Published on February 8th, 2017 | by Kris Willcox5
ALWAYS BE BATMAN: Kris Willcox on Anger and Love and Acceptance
You’ve seen this one, I’m sure: a small boy in a Batman costume, over the caption, “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” It’s not my four year-old, Calvin, in the picture, but it could be. I know the defiant, hands-on-hips stare, assuring the viewer that any instructions launched at Batman will glance off his foam pectorals. It’s an attitude he inherited from me, and his sister carries the gene too, though not in his superhero strength.
Calvin is our own Bruce Wayne, and here in Gotham City—a pleasant suburb just north of Boston—it’s nursery school picture day. I’ve arranged an Oxford shirt, bank-teller khakis and a clip-on tie on his dresser, in hopes he might tumble through his morning routine, bed to Batmobile, without noticing this decision I made for him. Calvin takes one contemptuous look at the outfit and chucks it on the floor. His choice is a pilled-up Batman t-shirt and sweatpants. I counter: the Oxford is soft and comfy, the khakis not at all tight! Calvin scowls. Nice try, Batmom.
He calls the khakis “crease pants,” which is all you need to know about the frequency of ironing in our house. My kids could identify a Mars rover faster than a steam iron and I’m proud of that, but right now I just want to be humored. Not because I long to see Calvin looking Poindexter perfect but because this is the outfit I picked and I’m The Mom.
I wish this was a funny blog post, but it isn’t.
Calvin is always moving. He delights in breakage. Cross him over the smallest thing and he’ll hit, kick, slam doors and scream, “I hate you!” While he hasn’t been diagnosed with any condition other than childhood, it’s hard to spend a day, or sometimes even an hour with Calvin and not remind myself of the cardinal rules: Be consistent. Set expectations that match his abilities. Remember he’s more fragile than he seems.
Everyone in Gotham City has wisdom to share. Friendly moms on the playground chuckle and say, “Boys will be boys.” Dads shrug and say, “He’ll outgrow it” or “Keeps him independent.” The less sensitive joke, “What did you expect, naming him Calvin?”
Since before he could speak, I’ve tried to heed the advice that giving children clear and limited options can make a complex world easier to navigate. Carrot sticks or grapes. Park or backyard. Hold my left hand or my right while we cross the street. If he’s too busy building a spaceship/jail/ice-cream parlor to care, this works. More often I get a firm, “No. And it’s not your choice to make.” Nothing throws your parenting game like having your words served back to you at ninety miles an hour. The words, “What is the matter with you?” are out before I can stop them. It’s not the question that hurts, but the deadly statement inside it: There is something wrong with you. Not with me. Not with the situation. With you.
Picture Day explodes. We are now officially late for school, and work. Calvin is weeping. His skinny chest is bare and he starts to take off the pants. In desperation, I conjure up Joan, my inner parenting coach. Joan is usually a mellow, liberal spirit, dressed in natural fibers and folk-art jewelry, but today she’s so riled that her cloisonné beads are a-jangle.
“What on earth,” she fumes, “made you think that forcing him to wear a tie was even possible, let alone necessary?” It may sound desperate, but there are times when the interventions of a pretend parenting coach are all that save us. Yet, Joan forgive me, for some reason I am compelled to try to force Calvin back into the shirt and tie as he fights me. All sense of proportion is gone. I am basically trying to lasso him with the tie, or at least that’s how it appears to my husband who walks into this chaos and tells me to go cool off. Five minutes later, he’s out of patience too and I’m intervening on the intervener. Calvin sobs on. Joan retreats to a deep part of my limbic system in disgust. Our six-year-old daughter, never one to remain silent in a fracas, yells, “Let him wear the shirt he wants!” Thanks, kid.
Good morning, ladies and gentleman. If there is a competent adult on board this morning, please identify yourself to a flight attendant. Your immediate assistance is needed in coach.
Qualities I share with my son include light-colored hair, a tendency to freckle, and the general ability to keep our shit together outside the home. Like Calvin, I reserve my meltdowns as a treat for those who love me most. When I was a child, I believed adult power was made out of brute strength and money. With money, adults controlled food, clothing and toys. With muscle, they controlled everything else. Belligerence was my only defense. This is helpful to remember when I’m battling Calvin and he accepts my “consequences” with pride. Batman will not be vanquished.
The slapstick of the terrible mother is such a comfortable routine, I don’t know what sort of mother I’d be without it. It’s unnerving to think of that pre-Bombeckian time before mommy blogs and sardonic Facebook posts, when it wasn’t acceptable to announce you were fed up with your children. But I don’t live contained in one funny caption, and neither does Calvin. Picture Day was one of many mornings I’ve lost my temper, and if I am to tell this story in truth, I must admit that I have slapped my son—my hand, his face—and I very much want to tell each one of the things that led to those moments, but they don’t add up to acceptable reasons. It is unacceptable, but it happened, and I did it. Some would say it’s absurd to think that a few incidents like these are anything but normal. Others would say that if I am asking the question, “How could I do that?” then it’s time to get help. They’re right.
The titles of parenting books on my shelf have titles to match the intensity of the kids they describe: “Love and Anger,” “Parenting the Strong Willed Child,” “The Explosive Child.” I’ve read them all, highlighter in hand, but the words that come back to me, especially in that slough of despond after an argument, are from a poem by Peter Meinke that I first heard in a ninth-grade writing class. It begins, “This is a poem to my son Peter / whom I have hurt a thousand times.” A surprising admission, I thought then, and incredible that Meinke would describe plainly how sad Peter was, his “pale freckled back, bent in defeat / pillow soaked, by my failure to understand.” Then the unbearable:
I have scarred through weakness
and impatience your frail confidence forever
because when I needed to strike
you were there to be hurt and because
I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair. . .
Surely the “strike” was metaphorical. Poets don’t hit… do they? The last lines of the poem undid me:
so I write this for life, for love, for
you, my oldest son Peter, age 10,
going on 11.
Before I had a child, I would read it and think: what a relief that I’d never have to feel Meinke’s remorse. How could I hurt my child, not once but a thousand times? At age thirty-eight, I see that the poem is more than an accounting of wrongs. The more painful fact is that asking a child’s forgiveness is inherently unfair. What choice does my four year-old have but to forgive me? Even when the adult’s apology is right and necessary, it is also—and always—too late. It’s the grown man I appeal to—the one who will remember these days with hurt, or disbelief or perhaps only chagrin. When I tell Calvin I’m sorry, I’m asking a different person to let me back in.
The world bent, but it didn’t break. My husband drove Calvin to school. Calvin wore his Batman t-shirt and carried the picture day outfit in his backpack. I sat at my desk, immersed in shame, writing apologies to someone who can’t read. By mid-morning I was hoping fervently that Calvin would stick with the Batman shirt instead of serving the perfect revenge: a portrait of a tear-stained face above a neat little shirt and tie. Apology accepted, Batmom.
The picture proof we received a few days later revealed the superior negotiating skills of Calvin’s teachers. He is wearing his Batman t-shirt, underneath the unbuttoned Oxford, with the sweatpants. Calvin’s smile is exuberant, hands propped on his hips in a posture of delighted pride.
On Picture Day, I lost myself—lost hold of the person I believe that I am capable of being, at least on better days. On the behavioral spectrum between perfect calm and unrestrained temper, I want to think that my basic position is “Firm but Gentle.” But that morning, I slid swiftly and dangerously toward the darker end of the scale and was no longer the person in charge of protecting Calvin. I became, for a time, someone from whom he needed protection.
I am getting help. We work with therapists these days—real ones—and I talk less frequently with imaginary Joan. But on nights when I can’t sleep, I still ask for her advice. She hands me the Meinke poem and says, “Read it again, and listen.” So I try. I write this for love. For Calvin, age four. May you always, always, be Batman.
Excerpt from “this is a poem about my son Peter” from Liquid Paper: New and Selected Poems, by Peter Meinke, (c) 1991, All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.