It was broken.
My son’s highchair, with its cute little wooden tray where he learned to eat, paint, and sometimes paint with his food but somehow learn to not eat paint, is still a sad little reminder of my less-than-stellar track record with rage.
Yes, I lost my $@#t. I wasn’t mad at my son, but it doesn’t matter. I happened to have a throw pillow in my hands as I tried to do a mad-dash cleanup, when I finally had this urgent need to lash out, physically.
And the tray got the brunt of it.
If there’s something reading this and judging me, that’s fine. I mean… I don’t even know you, so your opinion of me won’t change the way mustard tastes (#community).
This is for the parents reading this and feeling seen.
Let me also state that I was alone in the house, so it was an entirely solitary act of idiocy.
Mom guilt hits hard
But having no witnesses does not mean that I had no shame about it. No one is harder on anyone than they are on themselves. Not to mention that I didn’t feel better after I did it, quite the opposite: I felt immediately worse. I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes I get so mad I cry. It’s … wholly unhelpful. I’m a real mess.
Anyway, when my partner asked about it later, I had to fess up. That sucked.
I also had to watch my son struggle to eat from the table while physically being far away, because highchair problems. That didn’t feel great either.
On top of it all, there’s a constant physical reminder that maybe I’m not as patient as I like to think I am.
And honestly, I’m grateful for it.
Without that outburst, that camel’s broken back, I would never have had to stare in the face the absolute truth of my poor emotional control.
I would never try to be better.
With that chair hovering over my consciousness, I sat down with my son and I explained exactly what had happened to it, and I even reenacted it a little bit. And then I told him why what I had done was wrong, and how I was going to try to do better.
We’re all works in progress
That was 4 years ago, and sometimes I really do better… but sometimes I really don’t. Unfortunately, my kids are there whether I’m ready to be a perfect role model or not.
Now that he’s older, and has a younger sister, my buttons are constantly on the verge of being pushed. And that sad little broken chair in the corner reminds me that I’m capable of an adult tantrum when my emotional centre shorts out.
I mean, we all get angry, right? They’re going to get angry, too. There’s nothing wrong with it.
Anger and frustration, like every other emotion, are real responses to situations real or imagined that our brain has evolved to have and which, theoretically, must serve a purpose.
‘Not getting angry’ is simply not an option. And honest, whole, emotionally-healthy children need to get angry, need to become frustrated and bored.
They need to recognise these feelings, so they can identify and then try to manage them, whatever that looks like for them.
Obviously, as parents, it’s our job to model the coping mechanism that they can use. As a person who doesn’t do it right herself, the last thing I want is for them to learn my terrible anger management style.
But what became immediately clear when I set out on my ‘self-improvement’ anger management journey was that when I’m mad, it’s too late. And it’s impossible to curate for your kids only your best moments. They’ll see it all. And I mean, follow-you-to-the-bathroom all.
Take that molehill and make it a mountain!
So I fake it! A lot of parents grit their teeth and fake a ‘positive’ emotion while covering up the real stuff underneath. Not this one. Always going against the grain, me.
I pick a situation that provokes light-to-medium frustration, pretend it’s really grinding my gears, and then model different ways to talk myself through it and calm myself down.
A really common place I find myself doing this is behind the wheel of the car. I actually love this because my son rarely sleeps in the car and loves to chat so we can talk through it together. Also there is never a shortage of things to get frustrated by.
Here’s an interaction that happened last week:
Me: “Ooooh, I’m so angry! That guy didn’t use his blinker and that really cheeses me off.”Him: “Which guy? Why? Where? Where Mama?”
Me: “That blue one! Look! What an inconsiderate driver.”
Him: “Why?” Oh yeah, we’re deep into the ‘why?’ phase.
Me: “Well, he wasn’t thinking about anyone else on the road, just himself, and that can be really dangerous.”
Him: “Why?” Told ya.
Me: “Because he could have caused an accident! It makes me so mad!! I can’t concentrate on anything else, that’s how mad I am! 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1. I feel a little better but I’m going to take 5 deep breaths now just to really give myself time to calm down. Want to do them with me?”
Me: “Ok, but could you help by counting them for me?”
Me: “Ok, I’ll count them out loud by myself.”
Day by day, outburst by outburst
Sometimes I ask him to give me an idea of what to do to calm myself down. Or I’ll tell him a story of someone else having a really bad reaction and ask him what he thinks that person could do to handle their feelings.
A lot of times he kind of doesn’t care. But it’ll sink in.
In fact, he has more than once told me, “Mama, you need to breathe”.
So, whether he’s learning to be my personal emotional development coach, or will internalise these lessons to use in his own life, only time will tell.
Until then, he’s grown out of needing his highchair. But I’ll keep a piece of it around, just to keep me humble.