By Barbara Doyle
I said it again. “Do you know what would have happened to me if I did that when I was a kid? You don’t even know how good you have it.” I forgot what the therapist told me and I said it again. I forgot to be grateful that my kids can be ungrateful.
My kids are pretty well-behaved young people. The majority of the time they appreciate what they have. They are respectful and thoughtful, empathetic and sensitive. They make me proud every day. They also, just as kids are supposed to do, drive me up a wall. Sometimes, they want things that are expensive and impractical, and they have pouted or been annoying when they didn’t get them. They take for granted that they have parents who are deeply in love with one another and always will be, and can groan with disgust when confronted with that. They sometimes think our consequences and rules are unfair, and when they do, they have compared us unfavorably to other parents who are more lenient. They misinterpret our protectiveness for treating them like babies, complaining about other kids who have been given more leeway about R rated movies or frequent fast food dinners. It’s hugely frustrating. They have it so good, and they don’t get it. They shouldn’t get it. Getting it would mean they would know how bad it can be.
The truth is I’m envious. I would have killed for my children’s childhood. I would have given anything for a father who didn’t keep me on edge with angry words and temper tantrums that terrified me, slamming doors and throwing glasses, a lifetime of walking on eggshells. I wished for a mother that was in my home, devoting all of her time to shielding and nurturing me, making me feel every day that I was the priority of her life. I wanted a sibling near my age to play with and confide in. To never know what it was to worry about money or want for things that other kids had. To have someone to help with homework and get me off to school on time and beam a little when I found my first love. A home that was peaceful. Safe. Boring, maybe.
My children have all of that. Will have all of that. Despite my lack of guidance I have crafted a life for them that holds all of that and more.
My husband Alex is a great guy—funny and gentle and loving. He’s a mild-mannered dude, prone to retreat when he’s upset. Become quieter. Seethe a little, maybe, but never the type to do what I was used to from a man filled with rage. Once, when the kids were little, he stunned me when he shouted at the top of his lungs and slammed his fist into a wall in a moment of huge frustration, right in front of our small children. I immediately shook with fear, my fight or flight instinct pumping through my entire body. The only thing that kept me from fleeing was my ingrained need to protect my boys. “You need to leave this house,” I told him, braver than I’d ever been able to be for myself. “You need to go for a walk and not come back until you can calm down and behave reasonably. Go,” I said. “Now.” He left without question, and I managed to not throw up.
I turned to the boys, worried sick that they’d be petrified. They looked at me calm. Unfazed. “Daddy needs a time out,” my eldest said, sauntering off to find his toys. “He needs to use his words,” his little brother agreed as he followed him down the stairs toward the LEGO. I was stunned. Why weren’t they hiding behind the chair? Why weren’t they afraid?
I called my sister, still trembling, and told her what had happened, asking her why my boys were able to be so casual. “Don’t you get it?” she asked. “They’re not afraid because they don’t connect his anger with them. There’s no reason to be scared because Daddy being mad is just Daddy being mad—it doesn’t mean he’s going to take it out on them.” They didn’t know what can happen when Daddies get mad. They’ll never know.
It’s so hard watching my kids have the life I wished for and take it for granted. I want them to worship their parents and be grateful every day for being born in their circumstance. I see an eye-roll or hear a blunt comment about something that I feel they should keep to themselves and in that moment I am angry, so, so angry, that they don’t appreciate what they have. And in those moments I have to remember the simple truth that my therapist told me, and the advice she gave. “Stop projecting your childhood onto them. Stop expecting them to be so thankful for normalcy. Remember that when they complain about the little things it’s because they aren’t drowning under the weight of the big things. They shouldn’t be groveling with gratitude over what they should expect to be given. What you should have had, but didn’t. Feel satisfied that you gave them better.” I’m trying. Trying not to say it any more. I’m trying to remember, even through the blind hunger of my jealousy, watching these boys have the childhood that I wanted, that every whine is a compliment. Every annoyance is a reassurance. They don’t know better, not really. And I don’t want them to.