I think I can be stable on my own, have learned through trial and so many errors how to manage my moods to minimize instabilities, when my time is my own. But when it’s not — when my every movement must account for the dictates of a capricious creature, not deliberately but casually cruel, uncaring of my needs and the demands of my moods — and it always is so — I don’t know how to not lose it, except through a grip so tight it twists arms and damages tissue. It hurts.
When I can, I wait for him. I give him time and space to choose. I give him control over as many parts of the experience as I can: arms under, pull out the bottom buckle (for it inevitably ends up underneath him), clip the top, guide the clasp to the buckle, your hand on mine as I click it in place. Before then, even: how many more times would you like to go down the slide? Yes, you may open the door yourself, climb in yourself, close the door in my face and make me knock and open it again from the inside yourself, fine. Whatever. Rituals are developmentally appropriate, if damned annoying, so knock yourself out making me knock, kid. Just get in the damned car seat.
Sometimes this works. Other times it does not. Today was an other time. Today was an abundant heads-ups, lots-of-options, still-didn’t-want-to-leave, carried-him-out-kicking-and-screaming day. Today was half an hour playing in the car and finally an agreement to leave and we’re scraping the bottom of my well of patience, dragging up brackish tones that are as close as I can get to the calming voice I know would help, but it has to be enough, and it will be enough because he’s getting in his seat — except wait, now he wants to get out and have me knock on the other doors, and maybe that would have been the magic step but after so many prior misdirections, I cannot try, there is not one last chance left and I lose it and I force him in the seat, and the straps are scraping his skin and his tears are falling on my sleeve and his body crumples under my “superior” strength, as I prove to him, viscerally teach, that might makes right, and I am glad we got rid of the car with the clutch because I can drive away left-handed, my right reaching back and stopping his from undoing his upper buckle — his arms twist in my hand — as he screams and curses and cries and some stranger in a truck stopped at the light next to us stares through the window and wonders if he should call the cops and I swear to god I’m not sure he shouldn’t.
That was today.
Some of you are thinking I give too many choices to a child, would chide me that it’s my own fault, I need to put my foot down. To you I say, fuck off. Not only are you wrong because it is wrong to treat another so, I’ve already tried that anyway: all upping the pressure does is quicken the explosion, and we are both that much more miserable that sooner.
Some of you are thinking I am asking too much, not giving enough, not patient enough, not creative enough in my solutions, too insistent that we ever leave the house or the park or the preschool, and to you too I say fuck off, because sometimes there is no more to give, no more daylight to stay out, no more blood sugar to wait another half hour, no more options when the appointment is across town, no creativity left to be had when it’s taking my all to just not hurt myself or him. If you want to move me to the mythical land of everything I could want in walking distance and a dozen alloparents when I need to tag out, then we’ll talk. Until then, take your shoulds and shove ‘em.
Some of you, too, are thinking it’s all normal, and this too shall pass, and I’ll laugh at this some day and to you too I say, no matter how well meaning your platitudes — and I know they mostly are — fuck off. This is not a way anyone should have to live, this is not ok, this is not merely the moanings of a bad-day mother. Everyone has bad days; not everyone is trapped at home in terror of a tiny tyrant and their own responses to such. Not everyone has to chose between going crazy at home and going crazy out, when crazy is not an overused hyperbole but a terrifying, dangerous reality.
(Some of you are thinking this is nothing, and you are carrying secrets far worse, and wondering if I feel this bad about this, how should you feel? And to you I say: I’m sorry. I offer you all the compassion and love and forgiveness I cannot draw forth for myself. I hope for you the solace and strength and healing, for yourself and your children, that I despair of finding for myself.)
I do not claim to be unique. I would not presume to declare myself worse off than everyone, or anyone, else. But before you shove me into the slot you lined up for me — monster, martyr, mundane mother –, before you wag your finger or pat my head or dial CPS, hear me.
Do not judge me and so dismiss me, whether as over-permissive, overbearing, or ordinary: see me, know me. Help me.