Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Break up

Note: My better half did this some time back. She's the real "sharper knife" in the drawer.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve had a number of break ups with other mothers. Not my fault, though, and I’m not the only one. Mothers are breaking up with each other all the time and it’s always over the same thing – Parenting.

We are constantly assessing each other; weighing-in on who’s right, who’s wrong and who’s insane. It sounds gutless and mean-spirited, but it’s really not. It’s just fear and confusion on all our parts.

We’re all terrified of failing as parents. Terrified of failing our kids and having to live with the consequences. Pick your nightmare: AIDS, Crystal Meth., Columbine, “Girls Gone Wild”, uselessness, hopelessness. . . It’s all grim.

If we’re right, our children will grow-up into happy, useful adults and, hopefully, move out of the house. If we’re wrong, we’re visiting them in rehab or jail trying to ignore the words MOM SUCKS tattooed down their knuckles.

And what compounds it all is the total confusion and uncertainty surrounding good parenting. There is no consensus anymore on how we should parent our children, (if there ever was). None. There are plenty of theories, oh yes, but no certainty that any of it is works.

So we cling to those mothers who agree with our parenting choices and who can reassure us that we’re doing the right thing. And we jettison those moms who parent their children differently and who, through no real fault of their own, challenge us and force us to question our own parenting. And who wants that?

So we break up.

My first break-up was pretty painless. It was with a mother who took parenting her three-year-old son very, very seriously. She had to. He was “gifted.”

Now. I’m not saying he wasn’t gifted. Maybe he was. It’s true, he could say blue in Spanish. But, he wasn’t exactly composing sonatas. I never saw him do long division. Still, I was happy for her to think her son was a genius. I secretly thought my three-year old son was a genius too.

The thing is, it was really stressful being around her. Every moment had to be a teachable moment; talk centered endlessly around her son and about the challenges of raising such an intelligent child; but worse, every now and then, she would inexplicably try to reassure me that I didn’t need to worry about my son. He would be fine, she would say. Every child is different and develops at his own pace. Not to worry.

Um. I’m not worried. And you, my friend, are a total loon.

Ok. I never actually said that to her, because I’m a big coward and other moms scare me, but I did break-up with her. And, as I said, it was painless. So painless, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even remember my name.

The one break-up that did hurt was with my normal friend - my super cool, beautiful, funny friend. The one who was just like me - clueless and overwhelmed and scared of all the other moms because they clearly knew what they were doing and we clearly did not.

I loved her! She was a total joy to be around. Everything about her life seemed to mesh perfectly with mine. We both had boys the same age. I was renovating my house. She was renovating her house. I was thinking about getting highlights. She was thinking about getting pregnant again. Perfect.

It was our parenting, though, that truly cemented our friendship. We agreed that we weren’t going to be angry, punitive parents – like our parents. We were going to raise our sons using positive reinforcement.

We were going to “catch” them doing something good and praise them with a love and an enthusiasm so warm, so nourishing, so heavenly that our boys would be inspired to do good all the time just so they could be rewarded again and again by our remarkable love.

That was the plan.

The trouble is, in between those moments of doing good, our boys were complete terrors - each in his own astonishing and delightful way.

My son was verbal and had no problem insulting anyone who crossed him – especially teachers or, sadly, me. By the time he was four-years-old, he had a whole arsenal of distressing insults at his command. My personal favorite -“hysterical hens from hell”- shocked his teachers and got him into a lot of trouble at school, but secretly impressed me. I mean that’s not a bad alliteration for a four-year old. But wrong! Very wrong.

My friend’s son was different. He was extremely sweet and never had a bad word for anyone. But when he was crossed, he would get physical - hitting, biting and breaking things in anger.

Needless to say, we were the two moms who were asked to stay after school and conference with the teachers. We nodded politely and earnestly as they suggested “strategies” and “coping skills” and possible “consequences” for our boys, but we always left unconverted.

Positive reinforcement might take longer to get results, we told each other, but in the end our boys would be less angry and happier men. Reason, love and praise were all that was needed to deal with this completely normal behavior.

But one afternoon, after a particularly bad outing with my son, I abandoned the faith completely and crossed over to the other side – the punitive, angry parent side.

I was in the drugstore, standing in a long line of people, and had just explained to my still four-year-old son that, no, I wasn’t going to buy him yet another packet of Pokemon cards, when he lost it. “You are such a loser freak, Mom! I hate you!”

An audible gasp rose from the line, and my scalp broke-out in a sweat. But, I didn’t cave. With all the love I could muster, I knelt down next to my son, looked him square in the eyes and told him he was being rude and hurting my feelings. He really needed to think about that and . . . But before I could finish, he shouted, “Shut-up, woman!”

More gasps from the crowd. More scalp sweat.

As I reached the counter to pay, the cashier – a middle-aged Bangladeshi woman who has since become my friend - said to me, “Don’t let him talk to you like that or he will grow up to be a very unhappy man.” Right.

As I think I’ve made pretty clear, I’m generally too fragile and insecure to accept unsolicited parenting advice from anyone. But for once, I wasn’t offended. I was actually relieved. It was as if for a brief moment I was in tune with the universe long enough to hear it say very clearly and lovingly, “Get a grip.”

And I did.

I took my screaming son home, sat him on a stool in the bathroom, went to his bedroom and proceeded to strip it, putting all his toys, videos, Pokemon cards, hot-wheel cars – everything! – away into the closet.

When I was done, his room was empty - except for his bed and dresser. Then I led my son to his room and sat him down on the bed. I told him he wasn’t ever going to talk to me like that again and he wasn’t going to see any of his toys until his behavior started to improve. Seriously. Then, I left him alone in his room, stunned.

And it worked. He was angry with me, oh yes, but he actually started to control himself and his language. Things at school improved.

Now. I’m not giving advice. I’m not. I’m still an insecure and clueless mom and I’m sure I’m going to have to deal with some kind of ugly backlash when my son is a teenager. So, wish me luck. I only mention it because, once I changed my parenting style, play dates with my friend and her son became impossible.

Inevitably, my son would end up punished, alone in his room, muttering something about me being the meanest mom in the world. Meanwhile, my friend’s son would still be bouncing a ball against my newly painted wall, completely ignoring his mother’s suggestions to “listen” and to “make the right choice.” It was miserable.

So were the silences between us. I just couldn’t engage anymore in our regular conversations, and I was too much of a coward (and I am a big, fat coward) to tell her the truth - how wrong I thought she was; how misguided her parenting now seemed to me.

So, I attempted a break-up, using the coward’s stand-by - the ol’ fade-away. I didn’t return phone calls. I made excuses to avoid play dates. Canceled others at the last minute. I did everything I could to avoid seeing or talking to her, hoping she would just get impatient and stop calling me.

What she did was confront me. What was going on? Was I avoiding her? Was I angry with her? What happened?


Normally, in these types of situations, I lie. Oh, yes. I do. If I think I‘m going to make someone angry with me or hurt their feelings I will lie – shamelessly - big, glorious lies. But this one time, I told the truth. And it was awful.

It wasn’t working! I blurted out. This whole positive reinforcement stuff was a load. Her son was out of control. She needed to stop talking so much to him and punish him. Give him consequences. Consequences, consequences, consequences!

In the middle my rant, I remembered why I don’t tell the truth – I’m no good at it.

After a long pause, my friend finally spoke. “I see,” she said. “Well. Good-bye, then,” and she hung-up the phone.

It was just a whisper, but that good-bye concussed me. Not only had I ended our friendship, I had hurt her feelings. I had insulted her son. And I had accused her of the one thing she feared most - failing as a mother.

I haven’t heard from her since.

Of all the break-ups in my life, of all the partings, hers is the one I regret most. The one I am most ashamed. There was no real reason why we couldn’t have been friends. If I had been a stronger person, a better friend, and a less insecure mom, I would have found a way to keep our friendship alive, despite our parenting differences. I acted like a coward, but this time it wasn’t cute or funny.
It was gutless and, even, a little mean.

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