When my son, Meacham, was young (and his sister, Pilar, just a baby), he found himself, inexplicably, living in the same house with a mythical creature so fearsome, so loud, so mean, that he named her "Mommy Monster".
One minute he'd be deeply engrossed in building Lego villages on the living room floor, when, suddenly, out of thin air, Mommy Monster would be hovering over him, using her angry voice, her arms flailing, making herself grow bigger and bigger right before his very eyes, "How many times do I have to tell you not to lay all this out on the floor? It hurts like hell to step on that stuff. Clean it up!"
And, in the mornings, when he was doing his best to get ready for the walk to school - eat breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth, remember backpack, find shoes - the same mother who'd quietly woken him up with a gentle back rub, cooing good morning, sleepyhead; the same mother who smiled at him when he sat down to his bowl of Cheerios; the same mother who asked him about what he was looking forward to at school that day, that mother, the one who made him feel safe, and loved, and welcome, suddenly and mysteriously vanished, and in her stead was Mommy Monster, who was yelling again,
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Meacham, get a move on! We're going to be late. Where are your shoes? Did you brush your teeth? Let's go, let's go!"
And, she'd be on her way out the door already. He'd have to just grab his things and run after her because she wasn't waiting for him.
But when he'd caught up to her, she'd stop and wait till he put on his jacket and hiked his backpack up onto his shoulders. She'd put out her hand for him to take hold of and he would know that the transformation had again taken place and his real mother was back. There was that smile again, the one that ensured him all was right in his world. Along the way, he told her stories of his imagined adventures, and picked up small bits of this and that along the sidewalk so he could impress her with his vast knowledge of stuff.
The Flying Remote Control
I remember vividly the day Meacham told me that he secretly referred to me as Mommy Monster. It was after another one of my all-too-frequent angry outbursts - this time involving a TV remote being whipped at his closed bedroom door, an incident so shockingly imprinted on all our memories that we still talk about it today.
I can tell you that he stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew how all that anger made me feel - exhausted and ashamed - but I told myself that my children were too young to be affected by it. Or, I thought that if I was nice later on and even apologized with soft words like, "I'm sorry I raised my voice; I was angry. I'll try to do better next time", that my 5 year old son and year old daughter would somehow understand the complexities of my emotions, forgive me, and forget all about it.
Meacham's words to me were a wake up call. It made me feel awful about myself, worsened by the fact that he was desperately trying not to hurt my feelings as he expressed the truth of his own hurt feelings. I understood that it was not enough to simply apologize and wish away the impact of my words and actions. I told myself that yes, I had reason for anger, I had reason for resentment and bitterness. But, asking my young children (or anyone else, for that matter) to take the brunt of my discontent was a sort of emotional bullying. And, I wanted to be better than that.
It took some time but after that day, Mommy Monster made fewer and fewer visits to our home. With a therapist, I learned techniques for managing my angry outbursts - the one that worked best for me was giving myself a time-out. When those red-hot, full-of-shame feelings of rage started to well up in my belly and make a move toward my mouth, instead of allowing them out in the moment, I'd take a deep breath and announce, "Mommy's taking a time-out!" And, I'd head off to another room (first making sure the kids were safe and within earshot) and close the door. Meacham and Pilar knew not to disturb me there until I opened the door again. The open door was the signal that their real mother had vanquished Mommy Monster and that I was in a much better place to engage with my children.