Where is the line between being a scared parent and a scary parent? Joe Medler considers the emotion behind those tense parenting moments.
I have endless tender feelings for my sons. They know without question that I love them to the ends of the earth. They also know I’m scary. Really scary.
I remember a conversation I had lifetimes ago with a friend, a young woman, who told me about the one and only time her dad had truly scared her. She was three or four and she was playing near the road. He did the dad thing and showed male rage and intensity in instructing her to stay away from the road. He scared her to the point that she remembered it, and the accompanying fear, decades down the line.
My defense of her father was the obvious one. He did the exact right thing. Roads to toddlers are like needles to addicts. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I have two toddlers, so cut me some slack. Anyway, he used his natural ability to terrify small children to it’s one truly blessed, sanctioned and agreed upon good use. He’d scared the shit out of her to keep her safe. Most of us agree this is a fine use of this dangerous capacity.
Intermittent explosive behavior disorder
I have toddlers and I yell—a lot. I also play and get kisses and spend whole days creating memories that will last me a lifetime. In between I fear I’m also abusing this power to frighten and creating the memories that will be the backdrop of their therapy someday. I could even be laying the groundwork for terrible ways of treating people.
I’m a good person who does good deeds regularly and that is present too. But nothing imprints itself on the developing brain like a raving lunatic. I’ve worked in environments where I’ve mishandled situations with people diagnosed with intermittent explosive behavior disorder. I was scarier to my four year old, at least until recently, then that person that wanted to kill me right then and there was to me. I know I was.
My rage isn’t blinding, but things can get blurry. I’ve managed to sublimate most of it through repression and a blend of adaptive and maladaptive coping tools. Also, it’s true what they say about the mellowing of age. Having not ever crossed the line (I’m not really the line crossing type), I’ve arrived at an age where the acidity of my temperamental bile has been largely diminished. Still, I’m 6’2″ and 230 pounds, and I’m the red-in-the-face, veins popping, scary type when it gets in me. I wish I weren’t, I hate that I am, but I can’t deny it. When I see it reflected in my kid standing bravely before me as I insistently demand he look at me I’m pretty sure he’s more scared in that moment than I am, but I’m not far behind. At least not the part of me that catches myself. It doesn’t always stop me, but at some point I catch it. I always apologize for being so mean and scary.
To one kid, I control the universe
Charlie’s a sensitive kid. He tells me he loves me unprovoked. He asks if he can kiss me and dives in and quickly kisses my arms. Three soft, unabashed and unselfconscious kisses on my hand and arms. Just wonderful. My outbursts rise so quickly that to his mind they are without specific provocation as a final straw might be something that’s happened a hundred times before. How can he know when I’ll turn into a monster? Me, his buddy, loving dad who, in a four year old’s mind, controls the universe, is furious.
He doesn’t cry. He looks up, but he avoids eye contact, eyes floating past my face, trying to be brave, only to be shouted down to by a forty year old giant who is supposed to keep him safe. I’ve only recently learned that when he’s scanning up at me and I am getting ever more enraged as he won’t hold eye contact its due to a vision problem that makes it impossible for him to find my eyes as he sees double when he looks up. I want to crawl under a rock and throw up for days on end when I think about it.
At times I’ve scared even myself. Last week as his mom and I were handling a medical crisis with his little brother (an oyster cracker in the sinuses), I lost my patience with him trying to rub his head on my chin, insistently pressing the dome of his head up into my chin like a cat as he sat in my lap, not realizing the tenseness of either the moment or his father. I forcibly moved his head to see the clock on the TV. It was a normal range of motion, it was in no way a thing to hurt him. But it scared the shit out of him. Scared the shit out of his mom and scared the life out of me. There wasn’t violence in the motion, I don’t think, but there was anger. Frustration, anger and a fair bit of monstrous.
I’ve managed in time to engage most of my demons and allay them.
Except the occasional bubbling up of anger. It’s not often, but it’s not never. When it does unleash itself it’s on an unsuspecting, undeserving, entirely attentive and scared little angel. The one I owe being a father to. The one who can make me cry in a thousand ways. The one I hope never sees this and thinks it’s what a “man” looks like.
Photo: angus mcdiarmid/Flickr