Monday, September 12, 2011

Have You Tried Yelling?

As anyone who reads my column regularly knows, I have a temper. I don't like it and I am devoted to working on it and when that fails, working with it. One of the ways I've found to go with the flow of my rage, when it's too late to stave it off at the pass, is to do a little impromptu performance art, in which I dramatize whatever I'm feeling so that it's so over the top that it's more entertaining than scary. I call this technique Theatrical Yelling.

I remember my own mother tilting her head skyward, raising her hands in the air and pleading, Dear God, why have you cursed me with such a child as this in my old age? What have I done to deserve this? For whatever reason, I found this hilarious. I never once took it seriously or believed my mother felt cursed. There were three reasons for this: One, I knew she was an atheist; two, I knew in my bones (and still do) how completely she loved me; and three, I was raised to have a sense of humor. It was the only effective way to survive my family.

Recently I was cleaning and running around while "everyone else" (names withheld to protect the entitled), as far as I could tell, was sitting around doing nothing. My daughter dropped something right next to her chair--right next to it--and, instead of leaning over and picking it up herself, she asked me to do it. I was on the other side of the room doing three things at once and I felt my temperature rise. Now, a so-called normal person might say, "I'm busy, sweetie. Pick it up yourself, please." But a person with a temper like mine, well, the first thing that crossed my mind was to throw the pile of clothes I was holding and yell, "Are you out of your effing mind?!" So, rather than fight it, I just kind of went with it.

(One tip. It is more theatrical and less frightening for your child if you mainly address God, and not your child, in your spontaneous outbursts. This is true even if you don't believe in God. And if you do, don't worry. God knows what you're doing.)

I dropped the clothes, raised my hands above my head and made eye contact with the ceiling, "Am I a servant? Is that what I am?!" Pause. I could see my daughter's six-year-old mind thinking, "What's a servant?" But she just watched me in silence. I had her attention. I continued. "All I do all day and night is wait on this child hand and foot and this is the thanks I get?!" Pause. "Is this not insane?! I mean, am I crazy or is this crazy? Sweet. Mother. Of. God!"

Or something like that. You get the idea. Be creative! You can follow your rant with a wink, and a calm "I'm busy, sweetie. Pick it up yourself, please," as you return to what you were doing. In the end, you've made your point, you've made your child think you're a little bit nuts, you've both laughed, and you've expressed your shadow side. Bada boom, bada bing. Now that's what being a bad mommy is all about.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why I Write This Blog

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular."
Carl Jung

In Jung's opinion, generally, the world was going to hell on a speeding train, and when people asked him if human kind had any hope at all of surviving, he said, only if we do our shadow work. In Jung's analysis, every person has a shadow, a part of the psyche that she rejects. And acknowledging that part is what he's talking about when he talks about shadow work. To extrapolate, the only way to be a decent parent is to expose your shadow parent--your dark side of the mom; the opposite of everything you saw on TV growing up. Because when you look at it, own it, even, occasionally, embrace the mother fucker (I use that term literally here), it doesn't knock you on your ass the same way it does if you're trying to pretend it isn't there and it shows up anyway, as it is wont to do. The idea is that you start to have a relationship with it. You see your shadow, and instead of hating yourself for having one, and trying to pretend you never threw that craaaazy tantrum when your kid wouldn't go to sleep that one night, you say, yes, I did. And you just sit with it. You look at it.

Sitting with it is different from indulging in it, and this is an important distinction. I question myself on this point, because I don't want badmommyla to turn into a vehicle through which I expose my bad behavior and then continue on with it, writing one humiliating/amusing post after another about how I lost it in the grocery store, or forgot to feed my child one day, or whatever madcap adventures we might associate with "badmommyla". That's not what I mean to be doing. What I mean to be doing--why I write this blog--is to share my experiences so that others will feel less alone. It is my mission to increase awareness and reduce shame and guilt. Because I believe that free of those things, we are freer, and better, mothers.

Sitting with it means neither repressing nor indulging. It means accepting. It means accepting not only that you are not perfect, but that you actually might be a little screwed up. I fantasize that there are mothers out there who don't do things they regret. Either they behave perfectly, a la Stepford Wives, or they are so at peace with their own darkness that they just accept themselves completely. Whatever the case, it ain't me, babe, no, no, no, it ain't me, babe. And if you're reading this post, it probably ain't you, either. Thank God we have each other!

The shadow side of motherhood is vast and sometimes downright terrifying. At the very darkest end of the spectrum, we have mothers who kill their children; a little further towards the light, mothers who chronically abuse their children; mothers who abandon their children. In Jung's opinion, this kind of acting out is the surest symptom of repressing the shadow. So maybe some of these truly "bad" mothers are trying so hard to be June Cleaver that the pressure not to be honest about how overwhelmed they are, or how much they sometimes resent their children, just completely overtakes them. Psychotherapist Robert Johnson explains, "The refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they... collect in the dark corners of the personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own--the shadow life... If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage."

This is why I write this blog. I want to expose my shadow--the shadow of motherhood in general--to the light and create space for others to do so, in the hope that if we can look and laugh, and sometimes cry, and be honest, together, the gnarly beast of all that we don't want to be might be defeated, or tamed, or, at the very least, witnessed. Because I believe, as Jung did, that we can grow through our shadows into more enlightened human beings and, naturally, more enlightened mothers.

Friday, May 27, 2011

This Home is Not Broken

I'd like to file an informal complaint about Judith Wallerstein. For those of you who don’t know who Judith Wallerstein is, she has been the preeminent talking head in the US since the 1970s on the effect of divorce on children. And the answer as to why I am filing said complaint will also answer another question recently asked by badmommyla readers: “Where the hell have you been for the last nine months?”

The short reply would be: in the last nine months, I separated from my husband. I have my daughter with me five days per week; he has her for two. We are getting along as well as can possibly be expected, and I mean that literally-- we are kind to one another and we put our daughter first in all our choices and actions. She is doing well, as far as we can tell. Still, as you can imagine, there has been plenty of grist for the bad mommy mill—more reasons to feel bad!

And if you want to feel bad about divorce, Judith Wallerstein would like to help you feel even worse. She speaks with authority, and gets loads of airtime in our popular media. She has credentials and a New York Times Best Seller. This is the case in spite of the fact that her research is seriously flawed. Wallerstein strongly discourages people from considering divorce, except in extreme cases, and she burdens those who have already made the decision to divorce with the following narrative:  you have now traumatized your children and condemned them to a lifetime of suffering--trust issues; broken relationships; an inability to commit. And this is where I have a problem with her work and her confidence in the story she tells based on her—let me say it again—flawed research.

I don't doubt that some children of divorce do struggle with the aforementioned issues, but I struggle with those issues and my parents have been married for over forty years. I see many of my clients and friends and family members, whose parents' marriages are intact, struggling with those same issues. And, conversely, I have seen others who, even as the product of divorced parents, somehow maintain satisfying and committed marriages. And yes, my evidence is anecdotal. Still, I can't ignore my own experience and the fact that it highlights the possibility of another story about divorce and the children of divorce.

And that possibility is: there is no predetermined story--no absolute truth--about any of it. The Greek philosopher Epictetus proclaimed that "we are disturbed not by what happens to us but by our thoughts about what happens." In light of this, when I feel myself in a negative emotional state, I stop and ask myself, what story am I telling myself right now? And I find that there always is a story. Sometimes it’s my own story; sometimes it’s Judith Wallerstein’s; sometimes it’s off the news or from the annals of my own family history. “I am ruining my daughter’s life,” for example. “I am traumatizing my daughter.” This is the kind of thought that makes my blood run cold. It makes me feel physically sick.

I am indebted to Byron Katie for her simple, direct process of inquiry, called The Work. Now I know how to find the thought I’m thinking--or the story Judith Wallerstein is spinning--and question it, hard. I take a really good look at it. Is the story--the thought, the belief--true? Can I absolutely know that it's true? No. I can’t. And so, why on earth accept it, especially if it causes me pain and hampers my ability to think straight, and be a good mother? Because the truth--which is both scary and liberating--is that I have no idea how any of this plays out, or ends up, and neither does Judith Wallerstein, or anyone else.

Trauma has been a fact of existence for living things since things started living. Things that don't tell stories about it, like animals and plants, and enlightened masters, recover relatively quickly from trauma. We humans, on the other hand, tell ourselves stories that keep the synapses in our brains firing along the same miserable pathways, reliving the past event and re-traumatizing ourselves long after the source of the trauma has passed. Mental health means stopping that. Continually replaying a tape--in your own head or via listening to a talking head--about how traumatized you and your children are is dangerous.

And yet, it’s challenging to let go of our stories, even our sad ones. Having a story is reassuring. At least then we know what support group to join and exactly how to flagellate ourselves, or who to blame. We know how to explain why we’re so fucked up, or why everyone else is. We can define ourselves as victims, or perpetrators, and have an identity. We humans like having an identity. I know I do, although in this current scenario I find it burdensome and limiting to think I know what’s going on and who I am in relation to it.

If I listen to the scary stories out there, I am the single mother of a traumatized child living in a broken home. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I could trip on that story for hours. I have tripped on that story for hours, and yet even the most cursory inquiry into it reveals it as fiction, in no uncertain terms. I am not a single mother because my daughter's father is still a daily presence in our lives, and I am surrounded by people who love me and my daughter and want to help. My home is not broken. My daughter's father and I have two homes now, both of which are whole, so long as we believe they are. The bonds of a family are not always visible, but my experience is that they are always intact. Our family is not broken, although it is non-traditional.

If I l believe the thought that I, my home, my family, are broken, I feel awful--hopeless and exhausted—and that’s how I come off to my daughter. When I am able to let go of that thought, and just be open to what is actually happening--a transition, a transformation, a shift from the known to the unknown--I can breathe. I have room to create something new; or to let something new unfold.

If you find yourself in my position, do yourself a favor and watch your thoughts, and be very careful about what you let yourself believe. Question everything you hear, everything anyone tells you, about divorce. What you believe, and how your perceive yourself in the midst of this change is one hundred times more powerful--and more real--than statistics and research and stories concocted by talking heads will ever be.