“Mean Mommy” reared her ugly head again last week when my 5 year-old son glared at me, licked his lips, and spat on our living room floor. The look on my face must have been pretty scary, because he then squeaked, “I had a bug in my mouth! It was an accident!” and ran behind the couch to hide. I now understand what it means to “see red” when you’re angry, because I felt like a cartoon character with smoke pouring out of my ears and hot lava spewing from the top of my head.
I should also tell you that spitting is a cute little habit of my son’s that seems to come and go randomly. It’s happened before—most notably, on my mother-in-law’s couch. I feel like our child is throwing the gauntlet down, daring my husband and me to react. And you better believe that we do.
I’m embarrassed to admit that Mean Mommy has appeared many times before. It’s no coincidence that it often happens when my husband is out of town. By the end of the week, I’m worn out, my nerves are frayed and I feel a strange tenderness for the Incredible Hulk and his anger management issues. “Why don’t people just leave him alone,” I reason, “and let the poor man have some sleep?” I don’t actually turn green when I get mad, but it would probably be better for my son if I did. At least it would give him some warning before I explode. These explosions, by the way, usually involve some yelling, screaming, stomping and incoherent growling on my part. Picture an angry dancing bear gesturing madly and careening through a living room after a kindergartner, and you pretty much have the idea.
But I took a deep breath, held it together and said, “Mean Mommy is about to come out. Do you remember what we decided? That when I was angry, I was going to tell you, and then you were going to try to behave.” I surprised myself with how calm my voice was—some would say, “eerily calm.” But I was trying to follow the new rule my son and I had come up with together—that I would let him know when I was about to lose it.
A muffled whimper from behind the couch, and then, “I want Daddy to come back right now.”
“Daddy is coming back tomorrow. But until then, we have to get along. Do you think we can do that?”
“I need you to clean up your spit and wait for me,” I said, and left the room, acting a lot more in control than I felt. I went into the bedroom and just stood there breathing for a few minutes. I thought about the consequences I could use with my son (we have a “marble jar”—he gets marbles for good behavior, and has them taken out when he misbehaves.) When my heart rate came back down to normal about ten minutes later, I went back into the living room. Wonder of wonders, my son had cleaned up his mess. Then we talked about why spitting on the floor was not a good choice on his part, and how next time he could use the toilet or the sink. I gave him a hug and said, “You know Honey, I don’t like Mean Mommy either. So thank you for cooperating. I’m glad we figured this one out without yelling.”
Then I put him to bed, poured myself a glass of wine and sagged onto the sofa. Before I went to sleep, I called all the single parents I knew and told them how brave, strong and amazing I thought they were. (It’s hard enough parenting with another person, let alone by yourself. Single parents should all get medals, in my book.)
Now it’s your turn—and I have a hunch this might be one we could all use a little help with. Have you ever lost your temper with your kids? What do you do to calm down when your kids push your buttons? We’d love to hear from you!
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.