Sticks and Stones

“Get out of bed, you little crybaby!” my husband growled at my daughter.

I flashed back to the day my Dad met Rose. “Are you a crybaby?” my father taunted as she cried.

Each time I heard my father say it, I ran to her rescue, snatched her out of his reach, and rushed to validate her feelings. I stroked her head, “It’s ok, Baby. It’s ok.”

Tonight I didn’t say a word.

Why?

I told myself I was busy. The baby was crying, Matt and Rose were at the other end of the house, and I had to take care of my wailing boy before I soothed my ailing girl.

I heard them quietly talking in the bedroom. “Fine. Whatever. Go ahead!” he said as she ran down the hallway. He’d given up on her. She crawled onto the couch beside me as her three-week-old brother finished his bottle. As I burped him I said, “You missed me today, didn’t you?”

“I cried and cried for you,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I know, Sweetie,” I said, as I explained that Mommy sometimes leaves the house for work just like Daddy.

I’d been at a conference all weekend. Daddy had both kids all day and he was completely frazzled. We’d only had two kids for a few weeks, so he wasn’t used to juggling them. And I’d never left him with them for a whole day, so he wasn’t used to that either. Rose tends to act out if I’m gone too long. Daddy was in no shape to deal with the kids anymore.

“Tomorrow I’ll be back home again and we’ll have Rose and Mommy Day, ok? Would you like to go to Kidz-n-Coffee on Monday? I can see if Torey can come.”

“And Lori,” she said.

“I’ll call Lori and see if she can play after naps,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

After that, she went to sleep without a fight. I tried, but I couldn’t sleep.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the “crybaby” comment. My husband had inadvertently quoted my father. My husband is nothing like my father. At least that’s what I tell myself.

He and my dad do share some qualities (see “The Hallmarks of Fatherhood”), but until tonight, I thought hurt speech was solely my father’s domain. For example: “You’re a drug addict; You’re not gifted anymore; Your marriage failed; You got dumber when you scored lower on the SAT; You ripped your mother’s family apart for something that happened when you were 11! (See “Some Things You Can’t Forgive”) You failed out of school; You told everyone about your sex life; None of the boys were interested in you. They all wanted you to fix them up with your busty friend. You wasted our money on drugs in college.”

And that was just one fight. At the time, I scoured my scant survival instincts to determine how to safely hurl myself out of the moving car onto the Saw Mill River Parkway.

And I swore that I would protect my children from hurt speech when they saw my father. We live on opposite coasts and he didn’t meet Rose until she was two. It doesn’t come up much. But what about my husband? Must I protect them from their own father’s angry words? Matt and I have discussed the damage that verbal abuse can inflict, but try as I might with him, it doesn’t seem to sink in. The name calling is new, but saying mean things in our household, I’m ashamed to say, is not.

Matt thinks that as long as Rose recovers right away, those mean things he says are “just words,” and they haven’t made an impact. But even though I should know better I do it too.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will break my heart. The truth is we both know how verbal abuse feels. Growing up, Matt’s peers tortured and ostracized him. He never said that they called him names specifically but that’s what kids do. To add to that, his alcoholic father never stopped reminding him that he didn’t want him.

Growing up, my home was half “All in the Family,” and half “Seinfeld.” My parents can best be described as a cross between Archie and Edith Bunker and Frank and Estelle Costanza. They spouted the bigotry, the negativity, the timidity and ignorance of the Bunkers pumped up to the volume and pitch of the Costanzas. If there was a “Bellos” show, my parents’ closed captioning would all caps.

Those words hurt, and people like us — people that have been verbally abused — tend to abuse others.
Annoyed was my dad’s perpetual state, but he dabbled in angry and furious. All of my memories have him yelling or snapping or snarling. I’m sure someone hurt him too. He’s a stereotypical socially inept engineer. That kind of kid doesn’t succeed in the social arena.

I’m not immune to saying mean things. Although I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, I’ve seen Rose jump when I use my angry tone, and if Rose won’t get her butt in motion to leave the house, I threaten to leave without her. She constantly asks, “Can I come in too?” when I get out of the car go to the store. I’ve never actually left her, but it’s clear that my behavior’s hurting her too.

I just wrote an article about parents who lose their cool. I learned that the best defense is a good offense. We need to focus more on Rose’s “nice” and that will work to limit her “naughty.” We also need to be nice to ourselves. We need to nurture ourselves, and the good news is that nurturing ourselves on the outside helps to cultivate good cheer inside.

Matt’s name calling was an isolated incident, I’m happy to say. We talked about it, and he told me how difficult that day was for him. I’m trying to help him more and encourage him to treat himself. He works all the time and hardly sleeps, so it’s no wonder he’s tense. I booked a massage for him and I’m encouraging him to sleep more. I’m working to take care of myself too. When Christian was born, I bought myself a pamper kit – scented body wash, lotion and lip balm – because I knew that taking care of a newborn all day is hard and I’d need to do something nice for me.

We are also trying to praise Rose’s good behavior when we see it. I have to say Matt’s better at it than I am. His dad left when he was nine and I still talk to mine, and he still says mean things, so maybe Matt healed better than I did. But the thing that’s stayed with us, the thing that we’ve learned, is that words DO hurt, whether we say them or hear them. But the more we focus on the good, the less room we have in our hearts for the bad.

2 comments on “Sticks and Stones

  1. The one piece of advice I’ll give to parents is to say you’re sorry. You’ll screw up. We all do. Stress gets the better of us. We say the thing we promised ourselves we’d never say. We do the thing we promised ourselves we’d never do. Saying you’re sorry models good behavior for the kids, too. They’ll screw up. They need to know what a sincere apology looks like. And kids have an amazing capacity to forgive. My son taught me what true forgiveness is.

    Ok…so I give two pieces of advice. The second is to take care of yourself first and foremost. Taking care of yourself IS taking care of your child.

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