Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The great unspoken

You know, I love my kids, but they drive me up the wall. I don't know that a day goes by without me feeling annoyed. I often shove down my temper, take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, tell myself to keep my big mouth shut – and still I end up shouting. I lack patience, always have.

My toddler opens cupboards. She's mastered the child locks which still foil my friends, and empties the contents onto the floor. Dozens of things, hundreds of things in a day. I pick up plastic lids, cake tins and duplo from wherever she's dumped them: in her bed, on the bathroom floor, under the couch cushions. I've been keeping the toilet door open so I can keep more of an eye on her, but yesterday she brought her stool into the loo, positioned it at my feet, and stood on it so she could stare into my eyes. When I asked her to go away, she turned around and tried to back onto my lap. I found myself laughing and shouting and crying in the space of ten seconds, able to see the funny side but so starved of privacy that I wept.

My four year old is terribly shrill; I hope it's a stage. She fights with her sister and shrieks and wails; they squabble and snap and drive me to distraction. Kicking, punching and slapping have become daily events in our household. I don't know why it has to be this way; I'm totally fed up. I try to talk them through it, but then they do it again and again. And at some point, I yell.

My six year old has moody days. She ignores simple reminders – brush your teeth; you need shoes; we're going to be late for school – and when I repeat myself, then raise my voice, she puts her hands over her ears and makes this harsh prehistoric shriek, the sort of noise I'd expect from a pterodactyl. It's like fingers on a blackboard, but it's scratching at my soul.

I'm bigger than this, I tell myself. I'm the adult around here – I should behave like one. My kids are little, testing the boundaries, expressing strong emotions that they can't navigate. My job is to help them.

On good days, I do. But so often, I snap.

Recently, we had our worst encounter ever. Over many hours, my six year old had said no so often and so forcefully, utterly refusing to do anything or listen to anyone and continually making that prehistoric shriek that drives into my skull and drowns out all softly spoken words of reason, that I literally saw red. The world went soft and hazy like it was backlit by fire, my ears started ringing and I started to scream. As she ran from me, the bitch mother from hell, I kicked her behind then grabbed her by the plait and yanked her back. I'm forever grateful that my husband was around, because I don't know would have happened next. But he took her away and I, completely appalled by my violence, took my horrible self to my room where I lay face down on the bed and sobbed.

I would hide this from you all – I should, if I want you to respect me – but I know I'm not alone. I know a woman who, regularly enraged by her children's fighting and the chaos while she's trying to cook, slams down her chopping knife and runs out the door. The alternative is unthinkable. One of my friends met some new neighbours recently. "Oh yes," they said, "we know your voice." They'd heard her screaming at her sons. Yet another exhausted friend was so vexed by her baby's crying in the depths of the night, she shook it. The baby, now 20, is fine, but it's a scary thing to have done. Myself, I once threw my child across a room and onto her bed, slammed the door and left home for a while.

It's possible that we are the worst women in the world. At times, it feels like it. But I suspect not. We're certainly no paragons, but I don't think we're alone.

The thing is, we're all human. We're all of us fragile and tired and pre-menstrual at times; we have all sorts of things going on. We fight with our partners and mothers and feel lonely and afraid and our kids shriek in our faces when we already feel like hell. No wonder we explode.

I sometimes think the miracle is that we erupt so rarely. Particularly in this world of small families, where a lone adult cares for children; where kids aren't allowed to roam the neighbourhood and are under parental supervision all the time; where they are often inside and underfoot instead of outside and out of earshot; where there is no grandparent or elderly aunt in the home who breaks up tension and provides a different focus; where the adult has no peer to talk with; where neighbours are strangers, transient, at work, invisible – it's no wonder we go berserk.

A friend grew up at a time and place when kids had much more freedom. He tells of riding within earshot of the family dinner bell. He'd roam his town, by himself or with friends, exploring, hanging out, away from the watchful eyes of parents. He was free after school until he heard the bell, when he'd jump on his bike and pelt home.

I hear that story and am filled with longing for a place and a time where kids go exploring while we cook in blissful peace; where our lives are not so entangled that we drive each other wild; where a community of adults takes responsibility for children, so they are safe as they wander; where adults don't hover and kids roam free.


  1. Hi Alison (Ms Sampson).

    I used to climb in cupboards myself: it is one of the few memories I have of being a toddler. I don't know if I could do child locks: they were too high for me to reach!

    The pterodactyl scream reminds me of a Torey Hayden book where the disturbed children scream uninhibitedly and the normal ones scream for joy.

    There was this girl, a bit older than your (oldest) daughter, who would play the pterodactyl game, where you run around and scream. It brings out a lot of emotion!

    It's good that you have a room to take yourself to, and the woman goes outside. Those are good resources when patience runs out.

    Kate Holden wrote a great article about a 10-year-old son of a neighbour.

    And I respect you because you helped open up my conscience because of your article from today's Age. It helped me see that the refugees are human just like your kids. And you!

  2. Read your article. Good on you. Keep writing!
    My children are all married and can close the toilet door!
    I've a blogspot for political reform - to get rid of party politics!

  3. Great honest writing. I remember having a horrible time when my eldest was a really tricky toddler and my youngest was tiny. I'd kinda wade through my days with some days being so hard I'd feel like I was drowning in a soup of stress and claustrophobia. I remember feeling so frustrated, yelling or squeezing an arm too tight, and then being totally revolted by myself. I'd wonder
    "How could I hurt the most vulnerable and precious people in my life?"
    It felt like an awful cycle or bind. I'd have such long hours of caring for these tiny people and then the hard work of it (and indeed my own high standards) would wear me down and I'd snap.
    That time didn't last for long, circumstances changed and eased.

    But to this day, I am very very slow to judge a parent trying their best. And I have so much more compassion for parents who are unable to change circumstances. Especially single parents. It is such a hard job to raise our children.

    Great piece in The Age by the way, it inspired my cartoon for the next day. Keep up the good work on both fronts!

  4. Thanks so much for your honesty, Ali... in bringing the shadow of motherhood that much more into the light, it doesn't seem to loom so much... it's good to hear, once again, that I am not alone...


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