Monday, April 4, 2011

Taking the Love Away (Babble)

On a good day Mona is our easiest child.  She is the only who does what you ask the first time you ask with any reliability.  She is up and dressed usually before breakfast is served.  She is adorable, funny, energetic and most days she is delightful.  She amazes me with her creativity, hard work, and kindness.  Mona shines brightly.

But then there are the other days.  The days where Ian and I refer to her as our feral child.  The dark side of Mona’s personality when she gets angry is really hard to deal with.  She reverts to a pre-verbal state where she growls and glares at me.  I never know how to react to it.  She tests us in ways that leave me doubting my parenting abilities.

She doesn’t take criticism well, or even simple instruction for that matter.  When people ask why I don’t give my children violin lessons myself I think about how hard it is just sitting in the room with Mona as she practices, and shudder at the thought of trying to actually teach her something.  I can do it, but it takes a deft touch.  When I manage to correct a fingering or convince her to change her bow direction it feels like a feat akin to snake charming.  It’s dangerous and draining.

And I never know which Mona I’m going to get.

Her moods turn faster and with greater ferocity than the moods of her siblings.  Aden and Quinn are sensitive, and there are circumstances where they can get frustrated or upset easily.  If they think they have disappointed me they are devastated.  But they are seldom angry with me, and when they are the causes are clear.  Mona is a different strain of our DNA altogether, and she works at keeping her motivations murky.  She doesn’t always want to be understood, or at least, that’s the way she comes across.

There was an evening last week where everything was fine until I told Mona she needed a bath or shower before bed.  I was matter of fact about it, but Mona got mad.  She got very quiet and glared at me.  She got in the tub and silently radiated unhappiness.  Then I washed her hair and that was the last straw as far as Mona was concerned.  She didn’t scream or resist, but she made it clear that I was on the outs.

After she was in her pajamas and ready for bed she came to my room the way she usually does for midnight snuggle, but announced to me darkly that there would be no midnight snuggle that night.  I told her that made me sad, but it was up to her.  Apparently that was not enough of a reaction because she came back in a moment later and said there would be no midnight snuggle the next night either.  I repeated that I was disappointed and left it at that.  She came in one more time to tell me there would be no midnight snuggle ever.  I accepted that which deepened her frown.  Before leaving the room she made a small decisive gesture with her hand and said, “I’m taking my love away.”

By the next morning she was still mad and wouldn’t speak to me and I got annoyed.  I told her to please get moving because we were late for school and she pulled a passive aggressive stunt of shuffling quickly with small steps that didn’t actually move her forward.  I placed my hand on her back as I was trying to pass her in order to make her move already, and in her socks she wound up falling forward.  This was humiliating and upsetting for Mona and I was wracked with guilt.  I hadn’t meant to push her down, and I spent all morning beating myself up in my mind for not taking into account my strength and the slickness of the hardwood floors….  It made for a depressing day, but a friend assured me that by after school Mona would be fine again and she was right.  Mona came to me all smiles when I got home from work and said she wasn’t mad anymore.  I even got the reverse gesture with her hand and she informed me that her love was back!  Just like that, love restored.

Mona was mad at me again last night but this time I have even less idea why.  She sat on her bed with her back to me and her arms folded when I tried to ask her what was wrong.  I decided I wasn’t going to let her get a reaction from me, so she pulled out the big guns and turned to face me long enough to say, “I hate you.”  She ended up doing violin practice with her dad instead of me, and rather than listen to her tell me she was canceling midnight snuggle I left the house to run an errand and let Ian put everyone to bed.

I got an “I hate you” out of Aden once a few years ago when I was being firm about a consequence she was deeply unhappy with.  It was in a flurry of tears and anger and she was verbally flailing for ways to hurt me so I would know how she felt.  I didn’t take it personally and she came to me later and said how sorry she was, that she didn’t mean it.  It’s hard for me to imagine Quinn (who would spend his entire life in my lap if I let him) ever saying such a thing to me, but he says it about his dad which hurts in a different way.  (Ian takes it in stride far better than I could and I admire him for it.)

Mona is different.  She seldom rants and flies off the handle.  Her rage is quiet and deep and not generally for show.  I know she didn’t mean it, but “I hate you” has a harsher impact when it comes from a more calculated place rather than a burst of uncontrollable emotion.  Before I left the house I told Mona to be careful about the words she chooses.  Some of them are harder to recover from than others.  By this morning Mona was my sweetie again.  She brightly says she loves me now and I’m relieved.

I’m trying lately to remain calm when Mona is angry.  I think she wants a big reaction, some drama, some reflection back at her of what she’s feeling, but I don’t want to indulge that.  In the past she’s managed to get me angry back, when I was so tired and stressed that I took the bait and showed her what anger could really look like.  I’ve reacted with an intensity and volume that frightened her to tears, but at least in those cases everything got resolved quickly.  On occasion I’ve tried being visibly hurt and sad when Mona gets angry, and this sometimes causes her to break her concentration on her mood and look surprised or amused or worried.  But I don’t want to lose it, and I don’t want to seem vulnerable to a point where she’s the one in a position of power because that doesn’t do either of us any good.  Being the cool, collected grownup stretches the situation out over days instead of minutes, but I can live with myself better.  I try to talk to her and let her know her feelings are valid even if she’s not expressing them nicely, but often it’s safer to walk away.  The truth remains that I have no idea what the proper response should be.

And to be perfectly honest, as much as her anger upsets me, part of me is impressed by her strength and fire in those moments.  My mom used to repeat to herself about me when I was hard to handle that at least one day I would make a great adult.  I think the same about Mona.  If she were all sweetness all the time I would worry about how she will stand up for herself in the world one day.  I’m not too concerned about Mona succumbing to peer pressure or being badgered into doing anything against her will.  (I’m more worried about having any influence over her if she decides to do something unwise on her own.)  She’s sensitive, but she’s fierce.  Good luck to the rest of the world when she gets there.

I do know, however, that on some level bearing the brunt of a certain amount of emotional abuse from your kids means you are doing something right, particularly between mothers and daughters.  Many of the people I’ve known who didn’t yell at their moms when they were girls avoided it because they did not feel safe to do so.  You don’t take risks with love you can’t afford to lose if there is any question about it.  I remember those feelings of frustration and helplessness, of being trapped, of craving freedom and being terrified of the world at the same time, of not knowing what I should be doing but that I should be doing something else.  I see that in Mona.  I used to be Mona.  Part of me still is Mona.  And I am a safe place for her to rant.  I’m glad she is secure enough in my love for her that she knows I will still be there after she has thrown every stone, screamed every insult and stomped loudly up every stair.  Because she’s not really mad at me.  (Or maybe just the parts of me that remind her of the demons she doesn’t want to face.)

I may not know the best way to deal with Mona when she’s angry, but I know enough to take some of her outbursts as a compliment.  She isn’t afraid of losing my love because she knows she can’t.  It’s real and it’s stable.  She knows I am a safe place.   That much, at least, I’ve done right, even if it sometimes gets expressed by her taking the love away.

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