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Until I had children, I didn't think I had a temper. Any kind of temper. Pestilence, minor car collisions, my groceries put into someone else's cart after I paid for them, were met with an almost beatific composure. Having kids opened me up to a whole new side of myself. Buckling three uncooperative passengers in car seats when it is 105 degrees and watching them unbuckle "just to get something" can unglue a saint. This is especially true when you're already very late to go somewhere that is guaranteed to be equally unpleasant (e.g., dentist, doctor, town pool, grocery store).
Anger is the emotion that is most likely to "hijack" us, causing our reactions to be extreme and potentially harmful to our children. According to Daniel Goleman, anger is the emotion we have the hardest time controlling. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman refers to our propensity to react hastily and "sloppily" when we're emotionally overstimulated as a "neural hijacking." This occurs when the amygdala, the brain structure responsible for processing and regulating emotions, becomes flooded and we explode with rage. This old neural circuitry, literally hardwiring us to act before we think, had its merits in the days when mere seconds in our reaction time determined our survival. Even though we rarely need to jump-start our bodies into action before sifting through the consequences, we often find ourselves "hijacked" by our anger. Unfortunately, these are the reactions we regret, the moments we wish we could do over or respond to differently.
Recently I was with one of my best friends, Lydia, right after she had her third child. All six of our kids were playing together. Lydia looked exhausted. Her baby was about four weeks old and her mother, who had been helping her, had left two days before. (I'm still not sure why she had us over there--sleep-deprived delirium perhaps.) Lydia's middle child, Eric, was not happy about the arrival of his new sister. And despite the extra attention from parents and grandparents, he continued to treat the baby roughly, pinching her when backs were turned. Periodically the air was punctured by his screaming loudly at her. Eric's behavior was a grab bag full of the nastiness that only a four-year-old who feels displaced and insecure can exhibit.
During the afternoon Eric continued to harass the baby by varying degrees. Lydia kept her cool. She spent time talking to him and soothing him. She preemptively separated him from the baby when he displayed menacing looks. I was in the adjoining room putting some train tracks together for the older kids when I heard a crash and the high-pitched wailing of a newborn. Later, I learned that Lydia had left the baby sleeping in her car seat and left the room for a moment. While she was gone, Eric had flipped the car seat over so that the baby was suspended upside down.
Lydia flew into the room, assessed what had happened, righted the car seat, and grabbed Eric by the shoulders. Without thinking, she started shaking him. I watched in empathic horror. I had been there emotionally. I understood, but she needed to stop. Momentarily, she caught herself and dragged Eric to his room. When she returned, she looked embarrassed and fragile. She began saying she shouldn't have done it, but she had just snapped, and she wished she had dealt with it better. Then she cried and cried a little more when she realized that the other children had watched her shake Eric. I told her the truth, which is that at some point, regardless of how we ended up dealing with those torrential feelings, we've all been there.
* The pump is primed *
Research shows that we are most likely to have an intense anger reaction when we are already primed for anger. Lydia's repeated run-ins with Eric over the baby and her postdelivery fatigue had elevated her preexisting anger state. A good analogy is that if the anger well becomes too high, there's a threat that the water will spill over. In real terms it means we might let loose on our kid by doing or saying something we otherwise wouldn't have. Becoming aware of your internal anger state is a key preventative tactic. If you've had a rough day with multiple stressors, if you've been sick or more tired than usual, if there's something disruptive going on in your life, be aware. Notice whether your pump is primed. Just bringing your awareness to your internal state can often defuse a potentially explosive reaction.
If your anger pump is primed, bring your attention to it. Where are you holding the anger in your body? Are your teeth clenched? Take a moment to loosen your jaw. Is your breathing constricted? Take three deep and releasing breaths. Notice the tension wherever it is. For this mantra it is less important that you alter your anger than you become aware of it. As you go through the rest of the day, gently remind yourself that the pump is primed. See every other minor event with this knowledge. Knowing that you are already primed can often serve as a warning for you to bring greater awareness to each incident that happens. Knowing that the pump is primed can help you bring a broader perspective to the situation. Rather than snapping, you give yourself the space to consider how you might react, knowing that you are already emotionally charged. And sometimes just bringing this nonjudgmental awareness to the fact that you are primed can cause some of the anger to dissipate.
Here's an example of how it might work. You've asked your children to pick up the mess in the living room. Then you ask again. Instead of finding an industrious, cooperative agent of good, you find a surly eight-year-old who rails that you aren't the boss of him. Rather than launching into a tirade, it is possible to remind yourself that the pump is primed. This simple awareness automatically opens up your range of responses. You avoid the pitfall of screaming back that indeed you are the boss of him and you will be forever. Your behavior becomes intentional and voluntary rather than reflexive and conditioned. This simple awareness increases your control over how you react.
* This feeling is temporary *
No matter what feeling we are experiencing at any given moment, it won't last forever. Our rational, conscious brain knows this. But we often lose this knowledge and can't see a time when we might feel differently. Undeniably, our feelings exert tremendous control over us. Using the mantra this feeling is temporary is a way to reconnect to the fact that our emotions are constantly shifting. No matter how bad or strong a feeling is during any particular moment, rest assured it will start to shift as soon as we begin to experience it. Instantly reminding ourselves that a feeling is temporary at the onset can set the stage for the feeling to transform itself. The mantra this feeling is temporary, while not a cure for strong negative emotions, provides a cue for us not to get "locked in" to a feeling that is bound to change.
The mantra this feeling is temporary can be extremely beneficial when dealing with anger. Fury at finding permanent marker on the new couch becomes roiling anger, changes into steamy frustration, becomes self-judging for lackadaisical housekeeping practices and a firm resolve to lock up the markers, becomes an irritation, maybe becomes anger again when you realize you cannot afford to replace it or reupholster it, turns into feeling mildly perturbed, and finally becomes a remembrance. But the mantra this feeling is temporary can deter you from locking into a state of reflexive anger each time you look at the ugly black mark. Allow the possibility that the anger will soften from the get-go.
* Breathe, now! *
Sometimes we need a mantra that is capable of transforming more than just our perspective on a situation. This is particularly true for the moments when we become so intensely angered that we run the risk of losing control. Not long ago, two of my friends were at my house talking about how things have been really difficult for them at home. One was in the process of a divorce and the other was struggling with her son's bourgeoning behavior problems. All of our kids were in the living room playing happily until the dreaded exchange began. I call it the roping of the devil calves. It always goes the same way in our family. You gently but firmly call the child's name at the end of a visit to their friend's house and issue a five-minute warning. "Okay, honey, a few more minutes and then we're going to go." This is met with, "No, I don't want to go. I want to stay." You calmly reply, "Okay, I said five more minutes." Five minutes pass. You give yourself five more. Then you begin to herd the little calves. Again, you ask for their cooperation in retrieving strewn shoes and coats. You don't want to spook them. If they sense your fear, they'll scatter. If you are a novice, perhaps you think that your desire to leave or your need to "get dinner started" will spur action on the part of the child. If you are a worn confederate, you offer some incentive. "I'll let you watch one show when we get home." Sometimes this works, but often you've wasted your one good shot at the holding shoot.
Finally, after much cajoling and the outlining of consequences, you must physically approach the errant three-year-old and secure his or her fist while applying shoes. Maybe her own, perhaps not. Sometimes some pinning to the floor with a knee is involved. All three of my children have this bad leave-taking syndrome. I have followed through religiously on consequences (no playdates for a week, no public pool if that was the location of the botched leave), so things have gotten better, but I've seen it all--hiding under sofas, clinging to lamps. So eventually you rope the devil calves and make your way kicking and screaming out the door.
On this day, it was my friend's turn to do a little roping. Her initial approach was good, but she had a wild one on her hands. Beads of sweat appeared on my friend's face. She'd get a shoe on only to find it kicked off after she had moved onto the next one. She looked like she was going to have a stroke. And remember, you are doing this in front of your friends, which heightens the pressure. (Don't worry, there's a mantra for transcending the anxiety and stress caused by onlookers.) It's also hard to be the friend/observer at these times. Some of my friends are masterful commentators during ropings or other high-wire events. Responses tend to fall in the "I've been there" or "Hang in there" camps. But on this day, our other friend took the struggling mother's shoulder and said, "Breathe, now." Her tone was perfect. That simple mantra defused our collective stress.
As the frustration mounts, it gets embedded in our body. Breathe it out. As the anger increases, we tense up and get rigid. As the drama and antics drag on, we create a tangle of nerves in our body right about where the heart sits. Breathing starts to untangle the cluster. The breath is like a conduit that releases the tension as soon as we bring our attention to it. In a sense, roping a struggling urchin to the ground is an exercise in futility. It's also a little degrading, even though we've all had to do it. But breathing is restorative. Urging our friend to breathe was an acknowledgment that her daughter's reaction was beyond our friend's control but her own breath was not.
Breathe, now! And our friend did. And it was good.
After having my first child, I jumped up out of bed--C-section be damned--climbed back up into my fifth-floor walk-up apartment, and acted as if nothing terribly out of the ordinary had happened with the exception of the baby arriving. Perhaps I'm exaggerating. Yes, I am. I was exhausted a lot of the time. My first son was so colicky that his pediatrician told me she used the sound of his screaming voice as her form of birth control. I was trying to finish my dissertation with the baby howling in the background. He never ate, and what he did eat he threw up shortly thereafter. It was not the easiest introduction to mothering, but I was fine. Perhaps because it was so hard, my expectations of what new motherhood would be like were shattered, and I surrendered all my other visions of domestic bliss and went into battle mode. And my particular crusade, or mantra if you like, was do not kill this kid. I remember feeling a great sense of purpose because I did have the patience to get through those first few nerve-grating months.
This was not the case after my second child. Upon her immediate arrival, I was convinced that I had made a catastrophic choice. I wept uncontrollably pretty much through the day. I thought I seemed okay to the outside world until my friend June asked me in a supportive and unabashed way, "Have you considered taking drugs to help you with that postpartum depression?" Huh, so it shows? Although most of my mother friends are more than happy to share at any given time all of the rage, judgment, disgust, and horror they feel toward their children, resulting in me feeling completely normalized regarding some of my darker moments, none of my friends had experienced postpartum depression. Not one. I questioned them carefully. I even explained the masked symptoms and read my diagnostic books to them. But I was the only one.
And it was worse with my third. I remember those weeks vividly. And the one thing I remember most is the feeling that I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I had made a choice there was no returning from, and that I had wrecked what good I did have. Looking back now, I wonder how I couldn't see that things always change. I had true tunnel vision, and this is a hallmark of depression. What seems unbearable now might look like a patch of the doldrums, or as in the case of some crises that occur in our lives, a transformative opportunity. But during that time all I could feel was an oppressive weight around my neck--the constant refrain that this black feeling was forever.
* This feeling is temporary--take two *
Looking back, I wished I'd had someone not only acknowledge that my depression was real, but really gotten through to me that it wasn't forever. The mantra this feeling is temporary can be a tool to push you past the intellectual knowledge that all feelings change and get you to a place where that understanding offers some real relief. If you find yourself in a tough phase of your life, take some time each day to repeat this mantra several times. Even if you don't feel like it or don't find it easy to believe at the moment, make saying it a regular practice. Close your eyes and allow yourself to be released, if only momentarily, from some of the sadness, depression, and loneliness you are feeling. Take three or four deep breaths and remind yourself that whatever feeling you are having at the moment, no matter how intense or powerful, it is temporary. It simply cannot last forever. No matter how dark the sky is with clouds, at some point a wind will usher them out. As you move through the depression or pain, visualize yourself getting closer to a lighter feeling. Imagine yourself steadily and constantly moving toward a time when you are not struggling with so much pain. And rest assured, no matter how long it takes, you are moving toward it.
Important Note: Because my postpartum depression was mild, it abated after a few months. If you find yourself in a situation of postpartum depression or if you’re depressed even though you haven’t recently had a baby, you may need to speak with your physician or another trusted health-care professional. There is much more awareness now about postpartum depression and depression in general. Help is out there. If you can’t take this step yourself, confide in a friend and ask her assistance in getting the help you need.
From the Hardcover edition.