I’ve been yelling at the kids a lot again lately. It will be a lifelong battle for me, I know, but still it gets me down when I flare. I haven’t been doing a good job of walking away when the weird rage bubbles up. As Anthony says, I need to make a plan again. I need to practice self control.
Don’t make any excuses for me, dear reader. Yes, I’m justified in being aggravated by the kids; but no, I’m not justified in yelling and yelling.
Then again, sometimes I don’t even have to yell to get things all mixed up.
* * * * *
Jesse gets a small allowance every week, and also she gets cash from her grandma for special occasions. She’s welcome to use that dough on what she wants, but she’s a money hoarder. She doesn’t like to spend it. She’s not sure what to do with it. She doesn’t care all that much about things. Nick, not so much. I wouldn’t describe him as greedy, but he’s very interested in spending, usually even before he has the money in hand. He’s destined for debt. Two kids, one house, two very different personalities. Nick’s wallet is always almost empty; Jesse’s is always overflowing.
For a while when she was little, Jesse wanted to take her small wad of cash to school to give to friends she felt were poor. That led to interesting conversations about the unfair stigma associated with being poor in America, and the resulting need for social sensitivity and coyness in how you address the issue.
As she got older, Jesse began to talk about charities. Just last week she was saying again that she wanted to give all her money to a charity. Sometimes when she breaks something expensive, she’ll run upstairs and bring her purse to me in atonement, insisting that I take all the money I need to replace whatever she broke.
Her selfless attitude imbues our lives in small and large ways. We renovated our house a year or so ago, expanding the kitchen and so on. Jesse regularly reminds me that she preferred to the old kitchen better, because it wasn’t so fancy. Thanks to her, I’m always aware of how luxurious our life is compared to most of the world. She gives freely to her brother and her friends. She shares relentlessly.
I know without any question that Jesse is not a greedy or selfish child.
* * * * *
But Jesse also has OCD in a version that fills her head with contrary and taboo thoughts now and then (okay fine, every day), and Tourette’s in a version that compels her to express those thoughts aloud. This can make life aggravating and complicated.
A couple days ago, Jesse was wandering around the house before breakfast with her well-stuffed little money purse in hand. I asked her what she was doing with it. She answered in the strange, almost-chanting timbre that signals she’s expressing unbidden intrusive thoughts. “I’m gonna take it to school to show everyone, and tease them about how I’m richer than them and I’m better than them.”
I knew those words weren’t true. I knew she would never actually do it. I knew those words are contrary to most of what I’ve observed in her behaviors during her brief life. I should have hugged her, reminded her that those thoughts don’t reflect what she actually believes and does, assured her that she’s still a decent and amazing human being despite the intrusive thoughts to which she gives undue weight.
But that’s not what came out of me. In that moment, under the stress of everything that’s been going during the beginning of Trump’s presidency, something snapped a little inside me. It didn’t take me to the yelling rage that unleashes itself on people I love when I’m not working hard enough to beat it back — but someplace really, really sad.
Jesse sat down at the counter for breakfast, with Nick next to her. “That’s really mean, Jesse,” I said unnecessarily; I was practically whispering. “Do you really think you’re better than people who don’t have as much as you?”
It was a stupid question; of course she doesn’t actually think that.
Nick replied promptly and earnestly, “No! We are not better!”
Jesse pondered for a moment. “No? I mean yes, yes I’m better.” It was her tic voice.
She paused. “No, I’m not.” Ah, that sounded like my true Jesse.
But still, I was stupefied by the initial “yes.” Part of my brain was sending me red alerts. “Warning! Warning! Tourettic OCD in action! Do not respond! Do not respond with anger! Do not be didactic!”
But a bigger, hurting part took over. I grabbed my phone. “You think you’re better than people who are more poor than you, who have less than you? Then let me show you someone you’re better than.”
I don’t know what I looked or sounded like, but I was just pulled together enough to notice the kids had stopped eating and were staring at me, unblinking and anxious.
I searched for “dead toddler refugee” on my phone. I pulled up this infamous photo of the toddler who drowned as his family escaped from Syria.
(I’m not sure how to give proper credit here, and I don’t know if I’m violating a copyright law. I know wherever I find this pic it says “Credit: AP photo” so hopefully that takes care of things)
I showed this heartbreaking photo to Jesse, even as my brain told me I was doing wrong. “Look at him, Jesse. See this dead little boy? Look at him. He died trying to get away from war with his family. This is how they found him, washed up on a beach. He had nothing, and he’s dead now. You’re better than him for sure.”
Jesse, who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, had a look on her face I could not place; but she was silent and still. I went on, and this is what I said to my children.
You are not better than that little boy; you’re just alive and he’s dead. You’re just lucky you don’t live in a land at war, you don’t live in poverty, you don’t have to run in fear for your life from the soldiers and guns and bombs. You didn’t have anything to do with your good luck! All you should be feeling right now is a whole lot of gratitude for being so lucky.
Being richer doesn’t make us better. But it’s making our country greedier. And now, our president Donald Trump has said that this little boy, even if he had made it alive across the waters, would have no place in America. He isn’t welcome here. Because we’re not rich enough or strong enough to help him.
By now I was in tears. Jesse simply stared at the photo. I went on, because I couldn’t stop, even as I wandered around the kitchen cleaning up and making school lunches.
This is the battle of our time, I said. There are children and innocent people dying all over the world right now, and they need help.
“Children?” Nick asked incredulously. He started to cry too as I yammered on quietly.
This is why people like your daddy and me are so upset about Donald Trump, and we want to rise up in protest and action against everything that he stands for. This is about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of basic values we have as human beings. Donald Trump thinks we should think about ourselves first. Do I have a car that’s as nice as I want in my garage? Do I have as much money as I want? Are my clothes fancy enough, and is my closet stuffed full enough? Do I feel safe enough? Do I really have to share the incredible wealth we live in with others, like this little boy who died? He didn’t do anything to anyone! He didn’t deserve to die!
I looked at the kids pointedly. Do you want to live in a world where we only think about ourselves first?
Nick was bawling by now, I was crying full on, and Jesse’s face had slumped. But they gave me the correct answer.
I asked my kids another question: if I told you we could give some children safe refuge from war and fear and hunger, or I could get a new car instead, which would you choose?
They gave me the correct answer as I wept.
You’re okay with me driving that beater VW until it dies?
“Yes!” they answered. “Drive the old car!”
I asked my kids another question: if I told you our leaders could give us tax breaks so we can have more money in our pockets, or our leaders could have us pay a little more in taxes and spend some of that money to give hope to refugees around the world, which would you choose?
They gave me the correct answer.
The conversation petered out, the tears slowly dried up, and we were silent until it was time to take Jesse to school.
* * * * *
I felt pretty awful afterwards, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that horrible conversation. It was unfair of me to unload these issues on them. It was profoundly unfair of me to imply to Jesse that her intrusive and obsessive thoughts are in any way related to the intentional, deliberate choices being made by the Trump administration and the GOP. I know where her compassionate and generous heart lies.
It was a definitive parenting fail moment, even though I didn’t yell even once.
And yet… And yet I know that my kids need to be aware of what’s going on in the world around them. Maybe if a two-year-old has to drown to death while escaping from hell, or an innocent five-year-old has to be put in handcuffs at an airport, my seven- and eleven-year-olds could do with some reality checks.