Guilt, Shame, Tantrums And Rosh Hashanah

The other day, I yelled at Josie. Really yelled.

She has asthma, and so she tends to have a serious, multiday bout of wheezing every couple of months. I hate these times. She gasps for breath, and her eyes get glassy. But I trust our asthma and allergy doc, and I think she’s getting the right drugs, and I know that if we took her to the emergency room she’d only get the exact same treatment she gets at home — except with an added gloss of white-coat stress, tedium and other kids’ germs. So I try to stay sanguine.

Still, when Josie is sick I’m stressed. And like Kimora Lee Simmons, I can go off like a howitzer at any second.

The situation was this: We were late for a birthday party. (Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor labored breathing will keep us from our appointed cupcakes.) I was trying to get Josie to use an inhaler instead of the nebulizer machine. The inhaler takes seconds; the nebulizer would add another 10 minutes to our departure time. Josie hates the inhaler; I think the sudden whoosh of medicine scares her. And the very sight of the inhaler gives her performance anxiety, because she’s still unsure about the difference between “breathe in” and “breathe out.” (Note: This may be the one time a parent really wants her child to inhale.) She wanted to please me by using it. But she didn’t want to use it. She’d put it to her lips, then spit and sob. “I don’t want to! It tastes bad! I can’t! I don’t want to use the inhaler! I can’t!”

This is how Josie always responds to something that scares her. For instance, when Jonathan was teaching her to jump into the pool, she stood on the edge and sobbed. I urged her to forget it, to try again later, to ease up on herself… but no, she insisted on standing there, sobbing, “I can’t!” all the while. Her need to make a leap and her desire to make her dad proud of her were at war with her own fear. At last, she jumped into the cool, blue water, landing in Jonathan’s arms. She came up beaming.

But I wasn’t thinking about the pool as Josie whined and sobbed and changed her mind repeatedly about the inhaler. Meanwhile, we could have had an entire nebulizer treatment and been well on our way to cupcakeville. Finally I screamed at her: “I don’t care whether you use the inhaler or the nebulizer! But pick one! Stop saying you’ll do something if you won’t! You’re acting like a baby!”

As I was shrieking like a harpy, the phone rang. Jonathan answered it, then wordlessly handed me the receiver. It was my dear friend Daryl-Lynn. She’d heard my tirade. “Take some deep, cleansing breaths,” she ordered. “Are you okay, honey?”

Well, no. I was mortified. She’d heard me screeching like an aging B-movie actress in a Lifetime movie-of-the-week: “Bad Mother: The Marjorie Ingall Story.” What the hell was I thinking, hollering at a sick kid? Especially knowing, as I did, that behind the sick kid’s behavior was a desire for my praise?

Daryl listened and did not pass judgment. “Parenting can be so hard,” she said soothingly. Aaah! What you’d say to the crazy lady smacking her kid in the frozen foods section! But should I have been surprised that she was talking to me slowly and with extra articulation, like she was Mr. Rogers and I was Henrietta Pussycat? This was the second time she’d seen me berate Josie! (She’d recently heard me bark at her for having a tantrum in a restaurant.) How horrid a parent did she think I was? What if she thought I went thermonuclear all the time!?

I wanted Daryl to think I was a good parent, because Daryl is the friend whose parenting style I’d most like to emulate. She’s firm but fair, laidback but alert, funny but brisk, playful but grown up. I bet her daughter doesn’t look right at her and yell, “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll spit on the floor!” (Okay, her kid’s 14 months old, but still.)

Here’s the thing. The ugly thing. I was far more mortified to have been caught yelling than to have yelled. I was ashamed to have appeared out of control, not to have been out of control. In my vanity, I was more focused on my own emotional state than on Josie’s.

But while I was talking into the receiver, Josie handed Jonathan the inhaler. He held it to her lips… and she inhaled. When she saw me hang up, her heartbreaking little heart-shaped face lighted up. She exclaimed: “I did it, Mama! I used the inhaler!” The tears were still clinging to her eyelashes.

I cheered and high-fived her, the way she wanted me to, and then I got down to her eye level. I said gravely: “I’m sorry I was so impatient with you. I get anxious when you’re sick, and I didn’t want us to be late, but I shouldn’t have yelled.” She chortled, saying, “I was a big girl!” She was way too into her own triumph to notice my crumpled, miserable mood. As I pushed the stroller to the party, I wallowed in my own guilt like a golden retriever rolling around in a decomposing skunk.

But that too is narcissism. True repentance focuses on the needs of the apologizee, not the apologizer. Josie was doing her job: coping with ambivalence, growing up, balancing fear and risk, juggling her high expectations for herself and the expectations of others. Now it was my job to grow up as well, to think about how to do better next time, not to luxuriate in a rank and self-flagellatingly delicious stinky stew of mortification.

Judaism is big into kavannah, intention. And as we enter the High Holy Day season, I’m thinking about my parenting intentions. I need to worry about who I am, not how I look to the outside world. I need to focus on what Josie needs from me, not on what I need from her. (I think a lot of privileged, older, urban parents like me look to their kids for friendship and for affirmation, which is way too much pressure for a kid. It’s our job to civilize them; it’s not their job to validate us.)

I need to remember how Josie makes her leaps forward. She obsesses, she freaks out, she does as much waffling as the entire International House of Pancakes, and then she closes her eyes and jumps. I forget, because she’s usually so fearless, that sometimes she’s scared and that she has her own process of coping with fear.

Right now, I’m thinking about the Avinu Malkeinu, the prayer of supplication that many of us soon will be saying. Avinu Malkeinu. Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshiyeinu. I’d translate that as, “Our Parent and Ruler, create with us righteousness and kindness, and bring us salvation.” God, as a parent and authority figure, works with us (not to us — it’s a collaborative process), helping us to become better people. As parents, we should emulate the ultimate Parent. We need to encourage our children’s good deeds (tzedakah doesn’t mean charity as in munificence; it means charity as in good deeds, justice, fairness). As everyone’s favorite sage, Maimonides, said, the highest level of tzedakah is teaching someone to become self-reliant. That is, after all, what a good parent wants for her child.

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Guilt, Shame, Tantrums And Rosh Hashanah

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