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On Being With a Person When it's Hard to Be With a Person

On a scale of fight or flight, I'm a solid flight with the occasional surge of fight. In my baseline state I'm conflict-avoidant, which has its pros and cons. One such con is when my kid has a very flamboyant meltdown or temper-tantrum– wow, do I ever want to GTFO.

There are ways in which we are so similar-- and moments where I see my own childhood struggle reflected in her--that I can't stand it. There are particular noises and faces she makes when distressed that feel like a hairshirt to me, and my lizard brain is dying to make them right back at her. It's not a good look for a 44-year-old.

Recently she was feeling distressed about having to do her music practice, as 8-year-olds are wont to feel, but I stood firm against her protests. The more her negotiations failed, the more she flamed. The more she flamed, the more I felt myself teetering on the edge of explosion. In those moments, I wish I could be the chill version of self I present to the world. I wish I could just ohm myself away!

Giving myself an ohm-out, though, which is often the sage advice in these situations, doesn't work for us. When I leave– even if I announce it calmly with my best attempt at removing the beloved "tone"-- it triggers her. It's like she doesn't want me there at all, but also she wants me there more than anything. She wants me to shut up, she wants me to say something. We're an old married couple co-dependent on each other's frustrations.

But recently, something different happened, and it reminded me of a time….


…When I was 8 years old, and an angel whispered the answer to a math problem in my ear. (It was the angel pictured above.)

This was the third grade, the peak of my wholehearted belief that I was terrible at math. Lots of evidence had gathered up behind this belief over the years, and I was fully convinced that numbers were my enemy. This was the 80s. Nobody was preaching growth mindset, my friends, and if they had been, I wouldn't have listened because I was a stubborn child-asshole.

So in third grade we were having a "multiplication bee" and it was my turn. I stood facing my opponent on the other side of the classroom. The teacher was standing in between us like the host of Family Feud, but not funny and energetic like a game-show host. Far from a game-show host. Anyway, if I got the problem wrong I would have to sit down, costing my team a point.

Everybody in my class already knew I was bad at math. When we had to grade each other's quizzes and announce our partners' scores to the entire class, I cringed every time Giuseppe Duca reported mine: a pretty consistent two or three out of ten. It was so humiliating. There were other humiliations, too.

By third grade I had burrowed pretty deeply into a sense of shame and embarrassment over this suspicion that I was stupid, slow, and the only child in the world who struggled with this shit.

So during the multiplication bee, all of these collective shame-pile-ups are just inching up my throat and seeping into my hot cheeks. The problem at hand was 8X8. I hated the eights. I didn't know the answer, just straight-up didn't know it. Eight times eight? What is this "eight" you speak of?

But then, out of nowhere, the angel whispers in my ear, and I fucking say it. "Sixty-four!" It was like in The Labyrinth, when Jennifer Connelly turns to David Bowie and calmly declares, "You have no power over me," and he basically shatters like a broken mirror.

I'm not an "angel person" (maybe I should be? thoughts on this?), but that's honestly what receiving and giving the answer felt like. Like a benevolent spirit who loved me and wanted me to succeed gave me the answer, and home-run, slam-dunk, mic-drop. I remained standing. I think I even smiled a little, enjoying the rush of proving everyone wrong.

But also-- I'd been working on it. My mom got me this irresistible plastic toy where the multiplication table is made up of buttons, and when you press on a problem the answer shows through the opaque plastic. For a passionate button pusher such as myself, it really helped. Plus my mom had started helping me with my homework, resulting in better quiz scores. Shocker, turns out I was pretty average at math, and that I just needed help.

So I'd been putting in the work, as they say, but I still believe the angel bit. Yes I'd been studying, and my fantastic angel was looking out for me….


…So when my kid was having this hairshirt-inducing, terrible-noise making meltdown, and I wanted nothing more than to flee the scene by exploding into thousands of pulpy bits, the angel came. But this time it inhabited my body a la Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore in Ghost.

Don't move, the angel said. And don't yell, or whine back at her, or try to talk her out of having overwhelming emotions. Don't try to distract her with what she can do after practice because we know that doesn't work. Don't try to perfunctorily display empathy through reflective verbal affirmations, and don't stare at her with pity in a feeble attempt to convey mercy.

Don't do any of that shit, but most importantly, don't walk away. Just stay. Look at the floor if you have to, but don't make a face. Shut the fuck up for a god-damned second (my angel swears a lot), and just let it ride, with her.

You can handle it.

So I leaned against her bedroom door awkwardly holding a broom and dust pan because I'd just been sweeping up cat litter (which is how I spend half my life).

And I stood there while she stomped around in her kitty socks, while she sliced and diced the air with her scream-grunts, while she brutalized her pillow, and while she went to the bathroom to angrily pee. Did it feel awkward? Little bit. Was my heart literally pounding in my chest like I was being chased through my nightmares? Yes.

But did I start to detach from the particular personal-ness of the situation? Little bit. Did I feel the hairshirt and hear the terrible-noises and begin to realize that– while not my number one fave sensual experiences– I could withstand them while taking deep breaths and working hard to stay present in my body? Yes.

Did remaining in the room with her open up time to pull back even further, and recognize how normal and predictable all this was: for her her to be upset about doing something she didn't want to do, even if that something seemed like "no big deal" to me? And that it wasn't an indictment on my parenting, that it didn't mean I was crazy for also having my own emotional reactions, nor was it a sign that my kid is lacking in some irreparable, untenable way? Also yes.

Staying present showed us that we could both get through this, together. And that neither of us were so bad that the other had to flee the scene.

Okay, so the angel bit. I've been Zen-Buddhist meditating and practicing mindfulness for fifteen-ish years. (Maybe longer, but I'm getting to that age when I'm like, wow, how long?) I know the term "mindfulness" now makes many of us cringe, including myself. It's become a meaningless buzz word that floats around gorgeous white ladies doing yoga at sunrise.

But paying close attention to myself and others, which is all mindfulness is, has helped me a lot. It helps me to put breathing room between how I feel, and what's actually happening out there in the world where, actually, my feelings do not exist in any tangible form.

So I've been doing the work, as they say. It's not like the ability to be patient with myself and my kid came to me out of nowhere. But there have been so many, so many times when the work has seemingly failed me. So many times I couldn't remember, for the life of me, the proverbial 8X8=64. So many times where I feel like I'm entering my 45th year straight from my 8th.

Just yesterday, I yelled at my daughter and had an instant yelling-hangover. I had to go back and repair. I'm still recovering from beating the shit out of myself for having a rough emotional day. But I do recover more quickly now.

I think that's just the drill. That's how it goes. Parenting is probably the hardest, most emotionally demanding thing I've ever done in my life. But it's not just about parenting. It's about being with the people in your life, even when they're at their worst. Especially if they're at their worst. And what about being with yourself when you're at your worst? The worst!

So, it wasn't an angel doing anything. It was a moment where the work paid off. And, yes, of course, the angel did everything! You don't have to understand the angel. The angel is beyond your control. The angel is a gift.

My kid eventually just picked up a book and started reading. This is one of her strategies for settling down. When it felt safe, I sat down on her bed and wrote her a note. Another strategy we've developed over the years: writing notes when it's too much to say it out loud, and we don't want to make eye contact because we're completely disgusted with each other.

Through that process, she agreed to take ten minutes then do her music practice, and she did.

And did I joyfully continue to sweep up the self-replenishing cat litter while inwardly congratulating myself? Yes. Because if I don't recognize and celebrate my small successes, I might forget, or never fully know how good they can feel. And how taking a sec to feel them helps them to spread. Sixty-four for the win, bitches.

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