We have buttons that, if pushed, set us off, and for most us, our adult lives are spent learning to control our reactions to those buttons.
What happens when you’ve been awake all night with a crying baby? What happens when you’re so exhausted that your coping mechanisms don’t work anymore?
It’s a question that my wife and I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to answer.
When my wife becomes exhausted, she gets depressed. The world is stepping on her throat, leaving her barely enough air to breathe. When I’m severely sleep deprived, I get angry. Everything pisses me off. Put two people like that together in a room with a toddler throwing one fit after another and a baby crying through his new teeth, and you get a toxic environment.
At one point, I was washing breakfast dishes, and my son was yanking things off the counter and throwing them. “Please stop,” I said, and he threw my wallet, then the keys, then a plastic plate. He kept reaching for things on the counter, breakables like glassware and plates. When I pushed them out of reach, he kicked the dishwasher. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing. Then he kicked me.
As parents, we almost never talk about moments like these. Or, if we do, we turn them into a joke. A dad hauls his screaming, biting kid off of a playground, and afterward, when everyone has calmed down, the dad chuckles and says, “Boy, I almost killed that stupid kid.” We laugh because the truth is often not publicly acceptable. Every parent will, at some point, flip out on a kid. When this happens, you feel a level of disgrace and self-hate so complete and all-consuming that you can’t bear to face it. You can’t talk about it, not only because you’re ashamed but also because such things are not socially acceptable. It’s not okay to lose control. Not ever. And yet it happens to everyone.
When my son kicked me, I lost it. I whirled around and hit him on the butt. It wasn’t a spanking because I wasn’t trying to modify behavior. I wasn’t thinking at all. My brain had been leveled by fatigue and frustration: hit me and I’ll hit you back. Only some inner moral compass, some instinctual restraint, prevented me from hitting him again and again. Instead, I got down so that I could look him in the eye. Then I started screaming.
“Why can’t you be nice? Why are you so bad?”
I noticed the living room window was open, but I kept going, begging my two-and-a-half year old son to tell me: why couldn’t he just behave? His answer was to shriek uncontrollably, and so I shrieked right back at him with one eye on the window and the sidewalk beyond. It’s a strange experience to listen to yourself as a stranger might and think, “Who is this maniac? Why won’t he stop acting that way?”
If someone had walked past two minutes later, they would have seen me sitting on the floor with my head in my hands, and my son beating his fists on my knees. For the next few weeks, he’d hit my wife and say, “Dad does it.”
One night, I came home late because I’d taught a night class after working all day at my job. During the last two minutes of class, my phone began to buzz in my pocket. When I finally got out to the car, I found a screaming, incoherent voicemail from my wife about how she couldn’t take anymore. Our second child, a 2-month-old baby, had apparently cried all day long. When I walked in the door, my wife looked like someone from a drunk-and-disorderly arrest photo. So I decided to man up. No matter how tired I got or how much our son cried, I wouldn’t wake my wife. It was an adventure, I told myself, like hiking to the South Pole.
I almost believed it.
That’s the night our son did not go ten minutes without crying. When our older son woke up around five in the morning, I must have looked insane because my wife immediately took the baby, and I took his brother outside to push him on the swing in the starless dark. The world was utterly quiet except for the creaking of the chains in the tree and my son’s whining to go back into the house. I didn’t have the patience for it. But here’s the bizarre thing: I didn’t get mad at him. I got mad at my wife. I resented her. I didn’t know what was going on inside the house with our baby, but here I was in the front yard at 5:00 in the morning, so tired that I could barely remain standing. And so I thought, “Why can’t my wife do her part? Because I’m doing my part, I’m doing all that I can and more, so if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s hers.”
It’s a deranged way to think about a person I love.
Since we’ve had children, my wife and I have had a few really awful fights, the sort that climax in screaming and throwing keys across the yard and threatening to stay the night in a hotel. In almost every case, the real culprit behind the fight was that one (or both) of us was too wiped out from lack of sleep to have a conversation about what was bothering the other person—and so that person got mad. Things spiraled from there.
We’ve learned to communicate better, not to have big conversations late at night and first thing in the morning—when we’re both bleary-eyed and inarticulate. We’ve even joined a self-help group for parents. We’re learning new coping mechanisms, and they’re working. I wish that someone had told us to do these things before we had kids. Maybe we wouldn’t have listened. But it’s also possible that we could have saved ourselves a lot of tears and frustration if we’d just known how to help ourselves.