parental anger management 202: family meeting

On Saturday night I came face-to-face with the fact that my temper was hurting my family - Chicken was flustered; Buster shut down; Ryan tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Why don't you leave and I'll finish bedtime. You seem like you need a break."

I slunk into the playroom and sat among the wreckage of the day, both literal and metaphorical, feeling a lot like an overturned bucket of blocks myself - a mess of sharp edges, evidence that someone lost their shit.

I sat down to make cards for the boys and felt like an abuser in a flower shop. The wise and terrible voice in my head told me:

There is nothing you can give them that will make them forget that you yelled. There is nothing you can do that will change the way they're programmed now, to jump when you raise your voice not out of shock but out of anticipation.

I started reading about anger management for parents.

I planned what I'd say at what I started to think of as A Very Special Family Meeting (cue the solo piano.)

I wrote the boys a letter, to help me organize my thoughts.

I know myself too well to mistake this flurry of activity for a transformative Ebeneezer Scrooge moment; I am my father's daughter, prone to all-consuming but short-lived wild hairs. I recognized the signs - the urgency with which I began note-taking with my special pens, the soaring elation at the realization that I could make a spreadsheet. Possibly even a Pinterest board of anger management for parents!

I could practically hear the Cher inside me squeal "Project! Eeeee!"

I decided it was okay to ride the express train of my inborn mania for a bit - after all, I was learning about anger management, wasn't I? After all, I had a plan now. And, swoon, a spreadsheet. And I did feel calmer.

But the thing about parenting is that everything feels like it will last forever, but nothing does. Not your child's biting phase, or her cuddling phase, or your patience, or your foul mood. Not my shiny-renewed dedication to calmness and patience and a yell-free family. Nothing lasts forever. Except maybe Caillou. That shit is Godot-level existential despair.

But my patience doesn't have the inhuman, eternal shelf-life of Caillou. I will yell again.

So I also decided that once this particular inspiration train runs out of fuel, instead of changing trains for the next exciting new destination (All aboard the learning French express!), I will keep going down the track. On foot, maybe. Crawling, some days.

I decided that it is harder - and better - to do the work of changing the way I am angry than it is to do the work of trying (and failing) to forgive myself, again and again, as one son hides in the pillows and another won't meet my eye.

This was avoidable.

If I could stop hearing that wise, terrible voice reminding me, "You did this, but you didn't have to. You're here again because you picked it. Look at your children," I think that would be worth all the hard, uncomfortable work.

On Sunday morning I woke up nervous. I wasn't looking forward to A Very Special Family Meeting, not because I was afraid of what the children would do, but because I was scared to talk about the strength of my ugly anger in front of Ryan. Not that it was a secret, but there's a difference between being angry in front of your partner, and talking calmly about your anger in front of your partner. It's kind of like being sloppy drunk - at the time, your brain isn't really focused on the impression you're giving. It's mostly just focused on cheese fries and finding a cold tile floor to sleep on. But the next morning you have to wake up and sit across from the person who washed the vomit out of your hair last night even as you slur-shouted, "NO, RYAN. SHAMPOO THE ROOTS. CONDITION THE TIPS." It's humiliating, to be in your right mind, remembering out loud the details of when you were not.

I called from the kitchen, "OK, it's time for Family Meeting!" I was reviewing my notes, the letter I wrote. I was looking at the counter, even as my voice was chirping bright.

The boys didn't want to sit at the table for Family Meeting so Ryan and I sat on the couch and let them play while I talked. This was, after all, A Very Special Family Meeting.

This is what I said:

Today at Family Meeting it's going to be a little different.
I want to talk to you guys about yelling.

Chicken dashed into the other room and curled into his toddler-sized armchair. He did not run further, which I took as an invitation to continue.

Last night, when I yelled about the mirror, 
I saw Chicken do his running-away thing, just like he's doing right now.
Right, Chicken?

He called back, "Yes. I have the running-away feeling."

And I saw Buster get very quiet, and sad,
and not want to be around me anymore. Is that right, Buster?

Buster, linking the magnetic cars of a train together, said, "Yeah. I sad."

I was sad, too, baby.
When I saw you both feeling sad and mad and scared, 
I thought about what it was like when I was a kid
and someone would yell at me.
I would feel sad, because I felt like I'd done something wrong.
I would feel mad, because yelling made me want to yell, too.
And I would feel scared, even if I knew nobody was going to hurt me. That loud, angry sound is scary, especially from someone you love, someone bigger and stronger who takes care of you. It made me feel worried when I was a kid.

From the other room, I heard Chicken's small voice. "Me too. Sad, mad, scared. Worried."

From the train table, Buster said, "choo choo." (Pro tip: Don't take that shit personally. 4-year-olds listen and respond; 2-year-olds listen and say choo choo. They're still listening.) 

Yelling made me feel that way when I was a kid,
and it still makes me feel that way.
And now I feel even sadder, because I love you both so much
and I remember being a kid feeling all those uncomfortable feelings,
and I hate knowing that you feel that way
because I yelled at you, like last night.

Chicken rolled out of his chair and bolted down the hall. I heard his bedroom door slam. Ryan squeezed my hand.

Buster looked up at me, "Where Chicken go?"

I said, "I think he needed a break from the yelling talk."

Buster said, "All done yelling talk?"

I said, "We're almost done."

A minute later, Chicken came back down the hall, hugging the wall, peeking around the corner. He looked very small.

I know it's hard to talk about this, but we're almost done baby.

Chicken started jumping up and down in a circle. Every time his feet landed, he said, "I'm! Building! A wall!"

You want to build a wall around you to stop this talk, huh?

He stopped jumping. "Yes. I don't like this."

Babies avert their eyes when they get overwhelmed because it's all they can do - they can't push a too-close face away or get up and leave the room if the TV is too loud. It feels like Chicken has traveled decades since he'd turn his eyes from me when I got too close. But still, he has so little to defend himself when the world presses in on him - he has distance and noise. That's it.

I have one more thing to say. Can you hear one more thing?

He sat on the floor with his back to me, but didn't leave the room. Which I took as permission to continue. Which I took, greedily, as mercy.

I am going to learn about how to be angry without yelling and scaring you.
As I learn, I might still yell sometimes. 
But I care a lot about this,
and I promise you that I am going to work hard.
And if you have any ideas about ways that I can be angry without yelling,
or if you ever want to tell me about how you feel,
I would love to listen to you.

Chicken grabbed a book off the shelf. "Here. Read this."

We're done for now.
I just want you to know that I'm sorry.
I love you.
We are all going to get through this together.
And we will all learn something.

"Read this. Now."

I read it. Buster ran his trains around the table. Ryan squeezed my shoulder. 

I didn't yell on Sunday.

I haven't yelled today.

Not because I've done any of that hard, uncomfortable, anger-reprogramming work, but because my guilt has muzzled my frustration. For now. I've been here before. I have, like one art project's worth of guilt-muzzling left before the frustration breaks free and I know I will yell again.

I have a lot of work to do.


  1. Noah keeps telling me, "Use that different mad voice that I like!" I think he thinks all my voices are variations on mad?

    Bless you, Katie. You're doing everything right. (And I agree, way more humiliating to get mad in front of your spouse.)