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Jamie Krug Headshot

The Paper Cuts That Don't Heal

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I don't call my daughter names, compare her to so and so, or tell her she's ruined my life. I don't send her to bed without dinner, or banish her to her to her room for hours behind a locked door. I don't threaten her by telling her that my continued love for her is contingent on her actions.

I don't do any of those things because I know from firsthand experience how much they hurt. I have felt just how deeply these wounds can go and how long they take to heal -- if they ever do -- and I vowed never to inflict those injuries on either of my children. It is a vow I have not broken.

And so, I am careful not to cut too deep. I am conscious of the power within the words I wield. I know that these things stay with children, and I think of them as the wounds left by an ax within the trunk of a tree. As that tree grows, more and more rings will form around the gash. Though shielded from view, the results of the injury remain, a scar which, while it may be deeply layered beneath years of growth, will never fully repair itself.

Everyone carries these scars with them. Whether they were inflicted by parents, friends, ex-lovers, teachers, bosses or husbands, they are there, they are permanent, and are both easy to recall and painful to relive if we allow ourselves.

And it is fairly easy to be certain if you are throwing those axes. We brandish them -- as offense or as defense -- when we feel we need to, but knowingly all the same. It is often purposeful, even when we feel we can claim a justifiable purpose. Especially in those cases.

But what about the moments when you are not throwing axes? When it is not major lacerations you are inflicting?

What if it's just a paper cut?

There are moments lately -- a lot of moments -- when I have had enough of my 5-year-old and some of her recently-developed habits.

She is full of spirit and affection and eager to please. She is so proud that she has recently learned to read, and is earnestly poring over everything, from books we get from our trips to the library together to the junk mail we receive each day. She just about glows when she hears you say you're proud of her, that she has done well, that she is a "big girl." She is learning to be more patient with her brother, showing him more empathy and including him more often. She has adapted the games they play together to be easier for him to follow -- even if "follow" just means he is literally just following her around the house as they play Hide and Seek or pretend to be spies -- or "Secret Cajuns," as Parker thinks that particular vocation is called.

She is also a precocious back-talker, and seems to be taking her cues on mood changes from the rounds of ping pong we played on our recent family vacation. Se has mastered the art of non-verbal griping with a variety of admirable -- if ear-splitting -- yowls, moans and wails.

There are always reasons for these sounds; it's just that the majority of the time, I am not privy to them. To be honest, I'm not sure that she is privy to them.

And there are times when I have the patience and the empathy to try to understand what she is feeling. There are evenings when I have the emotional capital left over to let it roll off of my back and try to put myself in her shoes. There are afternoons that I can calmly rationalize that this is a phase and take the time to sit with her and talk about how she is feeling and why. There are mornings when I know that it is up to me to ensure that her outburst isn't the way that day begins for either of us, that only I can resuscitate the situation that has left her breathless and howling.

But there are days -- whole days, it seems -- when I cannot do any of that. When I am too overwhelmed by whatever I have going on, or when my patience has been spent. When I am exhausted. When I have started the day off writing something truly difficult, or I have started the day off having true difficulty writing anything at all. When I am heartbroken by another setback of her brother's, or concerned there will be one on the horizon. When my husband and I have been bickering. When I am hurting, or restless, or distracted and don't have any more room for those emotions. Or when I am finally feeling happy, and content, and optimistic, and resent having those emotions interrupted.

And I know that is wrong, that it is bordering on blasphemy to have feelings that go beyond the well-being of your child. I understand that it is an offense punishable by public whipping on a pillory to resent your child for raining on your parade, or for flooding the streets by adding to the the precipitation when the rain had already begun without them. But I am not just her mother. I am also a woman -- I am just a person. Full of faults and brimming with things that go directly against the proverbial shoulds that our society -- or at times, our own conscience -- demand.

And so on some of those days that I have run out of tolerance, I brush her off. I ignore the tantrums and let her resolve them on her own. I send her to her room until she is able to calm herself down.

These are not the moments I am ashamed of. The moments that worry me are what I call "paper cut moments."

Paper cuts do not cause any permanent harm. No one without a rare and serious medical condition hemorrhages to death from a paper cut, and stitches are not required. While not overtly injurious, they do sting. Adding insult to minor injury, they also tend to stick around for a while.

It's the moments when I am harried and hurried and trying to get her and her brother out the door and to school on time and she chooses that exact moment as the perfect one to show me the latest drawing she's made. Or the approximately 11 times a day that she waits until I'm on the phone to strike up a conversation with me, despite having been completely silent for the previous 15-minute drive home from school after I repeatedly prompted her by asking about the details of her day. Sometimes it's the way she takes a painfully long period of time to make what should be a simple decision -- like which pair of white socks to wear that day, or whether to have blueberries or strawberries with her lunch. Occasionally, it's the full cup of juice spilled during dinner, soaking her plate. And the chair. And the floor. And if it's the end of a particularly trying day -- my spirit.

I am well aware that these are not examples of her shortcomings or character flaws, they merely end up highlighting mine.

In my constant state of rushing, moving and juggling, my life usually feels as though I am on the precipice of chaos, and that's on the days that I don't feel as though I reside directly within the eye of a chaos hurricane. I'm seriously considering having my mail forwarded there.

Parker, I can't right now. We seriously don't have time for this at the moment. I tell her in a clipped and dismissive tone.

Paper cut.

I'm on the phone. Can't this wait? You're interrupting again and being rude. I respond, clearly irritated.

Paper cut.

Seriously, Parks?? The entire cup of juice? I exclaim with annoyed disbelief.

Paper cut.

I've had enough! I am in the middle of something! I say through gritted teeth.

Paper cut.

And I see her face fall. And sometimes, I regret it instantly and apologize. And sometimes, it takes me a few minutes. And sometimes, I'm genuinely annoyed with her and it takes hours. And sometimes, I'll admit, I never get around to it at all. But the damage has already has been done once those words leave my lips. Feelings have been hurt. Little people have been slighted. The paper has made its infinitesimal -- yet effective -- slice into skin. And when our children are hurting, we hurt for them too.

There has been no major bloodshed and none of this, I hope, will go on to be the topic of a conversation she will have in 40 years with a therapist while recumbent on a couch in a musty room lined with books, Well, that time my mother snapped at me for spilling my cup of juice when I was 5? Yeah, I'm pretty that was the turning point for me -- it must be the reason why I have trust issues and can't carry on a relationship for longer than nine days and I have 17 cats.

Because paper cuts heal, right? A few days of wincing after you've reached for the hand sanitizer and feel the burn of the alcohol to remind you of this relatively tiny fissure, or while shampooing your hair, or removing your nail polish with the highly unpleasant sensation brought on when acetone meets an open cut -- but then it's over, it heals without a trace.

But what if some of those paper cuts didn't heal? What if those words I've thrown out at my sensitive and perceptive girl leave marks I cannot see? That is what I fear most. It's the bits of pain that linger well after they should have been healed. The words we carry around in our heads, that lay heavy in our hearts long after they should have been forgotten. I can remember those words that have been said to me by others -- regardless of my attempts to move on. I fear the same fate -- the same burden -- will be cast upon my daughter, and worse, that I will be the one to cause it.

Not deep wounds, just paper cuts.

But what if paper cuts don't heal?

This post originally appeared on Jamie's blog Our Stroke of Luck.
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