I remember being 15 and walking through the mall with my girlfriends, rolling my eyes at those poor pathetic moms who were scooping screaming children off the tiles of County Seat, arms full of bags and eyes full of tears. They would haul off and lose it on their kid with a yank and a spank and a scolding that could silence a howler monkey? Ahhh, the 80s…a simpler time.
It’s kind of nice to see that – no matter the generation, no matter the decade – children will be children and mothers will be mothers. Sure, today you see less spanking and more “1…..2…….2 1/2…..2 3/4…..I’m warning you…” But, the basic idea is still there. No matter the discipline of choice, it’s always there. And it always sucks.
Coen has started to act up a bit over this last month of his relatively tantrum-free life. Nate and I thought we were ready, thought we had discussed and prepared for every intricate possibility, thought we had memorized every series of events that SuperNanny ever aired on ABC. We thought. We were sorely mistaken. On top of (poorly) preparing for the toll it would take on our children, we were completely unaware of the (frightening) impact it would take on our marriage.
Since the day we were married, I told Nate that when we had kids I NEVER wanted to have a good cop/bad cop relationship. I never wanted my kids to perceive one of us as the weak target and the other as Hell’s gatekeeper. Yet a parenting relationship can’t have two weak targets or it falls apart and you end up with a bully, a serial killer, or something characteristically similar to Charlie Sheen. But, if you have two evil gatekeepers running the show, your kid turns into that creepy pale dude from the movie The Benchwarmers. It’s a tougher balancing act than I ever fathomed it would be. For both of you to meticulously toe that middle line while managing to stay on the same page of that moldy book of discipline is nearly impossible. I commend all you parents who can do it, and who do it well. Team Brunner is learning more every single day and admittedly, we have a lot of work ahead of us.
This past weekend our family went back to Wisconsin to celebrate Nate’s birthday. Seeing both sets of parents always gets Coen riled up, leading to multiple forms of mischievous behavior. He shows off and, like any two-year-old, finds joy in testing the solidity of those lightly-sketched boundaries we have started to draw for him. By Sunday afternoon, packing up the car while balancing a hungry baby, overtired toddler and gas-ridden dog, I collided full-speed into my wit’s end. Coen hit me and I give him a time-out without thinking twice. Two minutes later, he apologized and I tossed him in the vehicle. With tears in my eyes, I waved goodbye to my mom and waited for Nate to ask the question that is always destined to open Pandora’s Bitchy-Wife Box: “What’s the matter?”
I sat in silence for a long while, reflecting on how to most profoundly and poignantly make my point. I contemplated my wording and had my answer well-rehearsed in my head. It was going to come out calm and deliberate with a rocket-scientist-like demeanor. And, embarrassingly enough, this is what came out:
“I feel like an asshole. I am sick of being an asshole alone. I just want us to be assholes together.”
Never in my 11 years of knowing Nathan have I ever said any string of sentences even remotely close to this one. Nor could I have imagined a situation where it might actually fit the conversation in a non-nonsensical manner. But that day, in my head, it made perfect logical sense.
After seeing the (understandable) confusion in his face, I elaborated a bit. I am tired of being the bad cop. The ice queen. The one Coen tests because he knows it will reap some sort of attention. I am sick of seeing judgment in peoples’ eyes when I choose to react to a behavior the way I see fit in that very moment for that very act. I am through listening to the shoulda woulda couldas from people who “know better” but offer nothing to prove that self-proclaimed status. What I need is a strong partner, an absolute, undeniable 100% back-up. When I put Coen in time out 15 minutes earlier, I needed Nate to follow me to the office chair and get down to his level WITH me and be on my side. I wouldn’t have even cared if he had repeated what I said verbatim. We are a team and, just like parliamentary procedure, I needed him to second my notion, even if that notion may have been made out of pure and illogical emotion due to lack of sleep or the new lousy diet I’m trying out this week.
I continued to explain that there is no worse feeling than feeling like a bad mom. When my kid misbehaves, I have no more than 2.5 seconds to establish and believe in a reaction. Some people scoff if you do nothing. Some people scoff if you do too much. Some people just scoff because, like me at 15, they can’t believe a parent would let their child get so out of hand that they would behave like that in the first place.
I talked about my fear of becoming the bad cop – the parent my kids won’t talk to when life gets rough. And this feeling, like no other feeling, makes you feel like you are losing control.
We finished our drive back home and got everyone tucked into bed. I know this will be a continuous conversation that will most likely go both ways for years to come, but for the day, it was over. Nods and hugs were exchanged and points were agreed upon with smiles on our faces.
The following day, I was sitting at work and Nate sent me an email. He said these simple words that I will carry with me in my heart:
“Remember I am always on your side, Nicki. Just be confident in what you are doing because, dammit, you are doing it the right way and doing it well. Got that? I’m serious. GOT THAT?”
Well, Nate, I got that. Day by day, scowl by scowl, time-out by time-out, judgment by judgment…I got that. And, that good kid will only continue to get better – day by day, scowl by scowl, time-out by time-out, judgment by judgment. Tonight, after three separate warnings for throwing rice across the kitchen during a dinner party and two minutes in his time-out chair, Coen came out of his room and gave me a big leg-hug accompanied by an “I’m sorry, mama.” My brother looked at me from across the table, shrugged, and advised me to “take the wins.”
After living this all now, I kind of wish I could go back to 1989 and backhand that little snot at the mall who didn’t know her training bra from her swimsuit top. Motherhood takes more than controlling emotions, finding solutions, and reestablishing the peace. For me, it also involves developing a strong, solid partnership and finding a way to meet in the middle, no matter how backwards one side may appear to the untrained eye. If you can solemnly swear to look like assholes together, the rest of your life will be chock full of wins. It’s not rocket science. It’s parenting.