Editor's Note: This is part three of a four part series from Bilerico Contributor Paige Schilt about parenting, anger, and attachment. Read part one & part two and be sure to come back tomorrow for the last part of the series!
For me, one of the most novel and bizarre challenges of being a parent is weathering the unregulated aggression (hitting, biting, etc.) that comes your way in the course of normal child development. Before Waylon came along, no one had ever thrown shoes at my head to express frustration. People did not scream in my face when I made an unpopular decision about cookies.
Even more challenging than becoming the target of pintsize aggression is facing your own aggression, which gets stirred up when you are hit or pinched or bitten by your little bundle of joy. And the only balancing act more difficult than that is somehow teaching your kids that anger is normal and necessary, even as you try to model the difference between harmful and healthy ways of expressing it.
Writing about my own anger over the last two days has felt profoundly risky. Perhaps it's because parental anger and aggression doesn't get talked about in polite conversation. Perhaps it's because, as a queer parent, I feel more vulnerable to judgment. But I think it's mostly because I come from a family where it wasn't okay to be "out" about anger.
I can remember perhaps two times in my childhood when my parents verbally expressed anger or frustration with one another. Then, one Saturday afternoon when I was 11, my parents called a family meeting in the living room and dropped a bombshell: they were getting divorced. They unloaded the usual platitudes: we still really love each other, it's not your fault, it's natural to have lots of feelings about what's happening. Then they informed us that we were going to the opera that night and we needed to wrap up this little convo in time to get dressed and get ready to leave. (Why the opera? This is a mystery that I have often pondered, because my parents were not opera aficionados. I suspect that they were afraid to be alone with our feelings and hoped that a formal outing would cue us to don masks of composure.)
I refused to give my parents the satisfaction of crying at the allotted emotional moment. I pulled myself up, with all of my pre-teen dignity, and retreated to my bedroom to reorganize. I sorted old toys into a pile for the Goodwill with ruthless efficiency, repeating "I will not let them see me cry" over and over in my head.
My sister Kristen, who was only eight, started crying and would not stop, but my parents somehow stuffed her into tights and a dress and loaded us all into the car. The crying abated long enough for us to get to our seats like some semblance of a happy family, but during the opera--which was long and boring for a small child--Kristen started to cry again. A hefty blonde soprano with a feather in her hair was singing an endless solo in a foreign language. She kept reaching her hand out for some unseen object. "She's singing 'birdseed, birdseed, birdseed,'" my mother whispered into Kristen's ear, trying to cajole the tears away. It wasn't that funny, but my mother kept repeating it, as if any moment, through the tears and the snot, my sister would break into a smile and everything would be okay.
After the night at the opera, it soon seemed that any window for expressing feelings about the divorce had passed. My mom--now a struggling graduate student with two kids--and dad--now a lonely bachelor who jogged on a mini-trampoline in front of the TV, suddenly seemed too pathetic and fragile to handle my anger.
I was dutifully toted to a few sessions with a family counselor, who explained that anger was one of the five stages of grief. I had the distinct the impression that I was being urged to move as swiftly as possible from anger to acceptance. I had already internalized the idea that the people I loved and needed could not handle my anger.
And so I lived a kind of double life. On the outside, I was a complacent daughter and student. But I was always irresistibly attracted to the angriest kid in the class. If there was a kid who was just visibly seething with resentment and aggression, I had to get close, to experience vicariously the thrill of his or her transgression. And while I dared not get angry on my own accord, I would become the most loyal and righteous defender of my rebel friend, the secret subcontractor for all of my unacceptable rage.
As you can imagine, this was a really winner strategy for picking a boyfriend back in my heterosexual days. (The seethers were mostly boys, though there were a few notable ladies as well (sigh).) But one of the best things about always cozying up to the angriest kids in school was that they introduced me to another channel for my unconscious rage: angry music! Whether it was Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy, singing (or shouting) along to angry music allowed me to experience the delicious forbidden affect without actually claiming it as my own.
While I couldn't directly give voice to my own anger and alienation, I would righteously defend the musical expression of a bunch of boys from Thatcher's England or Reagan's heartland. In fact, the first open conflict I remember winning with my mother was over a ragged cassette copy of The Violet Femmes' first album, which she threatened to confiscate because of profanity. (If you know the words of the offending song, "Add it Up," you might guess that my mother's objection had as much to do with the song's grating lament: "day after day, I get angry...") I listened to that tape every morning as I walked to school through suburban Arizona alleys. It was like a lifeline, a secret conduit to a burning ember inside me.
I prevailed on my mother to let me keep the precious cassette by reminding her that I would soon be leaving for college, where she would no longer be able to control my musical choices. Little did I know that at college I would discover an even more righteous and guilt-free outlet for anger: angry politics.
I remember so clearly the first time I saw it, the little red handprint proclaiming "The government has blood on its hands!" In 1988, ACT-Up stickers were plastered on every door of every building at my university. I walked out of my Poli Sci class one day, and it was love at first sight. Ding! Ding! Ding! I could be mad at the government! At heterosexism! At entire systems of oppression! And not just slightly, politely mad, but passionately outraged! And this anger was so justified, so pure, that I could give myself over to it without jeopardizing the love of my teachers (some of whom were pasting the same little stickers on their office doors) or my friends, whom I idealized and feared to lose. I soon found that there was no shortage of causes that would allow me to use all of my A+ student skills while simultaneously keeping alive my vital connection to the anger that felt so unacceptable.
Later, when I became a college professor myself, I was always surprised that my students were mostly turned off by the little bits of angry literature, film, and music that I tried to nourish them with. What was wrong with these ungrateful baby birds, I wondered. Wasn't angst a normal and even perhaps universal experience of adolescence? Whether it was Allen Ginsburg or Sadie Benning who they thought was "too angry," I chalked it up to the ascendancy of neo-conservative politics and the discrediting of public dissent. Nowadays I wonder if some of their discomfort might have come from a more balanced relationship to their own feelings, which didn't need to feed like a vampire on vicarious fury.
I don't mean to trivialize outraged politics, in which I am still deeply invested. I only mean to suggest that, for me, political outrage--as necessary as it was and is--also served a deeply personal purpose of allowing me to give vent to the emotions that I had walled off in my private life. I will spare you the details of the ways in which this strategy did not work--if you've ever read a self-help book (The Dance of Anger, anyone?), I'm sure you can imagine the woeful narrative of self-destructive behavior, depression, and failed relationships. Suffice it to say that after 10 years and untold thousands of dollars to therapy, I have finally come to the point where I can--on a good day--notice, acknowledge, and express angry feelings directly. It's still baby steps, and I'm still learning all the time from watching Waylon's preschool teachers help toddlers learn to navigate conflict with simple phrases like "No!" and "Don't do that, it hurts me and it makes me mad."
For me, being a good parent has been the most powerful incentive to bring my own anger and aggression into the light. In the next section, I write about the new brain research and how its insights can help parents learn to deal with the past, navigate strong emotions, and be more tuned in to their children's needs and emotions.
(to be continued)