This is quite possibly the email I get most often from people who have just heard about The Orange Rhino Challenge, my promise to go 365 days straight without yelling at my boys.
Dear Orange Rhino,
I am inspired by your story and how you stopped yelling. It gives me hope that maybe I too can change and stop yelling at my kids, but I really am afraid it's too late. I have yelled for so long that I doubt I will really be able to change. And I fear that because I yelled for so long, the damage is so great that not yelling now won't even make a difference in our relationship. Help!
Without fail, every time I receive an email like this, I get all choked up because not only do I know all too well the "it's too late" fears -- but also, the email reminds me of a painful time in my relationship with my dad when lots of "damage" threatened our future. As a gift for my dad this Father's Day (an odd gift, I know, but trust me, it's a good one), and as a way to offer hope that it isn't too late to stop yelling, I share this story with you.
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I never yelled at him.
I just stopped talking to him.
For three years.
For three whole years I didn't talk to my father because I felt so angry and hurt from the huge, gigantic argument we had the day before I started my sophomore year of college. He tried to fix things by sending funny cards "just because," by calling me to check in, by bribing me with a free meal at my favorite restaurant which he promised (and I knew) would taste infinitely better than cafeteria food. But I refused. I refused to talk to him and I refused to forgive him for our moral disagreement. I felt the damage had been done -- that it was too late to reconcile, too late to make a better future. So I just didn't talk to him.
About three years after college, I became engaged. At that point in my life, my dad and I had just started to share short exchanges. But our relationship still felt volatile enough, and my anger and hurt still felt large enough, that I worried -- no, feared -- that I wouldn't even let my dad come to my wedding. In fact, I spent my entire engagement fearing that our past would prevent my childhood dream of my daddy walking me down the aisle from happening. Thanks to the support and urging of my now husband (and a lot of telling myself, "it's not too late"), my dad and I reconciled and reconnected enough that come my wedding, my fear that my dad wouldn't be there subsided.
And then January 2nd happened.
The night before my wedding, despite the fact that everything seemed good -- like really, really, miraculously good -- my dad abruptly left a family gathering and went back to the hotel. I of course immediately feared and assumed that he wasn't just going to the hotel, but rather packing up and heading out. My dad's best friend, who knew all the history, saw the tears form in my eyes and the color quickly leave my face, and said, "Don't worry. I'll go check on him. It will be OK."
I didn't believe my dad's friend for one second. As I stood in the corner of the restaurant, trying to smile and feel happy, I couldn't help but think to myself, "I knew it was too good to be true; I knew the past was too bad to overcome." Fortunately, my dad's friend returned smiling and practically laughing and said to me: "Sweetie, your dad is fine. He's in bed and he isn't going anywhere. Especially because he has the runs! And he feels like he is going to throw up because he is so excited, nervous and sad that his baby girl is all grown up, that you are getting married tomorrow, that you forgave him enough for him to be here and to walk you down the aisle. It's just a lot for him. But he's OK. It will be OK."
And it was OK.
The next morning I walked down the stairs of my childhood home to see my future husband crying. My dad stood behind him, crying as well. I stood in front of both of them, bawling my eyes out, and then wiping my eyes madly, totally forgetting that I had just spent an hour getting make-up on! Oh well. Smeared mascara didn't matter at that moment. I was getting married to an awesome man and the other awesome man in my life, my dad, had made it.
And not only did he make it, but he also got me to the church in time to walk me down the aisle! We weren't a minute late -- and it turned out that, despite my fears, it wasn't too late for my dad and me to share good moments and good memories again, either. That day, as we stood together at the back of the church, waiting patiently for my ring bearer to help my flower girl diligently place the rose petals one by one by one, we laughed together at the anal-retentive behavior so well known to both of us. We stood together and admired the beautiful details of the historical church, sharing our appreciation for architecture, a passion he passed on to me that I am now passing on to my boys.
We stood together and finally had a moment of peace.
It wasn't too late for us, for our relationship.
It wasn't too late for us to repair our father/daughter bond and find joy again. For so long I assumed that because of the "damage" that had been done a few years prior, my dad and I would never share another laugh, another story, another peaceful moment. I assumed that it was simply too late and that it wasn't even worth trying to make amends because no matter how many new, good moments we might share, they would never outweigh the past bad moments enough for our relationship to feel OK instead of negative and volatile. I assumed that our future held nothing but more anger, more hurt and more bad interactions.
But I was wrong.
I was woefully, woefully wrong in my assumption that it was too late.
I am so grateful that despite the past my dad and I shared, and despite our fears that a better future might not happen, we still tried to change our future. Because that moment in the back of the church with my dad, well, it was nothing short of unforgettable -- exactly what I had always imagined and hoped it to be. Did that moment of peace make me forget the past or feel better about it? No, of course not! But, it did make me feel a tiny bit better and give me the courage to move on from the past and continue to work to change our future. My goal isn't to forget the past (can't do that!), but rather to fill my heart with enough new, loving memories that they, and not the angry ones from the past, take precedence in my heart and mind.
It has been 10 years since I stood at the back of that church with my dad. Since then, we have shared many a beautiful moment. My anger has softened and my mind now truly focuses on the positive moments in our relationship, like when my dad held my first son, when I called him laughing because I had just vacuumed up an unpeeled banana from my minivan, when... well, I could go on and on and on as our life is now full of good moments. Did it a take a while for us to get beyond the past, beyond just one peaceful moment -- to reach a truly peaceful place? Yes. But we got there. It was not too late.
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Kicking my "it's too late" mentality to the side and going after what I wanted -- my dad in my life -- didn't just make my wedding day and my future with my dad better; it also made my future with my four sons better. Often during the early days of The Orange Rhino Challenge, when I found myself struggling and wanting to quit because I felt it was too late to stop yelling and that my kids would always remember the awful times I had yelled in the past, I would find myself thinking of my wedding day and that moment at the back of the church. The moment I thought might never happen because it was "too late" and the past was "too negative." The moment that did happen because it wasn't too late. The moment that has become a powerful reminder to me not to quit or give up because, as I learned with my dad (and later re-learned on my successful Orange Rhino journey to stop yelling), it is never too late to change the future.
"Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending." -Carl Bard
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The Orange Rhino's (a.k.a. Sheila McCraith's) parenting guide and memoir, Yell Less, Love More: How The Orange Rhino Mom Stopped Yelling at Her Kids -- and How You Can Too!, shares more touching personal stories from her journey to stop yelling as well as manageable actions, practical tips, and genuine, loving support so that you too can succeed on your own journey to yell less. Her book is available for pre-order now and goes on sale October 1, 2014. To learn more about The Orange Rhino Challenge, go to www.TheOrangeRhino.com