DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #74: Ten Angry Boys

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Dear Sugar,

I am a mother of two beautiful little girls, ages 4 and 2. They are the light of my life, and I love them more than words can express. I didn’t think I wanted to be a mother and often said I had no affinity with children. But my God, when my first was born, it was like a 360 spin out. I didn’t know what hit me. I fell in love and was under her spell instantly. I bonded quickly with both girls and would call myself an attachment parent. The three of us are very close and we’re a very affectionate family.

I’m aware of the importance of respecting my daughters’ feelings and teaching them about expressing their feelings not suppressing them. But lately I have been losing control with my temper, allowing this demonic THING to come out of me during times of stress. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not flying off the handle over trivial things like not finishing dinner or being rowdy at the supermarket. It’s more of a culmination where I’m tolerating one thing after another and then I explode.

I should also explain that my husband, who is an adoring father and husband, works long and unpredictable hours. This kills him because he misses being with us, but it’s just the way it is. He is what I call a pure heart. He is the man who saved me, because before I met him I was a compulsive negative thinker. He is just pure “good” in the way that you don’t see these days. He’s so gentle and fun and loving with our girls and I’m so grateful for that, but he works long hours, so I’m often a single mom and I feel stretched thin. Most days are good, but when I lose it, it’s like gangbusters.

The thing that frightens me, Sugar, is that I come from a very volatile family background. Not in the sense that my parents were raging alcoholics or freakishly abusive. They unfairly screamed their heads off and intimidated us and hit us a lot. We weren’t allowed to make our own choices and were made to feel very powerless. My mother especially would unleash on my siblings and me, and often it was like negotiating through landmines. You just didn’t know when she’d blow. She would say out loud that she wanted to run away, and on those nights I wouldn’t sleep until she was in bed. I truly did think she was packing her bags. She had major issues that I’ve learned of recently. She comes from a dysfunctional background and other circumstances that will take too long to explain here. I think this caused her to go off on hour-long soliloquies about how her life sucked and her kids sucked, too.

Okay, so that’s the backstory in a nutshell. I’m a woman with low self-esteem who just gritted her teeth through university, got a pretty good job, married a great guy, have a beautiful family but now I’m scaring myself because of my temper. I’m doing things that I know are not acceptable. Tonight I grabbed my older girl out of her car seat and threw her onto our front yard. She was lying there in shock and started to cry. The prelude to this was a screaming adult tantrum during the drive home. It’s almost like I can’t come down until I’ve had my hit of rage.

I feel like I totally suck and don’t deserve to be their mother because I know this is wrong but I can’t stop. Today I asked my doctor for a referral to a therapist so I can start talking through these deeper issues. I’m just scared that I’ll never be able to change, and that this temper and need to explode is hardwired in me.

Yours,
Helpless Mom

Dear Helpless Mom,

I don’t think you’re helpless. I think you’re a good mom who has on occasion been brought to the edge of her capacities for tolerance and patience and kindness and who needs to learn how to manage her anger and her stress. You’re entirely capable of doing that, sweet pea. The part of your letter in which you state that you believe you may “never be able to change” concerns me more than the part of your letter in which you describe flinging your child onto the lawn in a rage. Given your situation as the primary caregiver of two very young children with little practical support from a partner, it comes as no surprise that you’ve lost it with your beloved kids from time to time. I have, for short stretches, parented my own two young children in circumstances very much like those you describe and it is without question the most exhausting and maddening work I’ve ever done.

I’ve also behaved in ways toward my children that I regret. Find me a mother who hasn’t.

I don’t say this to let you off the hook, but rather—paradoxically—to place responsibility for change squarely on your shoulders. Parenting is serious business. It brings out the best and the worst in us. It demands that we confront our brightest and darkest selves. Your dear daughters have given you the opportunity to see yourself in full: you are the woman who has the ability to love more deeply than she ever thought possible and also the woman who has intermittent “screaming adult tantrums” directed at two people under the age of 5.

The best thing you can do for your girls is to forgive yourself for what has passed, accept that your rages helped you to understand you have work to do in order to be the mother your children deserve, and then draw on every resource you can—both internal and external—to become her.

Your husband’s job is demanding, but surely he’s around often enough that he can give you regular breaks from the family fray. Does he? Do you take them? I know how hard it can be to pull yourself away, especially when you’re hungry for the rare we’re-all-together-for-once! family time, but I encourage you to find space for yourself too, even if you have to struggle to carve it out. It’s amazing what an hour alone can restore, what rages a walk can quell. There are also other venues of support. A babysitting/playdate exchange with other parents; sending your children to a preschool a few mornings or afternoons a week, even if you don’t have a “job” that demands you do so; a membership at a gym that provides childcare while you work out or sit in the sauna paging through a magazine—these are all things that helped me through the thick of it, when very my days were vast seas of young children with no grown humans around to help.

The harder work is of course what you must do on the inside, the healing that needs to happen in regard to your own parents. I’m glad you’re seeking counseling. I hope you’ll enter into that process with a sense of strength rather than despair, because it is your strength and love that shines through your letter to me most of all. You have already come so far, sweet pea. That you have parented your daughters differently than the damaged way you were parented is perhaps the most meaningful achievement of your life, but there is more beyond the land of I did better than them. I have every belief that you’ll find it; that you’ll learn how to let your anger be only what it is and nothing more—a storm that passes harmlessly through you and peters out into the softest rain before it fades to sun.

I once gave my heart to ten angry boys. I thought of them so much as I pondered your letter, because even though they seemingly have nothing to do with you or me or any of the basically good moms you and I know, my experience with them has informed my life in so many ways, and specifically my understanding of my obligations as a parent.

I worked with the angry boys during the same time that I worked with the girls that I wrote about in my column “How You Get Unstuck.” My real work wasn’t with these boys—I was officially employed to serve the girls—but because I had an office in the middle school and because I had the job title of youth advocate and because any program whose mission is to serve children living in poverty is invariably forced to scrounge for whatever it can get for free, I was enlisted to participate in an experiment of sorts.

The experiment was this: convince the parents of these boys—who’d all done something bad enough that they’d been pulled out of regular classes and put into a special anger management  class—to come to the school to have dinner with their children as a family every Tuesday evening for ten weeks. The program would provide the food and the angry boys would serve it up. Each family would sit at its own table, separate from the others, in order to encourage family unity. After dinner, each angry boy would draw a card from a bowl and read what it said out loud to his family—it might be my happiest memory or my dreams for the future—and the families were meant to discuss this thing for fifteen minutes. After the discussions, the families would split up. The parents of the angry boys would go into a room where they’d meet with a team of social workers, group-therapy style, to discuss parenting challenges and joys; the youngest siblings of the angry boys would go into another room with a couple of interns, who were assigned to babysit; and the angry boys and their older and often even more angry siblings would go into a room with me. The youth advocate.

Hah.

The idea was that I’d lead the kids in games that would help them learn how to work cooperatively with each other without anyone trying to throttle anyone else. The first week was a disaster. One of the angry boys threatened someone’s brother with a chair. Another punched someone very hard in the head when we played “duck, duck, gray duck.” Bingo evolved into a melee. The hour felt like four.

I was actually trembling by the time we rejoined the parents and younger siblings in the school cafeteria, the rest of the building eerily dark and hushed around us. Once assembled, we stood in a wide circle—the ten angry boys and their families, four social workers, two interns, and me. It was time for our closing ritual, one of the social workers explained in a booming voice. We’d do this every week for the next nine, she said. First, we’d sing a song. Next, we’d do a thing called “rain.”

I didn’t know what “rain” was, but I didn’t have time to inquire. I only followed along like the rest of the group, singing the song it seemed the social workers had made-up themselves for this very occasion, catching the reluctant eyes of the parents of the angry boys as we all pushed our way haltingly through the inanely cheerful words. There were a few men in the room—one real dad and a smattering of boyfriends—but most of the parents were women about my age—late twenties—though they didn’t look like me or dress like me or seem like me in any way. They seemed entirely like the moms of the angry boys. Like they lived on the extremes. Either plainly haggard or overly dolled up. Either very fat or very thin. Either recently coked up or soon to be nodding off.

I felt like a fraud among them. How was I going to convince their sons not to threaten one another with chairs?

When at last it was time to do “rain,” the social worker lead us through it and I followed along again as the whole group of us collectively reenacted a storm with our bodies. We began by standing silently with our arms rounded into suns above us, then we rubbed our hands together to create the softest hiss, then we snapped our fingers to simulate the pitter pat of raindrops, then we clapped our hands, first against each other, and next against our thighs in loud watery smacks. At the height of the storm, we were stomping our feet on the floor in a thunderous roar, until slowly, slowly we worked our way back up again in reverse order—through the smacking and clapping and rubbing ever more softly—until we were standing once more like suns.

“That was really cool,” said one of the angry boys in the silence. “Can we please do it again?” he asked and everyone laughed.

He was the one who’d cracked the kid over the head too hard when we were playing “duck, duck, gray duck.” I was a bit afraid of him that first night, and not just because he was a big intimidating brute of an eighth grade boy. I’d kept him particularly in my sights because I knew his story—the social workers had briefed me about each of the boys—and his had stood out to me as sadder than most.

Two years before, when he’d been in sixth grade, he’d gone home from school one afternoon and found he was locked out. After he banged on the door and got no answer, he peered through the window and saw his father dead on the living room floor, overdosed on heroin. He believed he couldn’t call the cops. The cops were not his friends. So he waited on the porch for his mother to come home, but she didn’t come. She was a drug addict too, and a prostitute. The boy was her only child. He spent the night sleeping on the porch, huddled into his coat. In the morning, he walked back to school and told a teacher that his dad was dead.

He’d been an angry boy ever since.

I’m going to call him Brandon. After that first “rain” I stopped being afraid of him. He began stopping by my office in the quiet times when most of the other kids were in class. He’d worked out a deal with the teacher of his anger management classroom that whenever he felt like he was going to act in an angry way, he could leave the room and walk up and down the school hallway taking deep breathes instead. It was a practice he’d been taught at school and it worked for him. Up and down he went, past my open office door, past my open office door, past my…until finally he’d backup and ask, “What you doing?” in a voice cloaked in such false nonchalance that it made my heart hurt.

“Nothing much,” I’d say. “Come on in.” And he’d sit down in the horrible story chair near my desk, where all the girls sat narrating their horrible stories, and he’d tell me his own stories, not all of which were horrible. His life was getting better, he told me. He was so happy his mother had agreed to participate in the Tuesday evening experiment. She was doing great, he said. She was getting clean and so was her boyfriend. When summer came they were going to get a dog.

The weeks passed. The Tuesday evenings came and went. A couple of the families dropped out. Others added new members: pregnant older sisters; new boyfriends and step-kids. Every week we did the same thing: dinner, discussion, group, song, “rain.” Kids need structure is a phrase I heard a lot. Kids like to be able to predict what’s going to come next.

More than anything they loved to do “rain.” The ritual of it made them giddy. Even the angriest boy would smack the shit out of his thighs to make a storm. Every week the silence in the wake of it rose off of us like a cure.

I never believed the boys were angry. I believed they were hurt and anger was the safest manifestation of their sorrow. It was the channel down which their impotent male rivers could rage.

Brandon was the angriest of them all, but he was also the sweetest. He took pride in calling himself my assistant. He didn’t go home after school on Tuesdays and then return with his family for dinner like most of the angry boys. He came to my office and talked to me until it was time to help me set up the food in the cafeteria. He staked out the best table for him and his mom and her boyfriend, arranging the silverware just so, then waited for them to arrive.

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On the last Tuesday of the program, Brandon and I taped streamers along the tables, a festive touch to honor the occasion. We had graduation certificates to hand out, and donated goodie bags for the families with things like toothbrushes and board games and sets of glassware inside. We had a giant sheet cake that said, Congratulations Families! We’re Stronger Together!

It wasn’t until the cafeteria was buzzing with people that I realized Brandon’s mother and her boyfriend weren’t there. He sat alone at his table. He went to stand at the school’s front door as the sky darkened and the other angry boys drew their discussion cards from the bowl. We split up into groups, but still Brandon’s mother wasn’t there. A half hour later, there was a knock on my classroom door and one of the social workers asked me to step into the hall with Brandon. His mother had been arrested downtown—for prostitution or drugs or both, she didn’t say. She wouldn’t be released from jail until at least tomorrow, the social worker said in a steady voice. Her boyfriend would come as soon as he could. He’d stay with Brandon until his mom got back.

Brandon only nodded at the news, but when I put my hand on his arm, he jerked so violently away from it I thought he might punch me. “Brandon,” I called as he stormed down the hall. “Please come back,” I tried to say firmly, though my voice shook.

“You can’t leave,” the social worker added. “We’re responsible for you.”

He kept going as if we’d said nothing. I had nine angry boys and their siblings waiting for me inside the classroom. I could feel them simmering to a boil on the other side of the door. “Brandon!” I called more sharply, fearful he was going to run from the school.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” he yelled as he turned and walked back down the hallway toward me. And I realized he was right. He wasn’t going anywhere and he’d never intended to. He was only doing what he’d learned to do, against all of his most visceral and reasonable impulses. He was taking deep breaths and walking. He was an angry boy controlling his rage.

Everything about that boy pacing the hallway tells me a story I need to know: that we do not have the right to feel helpless, Helpless Mom. That we must help ourselves. That after destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives. We can choose to fling our kids into the grass or we can take deep breaths and walk up and down the hall. And everything about Brandon’s mother tells me a story too. We are so far from her, aren’t we? In so many ways, you and I and all the basically good moms we know are not even on the same planet as that woman. She failed and she failed and she failed.

But so have I. And so have you.

What compelled her to not show up that night? What force drove her to do whatever it took to get arrested when she should have been eating lasagna and cake in a school cafeteria with her sweet boy? What was she incapable of forgiving herself for? What did she believe she was helpless to?

I don’t know, but I do know one thing. When it comes to our children, we do not have the luxury of despair. If we rise, they will rise with us every time, no matter how many times we’ve fallen before. I hope you will remember that the next time you fail. I hope I will too. Remembering that is the most important work as parents we can possibly do.

By the time youth group ended that last night of our Tuesday experiment, Brandon had stopped pacing. He alone accepted the graduation certificate and goodie bag on behalf of his family. He ate a piece of cake. He stood in the circle and sang the song the social workers made up and while we were singing, his mother’s boyfriend arrived.

That night when we did “rain” it felt more significant than it ever had before. Our suns were rounder; our hands rubbed together with more verve. We snapped and we clapped and we stomped so loudly it was like the clouds were dumping out their very hearts. We worked our way back from the storm, but instead of quieting it overtook us once more, none of us wanting to stop. It was too much fun. We went on and on and on, from snap to clap and back again, raging and raging , until finally there was nothing to do but raise our arms in surrender and admit that the rain was gone.

Yours,
Sugar

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