Grumpy about emotional violence

I’m still obsessing about violence. I’ve got to get on to other issues, like the laundry and my dirty bathrooms, but the problem is, writing about this kind of thing memorializes all my inconsistencies and ill-formed thoughts–

I’m dying here. I just typed “ill” EIGHT times (including the one here in quotes) because my iPhone keeps changing it to “I’ll”, and my right thumb keeps twitching wrong so I’m space-barring instead of x-clicking on the autocorrect suggestion. Fricking autocorrect nazi lives in my phone, I just want to throw it at the wall and then crush it viciously into a thousand pieces with my boot heel and feed them to Nick’s 14-inch Schleich T Rex.

I’ll be back when I have a chance to turn on the computer.

It’s 8 hours later. All better. So what I’ve been obsessing on is that two days ago I actually thought I’m not a violent person, and even worse I wrote that down. It’s crazy talk. The fact that I couldn’t kill innocent baby mice to save them from suffering had nothing to do with my inner peacenik. I just wasn’t motivated enough, probably because I didn’t feel threatened by them. Maybe I don’t beat on people with fists and sticks, but I’ve spent more than three years following Jesse to therapy and working on controlling my emotional violence and verbal meanness. I may not have fists of fury, but I definitely have feelings of fury and a bad habit of letting them vent.

My mom was a spectacular role model on this front. When the mood was right, she was held in thrall by her rage. I once saw her chase my dad around the house with an empty wine glass, trying to break it over his head. He was a full foot taller and at least a hundred pounds heavier than her. She got close enough to make the slam, and as he put up his arms to defend himself against the blow, she was knocked over. The moment she went down my dad was filled with remorse and concern over whether he had hurt her. She was just fine, but even from the floor she kept trying to land a blow with that blessed wine glass until Dad took it out of her hand.

Dad was a big grumpy teddy bear, who never laid a hand on us in anger as far as I can remember. Mom, on the other hand, was unrestrained. Her anger was always self-assured. At her tallest she was 4-foot-11 and pretty slight, so she couldn’t really do any damage, but she was scary anyway. I once witnessed her chasing my brother Eric with a house slipper, trying to whack on him with it and screaming all the while. This was when he was a junior or senior in high school.  He was an all-Nor-Cal linebacker, 5-10 or 5-11, somewhere around 200 pounds, thick and lean and mean. I tell you, he was terrified by Mom. We all were. If she got going, she would lash out at anything in her path, and she had the wit and insight to make the blows that fell out of her mouth count.

I inherited Mom’s furies and passion, an instinct born of genes and childhood experiences. I guess there’s something positive about having strong feelings — actually, no, there’s nothing good about raging out at people you love. But Anthony tolerated my moods pretty patiently in our early years together. Fighting for us amounted to me yelling at Anthony, and then Anthony staring at me and saying almost nothing. Once I screamed at him in frustration, “WHY AREN’T YOU SAYING ANYTHING?? YOU SHOULD BE SAYING SOMETHING!!!” He answered me quietly, staring me straight in the eye. “I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t just be mean.”

Anthony doesn’t fight fair. Some time in our mid-20’s, when I still thought I was a rational, sane person, we had a big fight over something that must have been nothing. After my hot head had cooled down, Anthony looked at me with that appraising way that he has, like he was thinking carefully about what would happen when he spoke and deciding to say it anyway. “You know, Carla,” he started, “ever since I met you, I thought I was a complete dickhead about once a month. But it turns out, it’s not me. It’s you.”

Gah. It was a clean and accurate blow. I’ve never really recovered from it.

When we decided to have kids, I said I would never, ever yell at them, the way my mom used to yell at me and my brothers. It was the one true promise I made to myself. As if. Jesse puts everyone’s self-control to the test, but since I already had so little self-control, I failed the test early and often. I don’t know how much I’ve harmed her and Nick with my outbursts and cruel words, but I hope I can make it up to them in the years to come.

And I guess that’s what therapy’s for. I’m certainly doing a lot better than I was a couple years ago. I still yell at the kids sometimes, but now it’s usually not in a head-spinning, crazed, endless shriek. When I do lose it, I know better than to offer any justification for my failure. There’s nothing for it but to apologize and to ask my family to forgive me, over and over again until I can get it right someday. So far, they’re sticking with me, which is probably a good sign.

I have a solid handful of tools these days to help control my out-of-control feelings. One of the most important is admitting every day that I’m just naturally grumpy, the same way I’m five-one, half-Korean, brown-eyed. It’s my birthright. Knowing I’m grumpy means knowing that my anger at the world starts inside me, not inside my husband or my kids or the traffic. Almost every day now, at some point I announce to Nick or Jesse that I’m feeling grumpy. They seem to get it. Somehow, just saying the words deflates the bile I feel rising. Instead of feeling self-righteous, indignant, justified, I feel the fool. It’s refreshing. I’d rather be a grumpy fool than a screaming banshee.

grumpy about violence: motherhood

After I got pregnant I heard and read the usual stuff about how, when I popped my first baby, I would experience love like I’d never known before. I was led to believe that the onset of parenthood would be so transformative that I would no longer be repelled by squinchy, wrinkly newborns. I was skeptical. At 38 years, I thought my view of juvenile humans was pretty well fixed. Babies were unattractive. Also I had rarely met a child who I didn’t think was an excellent candidate for a thorough psychiatric evaluation. Anthony was a skeptic too. I remember the pep talks he gave me while I was pregnant, along the lines of… “You already know you’ll think the baby’s ugly when you first see it, but don’t worry. You will learn to love it.”

Still, friends and family insisted I would turn all ooey-gooey inside; I’d be molten-lava chocolate cake. And I did change unexpectedly the moment my firstborn Jesse arrived, only not quite like that.

Jesse’s pregnancy was peppered with small worries from start to finish. Nothing panned out, but I carried around a little bucket of anxiety for 9 months alongside my fetus (which is why I think it’s all my fault that Jesse has an anxiety disorder). They worried for a while I might develop placenta previa, but that corrected itself. The 20-something-week ultrasound showed a spot on her heart that was associated with a higher risk of Down Syndrome. My amniotic fluids were low so I was on partial bed rest for a time, and also there was some related concern that maybe there was a kidney problem. Jesse was very small from the beginning, and as we neared the due date there was growing concern she was failing to thrive. So we agreed to induce 10 days early.

Jesse was born with the umbilical cord wrapped, but not tightly. Still, because of the cord wrap, they didn’t drop her right on me. They took her away to the warming table to do thises and thats. Anthony stayed close to her, as we had already planned in the event of complications. The doc got right to stitching me up, so there I lay, splayed out and nowhere to go, pushing the epidural dose button over and over and wondering if it was working. They told me Jesse had a lot of hair, but this wasn’t meaningful information to me. I had one thought on my mind. “Does she have Down syndrome?” I barked. The doctor looked at me from between my legs like I was crazy. “Nooo!” She snapped, rolling her eyes. Satisfied with this positive outcome, I lay there and waited. I just wanted someone to bring me my baby so I could nurse her. So that was my second thought, after establishing that Jesse didn’t have any significant and obvious abnormalities: I needed to feed her. As soon as they got her in my arms, I set to working that out. Jesse got out a few drops and passed out, and then after a bit I handed her off to Anthony.

It was all business, really. I wasn’t gushing about my beautiful baby and cooing and all that. I mean, she was beautiful, but mostly what I felt was protective, in an extremely primitive way. I felt very consciously that I would kill anyone who tried to hurt Jesse, like literally. That was definitely new. It didn’t feel like warm and fuzzy maternal love. It was violent and feral. I hadn’t expected that.

(I have to admit that I don’t mind the wellspring of protective violence that now permanently lurks in my heart. I haven’t actually attacked anyone physically yet, but I’m a pretty aggressive advocate for my kids. I don’t take kindly to any sort of bullying from school staff, and I flatter myself that this has served Jesse well as she’s muddled her way through the early educational years. I like that I instinctively put myself between my children and danger. I like that, when we’ve come across large wild animals during wilderness hikes, I size them up and wonder insanely to myself if I can take them.)

I went through the same limited arc of emotions when Nick was born. His pregnancy was uncomplicated. I gave birth with no painkillers, got through induced labor upright, and popped him out in two contractions. They put him right into my arms and I remember thinking, “Huh. You’re bald. Oh well.” And then I got to the business of nursing him and preparing to kill anyone who tried to hurt him.

So what am I saying? I think I’m saying that my children’s births did change me, but not into a marshmallow of love. I was transformed into a mammary and a weapon. How cool is that?

Fortunately for Jesse and Nick, they have a sweet and doting father to make up for their neanderthal mother. Anthony took a shining to his offspring the way I think I was supposed to. One of my dearest memories from the day Jesse popped is watching Anthony hold his swaddled daughter in his arms. She opens her eyes and looks up at him. “Hi Jesse, I’m your daddy,” he coos quietly, his nose practically touching hers as they gaze deeply at each other. “Welcome to your world. I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.” I watched them together, took a few photos, wondered when I’d feel that way.

Anthony filled the humanity void with Nick too, in another dear memory. Right after birth, Nick was blue with cold, and my body was too cold to warm him up, so the nurse asked Anthony if he wanted to take off his shirt to hold Nick. The alternative was laying baby on the table under a heat lamp. I don’t know if the nurse was more surprised by Anthony’s ready answer of “sure” or by his speedy shirt removal. But that’s how Anthony cooed his hellos to Nick, skin to skin as he warmed his son from blue to pink. I lay there and watched them, waiting patiently for that deep warm gooey love to well up in my heart. Maybe I’m still waiting.

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