On our last morning of a recent whirlwind visit to New York, I decided we should drive out of the city through Battery Park so that we could all see the Statue of Liberty. We’ve read a lot of books about New York to our kids, and my five-year-old (I thought) would get a kick out of seeing it. Besides, it’s one of the most famous statues in the world, and certainly one of my personal favorites—a symbol of hope and freedom, of global cooperation.
By the time we got there, it was raining, and we couldn’t find a parking space. My husband agreed to double park quick enough for me to get the kids out—then he’d circle the block and pick us up. He screeched to a halt, and it was game time. “Ok, guys, let’s go!” I intoned cheerily, unbuckling my seatbelt. But from the backseat of the car, my five-year-old Eeyore growled at me: “I’m not going ANYWHERE.”
In shock and disbelief, I stared back at him as he looked grumpily out at the cold drizzle furrowing its way down his window. In that moment, every negative word he’d spoken in those last three days, every mean thing he’d done, every metaphorical stone he had thrown on what was supposed to be our magical trip to America’s most amazing city came crashing down on top of my head, and my heart turned to lead. “Fine,” I snapped. “FINE!” I opened my car door, jumped out into the rain, and slammed my door with such force that the whole car rocked. Then I turned on my heel and—without a backward glance—made my way down to the dock alone.
Sadly, this was not my only (and certainly not my worst) Mommy temper tantrum. I am a very happy person, generally speaking. I can also be sad, frustrated, afraid, exhausted, elated, excited, and thrilled—just like all parents. Every book I’ve read, every blog post I’ve scoured, every mother I look up to whose advice I’ve taken to heart has informed me and reminded me that reacting emotionally to our children is not only not helpful but has the potential to be damaging. Of course, I’m trying to be the best parent I can be and therefore I attempt to keep my emotions in check when dealing with my kids, but sometimes I feel like I’m moving through parenthood like a robot: “I-see-you-hit-your-sister. You-must-be-angry. Come-closer-for-affirming-realistic-human-contact.” It takes so much effort and so much energy to stopper any negative emotions that I end up feeling completely drained by mid-morning, and I end up wondering if I’m turning my kids into Stepford Wives.
How do we, as parents, not react emotionally to them hitting their siblings or yelling that they hate us yet still teach them that having genuine emotions is ok? I don’t want my children to grow up afraid to cry or yell or have an argument. And I want them to understand that their words and actions have an affect on others as well. I often find myself reminding my five-year-old that I am a person with feelings—not a punching bag with a heart of stone…not a robot. He doesn’t understand this yet, of course, but he will someday. Won’t I have a harder time teaching my children empathy if I’ve never shown them that their words and their actions can hurt?
According to the experts, we can’t be offended by the things our raging preschoolers say or do. We can’t let them hurt our feelings. We can’t react to them with negative emotion. Please don’t get me wrong…for all intents and purposes, I agree with this parenting philosophy. We certainly can’t unleash our anger or sadness onto our children. I’m absolutely not advocating losing it with our kids. I’m just admitting, for the first time, how darn hard it is to teach our kids to be emotionally healthy while swallowing most—if not all—of our own negative emotions ourselves.
As I stomped out to see the Statue of Liberty, tears stinging my eyes, I thought about what a beautiful landmark she is. Way out in the water, alone, huge, guiding people to a new life. I let out a strangled scream of rage through gritted teeth at the thought that I wouldn’t be sharing this moment with my children. It was so unfair. But when I reached the fence, I realized that from where I stood, I couldn’t even see her. I bent over as far as I could without falling into the harbor, but she was completely blocked by a peninsula of trees and buildings. Rain dripped down my hair and into my face, and I felt my anger wash away with it. I felt sad, and a little defeated. I slowly made my way back to the car, where my confused children and indulgent husband were still double parked and waiting for me. I knew I would have to apologize for my outburst and would have to find an explanation for the way I was feeling. But for a fleeting moment, as I walked away from the ironically un-scenic scenic spot I’d tried to drag my kids to, I was almost glad to know that they saw something real flare up in me—something that proves that I’m not a statue, not a robot, but a real human with real human feelings.
(I’d love to end the story there, but the truth is that when I got back into the car, my seatbelt got stuck, and I went totally crazy on it, taking out every ounce of aggression I’d been feeling for days—fruitlessly yanking and ripping at it, hopping up and down in my seat until my husband put out a calming hand and helped me unlock it. My kids sat stunned in the backseat, not saying a word. Okay, so maybe there’s a not-so-fine line between showing a little human emotion to our kids to remind them that we’re human and, well, that.)