"No wire hangers!" yelled Faye Dunaway while starring as Joan Crawford in the most epic performance of her career. "No wire hangers EVER!" The 1981 classic was Mommie Dearest, a film based on the autobiography of Christina Crawford, Joan's adopted daughter. In the cinematic depiction, Little Christina is the object of Joan's mounting rage for having decided to hang a dress on a (loathsome, in Joan's mind) wire hanger.
Although the scene is hyperbole to my life, I cringe when I yell at one of my kids and immediately flash to that scene in my mind. When I yell, raise my voice, assert my disappointment audibly or whatever you wish to call it, it is because I can't manage the situation as seamlessly as I'd like to.
My own mom and dad seemed to have parenting down to a science; No TV except Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers and only an hour per day, bed time at 7:30 and brush your teeth every night and morning (I didn't have a cavity until I was 21). For some reason, I don't seem able to enforce similar rules in my home with my own children today. My siblings and I were like little whistling soldiers following our orders quite happily and marching along. Skip ahead from the 80s to 2010 and my older kids are lying on my bed at 9:30, refusing to go to their room so they can stay and "cuddle" with mom. It's so cute, I suppress a yell. For about an hour. Then my temper gets the best of me. Cue Faye Dunaway.
Well, not exactly Faye Dunaway, but my own tempered version of Mommie Dearest.
WHY ARE YOU STILL UP AT 10:30 ON A SCHOOL NIGHT? GO TO YOUR OWN BEDS NOW!
When I reached out to Dr. Shoshana Dayanim, a developmental psychologist and fellow mom, She told me I was being way too hard on myself. "I also find myself yelling quite a bit -- It is tough for parents today," she said, explaining that, "We are super-moms and dads, holding jobs, running households and taking care of our children. We are exhausted. Often the reason we so easily lash out is just that -- we are exhausted, and thus have a short fuse."
What can I do when I yell? I asked her, explaining that I'd like to be one of those incredibly even-tempered, enviably "laid back and easygoing" parents at all times.
"If you find yourself lashing out in a way you'll regret later on, ask yourself 'who is this person?!?!?!?' -- take a deep breath and apologize. By yelling, we are showing our children that it is appropriate behavior -- and in turn, they will yell at us. If we admit that it wasn't the right thing to do, we at least show them that we too make mistakes but we recognize them, admit to them, and apologize for them. "
Dayanim told me that when she herself experiences frustration as a parent, she walks out of the room, calms down and holds her breath for ten seconds.
"I have tried many things," she said, "But the thing that works best? Get more sleep. Easier said then done. "
There are some questions as to what "yelling" actually is. I have a relatively calm spouse who will express his frustrations but never above a certain volume. He'll often say "I raised my voice. I didn't yell."
Well, hell, I yell. I come from a long line of Old Yellers. My mother, who presides over a high school, has what she calls "A Principal Voice" and let me tell you, it's quite commanding and effective in long hallways. Growing up, my father had a whistle that could be heard 4 blocks away. I never thought of being loud as a problem until I realized that so many quiet people exist (and I married one!).
My son once asked if I could stop yelling altogether, just never yell, like quitting smoking -- give it up for good. Around the same time, I made a close, new friend and asked her "Am I a bad mom because I yelled at my child today?" I knew that I had to reach a happy medium to avoid channeling Sally Field (expressing self-doubt to new friends wasn't exactly endearing), so I tried to learn how to whisper my commands. Sometimes the whispering became urgent whispering and the decibel began hovering slightly above "whisper" mark. Despite my efforts and radical change in tactics, the message wasn't coming through.
"I didn't hear you say I had to finish my homework/go to bed/clean up, mom... "
Dr. Dayanim suggested I try another approach "Just as some children have objects that they find calming -- a binky, a blanket, a stuffed animal -- so do adults. Ours may take the form of coffee, gum or a nice cozy sweater- Plan ahead and have these things there for you when you know you are most likely to yell."
Chomp, chomp, it's amazing how fast you can go through a pack of sugarless gum, but maybe I should order that Snuggie...
The other night, as I was laying out my son's clothing for the following day of school, he turned to me and said "You're the nicest mommy in the whole world."
Touched, I should have simply taken the compliment, but I had to know:
"Do you still think I yell too much?"
"You never ever yell," he said. "You're the best mom ever."
I hung his clothing for the next day -- on a wire hanger -- and kissed him goodnight.