Long long ago, long before I got married, I had this horrible, awful dream. I was fighting with Phillip, and not just shouty screamy fighting. No, in addition to the shouting and screaming I was on top of him, pinning him to the ground, slamming my fists into his chest. Have I told you this story before? It was just horrible. The worst thing about it was his expression. He didn't fight back, he just looked at me with the most profound sadness, the most confused confusion. And I wouldn't stop.
When I woke up I felt sick. I had this voice in my head: this is what you do to him and I listened to that voice, I took it extra super seriously. So that was the day I resolved to start fighting better.
See, I was out to win, and I was very good at it. My husband likes to keep things at a very even keel. He doesn't get too sad or too happy. He doesn't get too depressed or too excited. Raising his voice is a near physical impossibility, and I'm being serious. And when we argued, he was trying to figure out what he was upset about, and I was out to win. Whatever he said I found a way to throw it back at him in a way that benefited my case. I could twist anything to serve my purpose. I was furious, but I was cool and logical and unflappable and he couldn't beat me. I was loud, I was mean, I didn't care that he didn't follow me. In fact, I would get mad that he didn't try to beat ME. I considered it an insult. That's what happens when you are proud of your ability to verbally dismantle people.
I stopped doing that. Literally, the day I woke up from that dream I stopped trying to win. It was one of those moments where you realize you love someone else more than you love... well, for me it was travelling for months at a time or not having a real job or my independence or, say, the lifelong need to win.
This post is not really about a fight with Phillip. It's about a fight with Jack.
He would not clean up the crayons and markers that HE and ONLY HE had thrown, willy nilly, all over his bedroom. It was time to put on pajamas and brush teeth and get ready for bed, but he needed to clean up his room first and hell would freeze over before I did it for him.
He wouldn't clean up. He wanted Mollymoo to help. His stomach hurt. He wanted to lay down.
And I yelled. I threatened. I spoke under my breath like my dad used to do (and scare the crap out of us.) I put him in time out.
He sat in time out until I got tired of hearing him cry and sent him to his room. He still wouldn't clean up. By that time Molly had figured out that Mommy was nearing her last straw and was sidling up to me like a kitten, stroking my arms, putting her cheek next to mine. I'm not sure if she's trying to cheer me up or make sure she's not the object of my wrath when she does this. It'd be sweet if I wasn't so furious.
Every so often I would open Jack's door, interrupt the sobbing, and ask if he was ready to clean up his room. Every single stinking time he told me he just wanted to lay down.
Phillip was annoyed with me but I didn't care. I was not going to lose this battle. Was! Not! And you guys, I did everything. I tried everything. All it did was reassure me, for the millionth time, that certain types of discipline have little to no effect on my kid, and other types just make things worse.
Much much MUCH later I got him to clean up. Not everything. And I had to help. But he cleaned up his stupid crayons and markers and was treated to a loud angry lecture the entire time and THEN the child had the gall to ask me for a treat. Because he cleaned up! Like I asked him to!
Rather than dropkicking him into the street, I sent myself downstairs and Phillip took over. There was crying - that awful hyperventilating kind of crying - and I was just happy that Phillip was doing it instead of me. I brought Molly upstairs to say goodnight to Phillip (so much for the bedtime routine) where I was informed that Jack wanted ME. He wanted ME to hold him. He wanted ME to read him stories and put him to bed.
And that was the moment. I stared at my three-year-old and thought: NO. I do not want to hold you. I do not want to read you stories. I am so angry with you I could spit. I don't understand you. I don't know to manage you. I can't control you. I can't do ANYTHING with you. I am so freaking tired of hearing you say NO every time I ask you to do something. I am so freaking tired of trying to discipline you to absolutely no effect. So NO. I AM NOT GOING TO HOLD YOU.
I said all these things with my eyes, of course. I felt so hard and angry and done. I was stone. I would not be moved by that swollen puffy face. I would not feel bad. I would tell him I wasn't going to hold him and then I would win.
Except... what would winning get me? I handed Molly off. And I sat down in the chair and I barked at Jack to find a book and then I barked at him to get his blanket and his teddy bear and then I barked at him to get in my lap and I said, "ONLY ONE BOOK" and "NO DRINK OF WATER" and then I held the book closed for a really long time because I would have to use my nice normal Mommy voice to read it and I wasn't ready to be nice and normal.
He told me he was sorry, which helped. Then he snuggled into my shoulder. And gripped his teddy bear. And I opened the book and started reading. It was very cute, a new library book about a lost penguin. I let him pick out a second book, about elephants. We sang a fabulous rendition of 'I've Been Working On The Railroad'. And then we said our prayers, and he recited the whole thing right along with me, and added every one of our friends to our litany of family members.
I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me and he got right under the covers and gave me a huge kiss and I haven't heard from him since.
I'm pretty sure I lost. But when I think about how I would feel now, sitting at the computer, an hour after the kids have fallen asleep, having won - would I feel as settled about the end of our day?
Sometimes I think what stands between me and a much wiser mother is a simple redefinition of what it means to win.