My five-year-old bounds through the front door after preschool, kicking off her wet boots and dropping her belongings in a heap by the closet. On her head sits a crown or hat of some type that she must have fashioned with her teachers and friends during the school day. She is happy and energetic and brimming with excitement to show me the drawings in her backpack.
She first pulls out a treasure map. A tiny X marks the treasure’s location and little dashes trace the route. She has drawn a small side path off the main course leading to what looks like a four leaf clover where, “you can go to get more power on your journey if you need to.”
“That’s so great. I love how you added that extra power path. What a cool idea,” I say as I give her a side squeeze.
She then pulls out a piece of construction paper and hands it to me smiling. “I drew this picture of us.”
I accept the paper, ready to say, “Oh, sweetie! I love it!!” She draws lots of pictures of us against backdrops of rainbows and flowers and with hearts floating between our bodies.
I unfold the drawing and examine the image before me, my eyes widening.
Alarm. That’s what I immediately feel.
What the hells is this? She drew a picture of us standing next to each other, black crayon the sole instrument illustrating two unhappy and angry people. Heavy furrowed brows, bug eyes, spider or centipede-like lines shooting out from our cores – Me with two prominent fang teeth and a black, raining cloud above my head.
As I’m processing her drawing, my child is looking up at me with a smile on her face, awaiting my response.
“This is us?” I ask, forcing a smile, feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut.
“Yeah. That’s us when we are mad” she explains.
I resist the idea that this is us. “Were you thinking of a time that Mommy was mad today at school?”
“No,” she replies.
“Were you feeling mad at Mommy today at school?”
“No,” she replies.
This is the picture one would find in a psychology book section on childhood trauma and attachment (Nora, age 5, traumatized by her narcissistic and rage-prone mother).
This is the faded childhood drawing that falls from the therapy file of a wounded adult trying to work through the pain of her past.
This is the picture Dateline or 20/20 flashes on the screen while a neighbor is interviewed saying, “I always thought they were a normal family.”
I want to tell her that her picture is wrong. That that isn’t what we feel in our family or what we feel together. But somewhere inside me I know I would be lying to her, denying her artistic interpretation of how we are together in our more difficult moments. Although I desperately don’t want to, I recognize us in the drawing.
“We do feel anger with each other sometimes, don’t we?”
I pause not really knowing what to say or where to go from here. I bend down and hold her by her shoulders.
“I’m glad that you shared this with me. I definitely don’t like feeling this way and I will try to do better with my anger, sweetie.”
I give my beautiful girl a hug and tell her that I love her and she takes off to do something else, seemingly unfazed.
My mind flashes to a day when I was 7 months pregnant with twins and overwhelmed and sleep deprived and could no longer pick her up and she peed her pants while working through potty training and I screamed at her, “What is wrong with you? Why do you keep doing this?” as I dramatically and laboriously cleaned up the mess and banged things around (making clear my overwhelm and mental instability) before breaking down into tears as I cleaned her up in the tub. Screaming at her in that bathroom marks one of my lowest points as a parent. I hate to think of what my face looked like as I shamed her for struggling with a normal and natural developmental milestone. Even though I later apologized profusely, I know I can never put that experience back in the bottle. I cannot erase the fact that she saw me enraged and unhinged or how she must have felt as she became the target of my emotional overflow.
I think of the time I yelled at her to go to bed because I was so overwhelmed with my own feelings that I couldn’t manage comforting her. Or the time she wouldn’t unlock the bathroom door as she experimented with pouring all the hand soap into the sink and I banged on the door with the intensity of a SWAT team member. I don’t lose my temper with my other children like I do with Nora. She is the kid who draws on the wall 5 minutes after you have the come to Jesus “you have to stop drawing on walls” talk. She is the kids who you contemplate making wear a helmet because she has hit her head so many times doing tricks and falling off things and running into things that you are seriously worried she has damaged her brain. She is the kid who peels her banana and throws the peel across the room because “she forgot” that she isn’t supposed to do that. She is the kid who can never get enough candy or treats or minutes in front of a screen. My husband jokes, “she just doesn’t give a f*$k,” as we grapple with how to discipline her in a meaningful way that holds her sense of self intact.
And she is awesome. She is funny and creative and takes risks and has zero fear. She is a champion snuggler and fits next to my body like we were made for each other. She still likes to suck her thumb and usually has her favorite blanket by her side and cries in movies and television shows when people who love each other are in danger or separated.
We can really butt heads and she usually outlasts me in any power struggle. I see so much of myself in her. In the intensity of her feelings, her desire to have more of things, her creativity, her difficulty sitting still and how she has to karate chop the world and kick her legs and scream sometimes.
I am the adult. I have ALL the real power. So I’m the one who has to take a hard look at this picture and recognize the truth in it… I am quick to anger when I’m overwhelmed, rushed, or anxious. I need to up my patience. But I am also a human person who experiences anger and that is okay. It is okay for the kids to see anger on my face or hear it in my voice as long as I can tell them that I am feeling frustrated or angry and that I need a minute to calm down.
And it’s okay for Nora to feel anger. She can be a ball of feelings with a furrowed brow and pointy centipede lines coming from her core and I can handle that. I can see her anger and sit with it without telling her to put it away or change it or hide it.
I can have ugly feelings and she can too. There is no feeling in our house that cannot be expressed as long as we don’t hurt each other in the process of having our feelings.
I didn’t realize I had anger until I was in my twenties and got sober for the first time and then that’s all I had for a while. Now anger bursts forth in fits and starts and always feels a bit unruly… but it’s getting more manageable – like a powerful and protective dragon that serves me well when I can control the fire-breathing.
I take solace in the storm cloud she drew over my head. I hope it represents that she doesn’t see me as always angry but as temporarily consumed with anger before returning to the mom she usually draws… the mom in the field with the rainbows and hearts.