I yelled at my daughter yesterday, really yelled at her, for the first time ever.
It was less scream and more very loud growl. And it made me feel awful, and not just because it hurt my throat.
I’m tempted to explain the situation to you, to detail the progression of my daughter’s grumpy, contrary, defiant attitude that led me to this point. I’m tempted to tell you I hadn’t had coffee yet, or to let drop the little tidbit that mornings have been a struggle in this house for more than a year.
But I can’t do that. Well, I kind of just did. See? I found a way to get it in there. Why? Because I feel guilty.
I am the grown-up here. I should have the control over my emotions and actions that my three-year-old doesn’t. I meditate every morning, for goodness sake. I do yoga. I should be a zen mama at all times, no?
No. I lost it. I scream-growled “Put your shoes on” with such intensity I swear I didn’t even realize it was me until after I had done it.
The funny thing is, I immediately felt bad and also immediately felt justified.
She’s been yelling at me for 15 minutes and she’s not listening to a thing I say, I thought. She just kicked me and her brother. She’s out of control. I can’t be expected to remain cool in this situation.
A few minutes before, in the midst of her tantrum, I felt completely lost. Is there a manual that covers this? Flip to page 342 and you’ll get detailed instructions on what to do when you’re running late for preschool and you literally cannot get your screaming, tantruming three-year-old to put her shoes on?
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Or a Zach Morris-style timeout? Can I just give myself a minute to figure out what to do here? Is there a crowd of invisible people watching this spectacle I can turn to?
Maybe a Who Wants to be Millionaire lifeline? Before I respond, can I call up my husband and ask him what the answer is?
Nope, nope and nope. I’m all on my own. There’s no manual, no timeout and no phone-a-friend. It’s me. And after those 15 minutes of playing firm-but-zen mama, I lost it.
And you know what’s funny? She turned around and puts her shoes on. When I walked back in the room she was struggling, and still crying, but she finally let me help her slip them on. She looked at me with huge, tear-filled eyes.
“Mama, when you yelled at me, it really hurt my feelings.”
I took a deep breath.
I don’t expect to always make my daughter happy. I don’t expect that she’ll always like me. But I do want to feel good about how I choose to react to her. And screaming? It doesn’t feel good.
I realized in that moment that maybe I lost the chance to model composure and calm, but I had a new chance—one to model what to do with imperfection, and mistakes—not just messing up but admitting it, being vulnerable and owning it all.
“I am so sorry honey. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Just because you were yelling at me doesn’t make it okay for me to yell at you. I shouldn’t have done it. I made a mistake. I’m really sorry. Do you forgive me?”
She flew into my arms, wrapping me in a big hug: “YES! I forgive you.”
“And,” I said, “maybe knowing how it felt when I yelled at you helps you realize it doesn’t feel good to me when you’re the one yelling?”
She went quiet.
I wish I could say that the rest of the day was blue skies and butterflies, but it wasn’t. Whatever was going on with her, it was intense. But I got my zen back. I stayed calm, at least on the outside.
When I pay attention, motherhood is a mirror. It’s the thing that pushes me forward, to notice myself and to evolve into the person I want to be. Do I want to be a scream-growler? Nah. But, honestly, is it okay that I was one? Yes.
I’m imperfect, and there’s a lesson in that for both of us.