My mother taught me the art of persuasive writing by enforcing an “unfair” curfew. Unlike many of my friends, I was allowed to dispute some parental decisions, but only by letter. I used overly-delicate language that read like teenage abolition tracts.
“Dear Mom, Please consider my embarrassment when the cute DJ interrupted “Bounce that A**” to announce that Asha French’s father was waiting for her in the front of the building. Could you please, just for a moment, imagine my shock and horror as I made my way through a throng of peers who wouldn’t even need to think about curfew for another hour?”
My daughter can’t write, so she’s much more direct. When she is scolded or sent to timeout by my mother, she returns to the scene to ask “Why you so mean?” It’s weird to watch her approach the woman for whom I carefully crafted words and demand an account for her perceived meanness. It’s funny until I’m the one she’s asking. Why you mean, Mommy? She’s not asking the question to get some philosophical answer about the nature of anger, the components of rage. Instead, she wants you to reinforce the boundaries, repeatedly, by retelling happened right before you either raised your voice or put her in timeout. By the time you’re telling the story for the third time, you may realize that the actions didn’t warrant the response. You may wonder where this little girl came from, what planet, what life? You may wonder why you’re mean.
I closed my daughter’s bedroom door to protect her from my meanness. The knob was a tricky one that a toddler couldn’t get unstuck by herself. I laid her tantrum-rigid body in the bed and shut the trick door. I walked toward my room just as I saw her tiny hand thrust beneath the door like the children in People beneath the Stairs. This was a horror movie and I was the one whose metamorphosis would signal the orchestra.
I’m afraid of the effects of my own anger. I don’t like yelling, screaming, or angry physical contact. And my daughter was triggering all of those things with her tantrum over candy or a missing toy or some other loss that I thought inconsequential in comparison to the loss of my cool.
By the time I’d collected myself, she’d fallen asleep , her hand still outstretched beneath the doorway. I picked up her limp body, wiped the sweat-drenched curls around her face, and laid her in my bed. I let my questions lead me into a deep and healing rest. How could I be a present parent while grieving one of my own? How could I explain to a toddler that she was triggering feelings that she, nor, I, could adequately understand? What did she need to know to forgive me? What did I need to accept to forgive myself?
I woke up before she did and rose to cook something she’d refuse to eat. Minutes later, she stomped into the kitchen, brows furrowed and arms crossed. “No Gracias, Mommy!” she said, looking like a comical mix of baby and big girl, her exaggerated eyebrows inches away from the pacifier she won’t let go. “You closed the door. Don’t do it again!”
I dropped to her eye level like parenting books suggest. I said, “I did close the door.” What to say next? The closed door had scared us both—me, for what I could have said or done if it remained open, her for the disconnection it represented. What else did we have in this little house besides our connection? We had piles of unwashed clothes, toys strewn about the floors, and dinners that burned until they were barely edible. We had my father’s ghost and my mother’s prayers, tangible longing for a like-a-sister auntie who’d moved hours away, hanging pictures of the days when our relationship was much simpler, and a broken doorknob. Behind me, there were decades of life that I was hoping to tell and not show. Before us loomed decades of gaps and intersections that are the lives of mothers and daughters. This moment, this connection, was the space between two things neither of us could control. So I chose the shortest route between a relationship’s pain and potential: apology. “I’m sorry,” I said. I won’t do it again.” I mentally located the screwdriver, vowing to fix the knob to keep my promise.
“Ok Mommy,” she said, her voice a trebled absolution. Then she tried to tickle me and poke my cheeks where dimples would be if daughters only inherited their mothers’ best things. “Candy?” she asked, and I braced myself for another episode, knowing that the only way we’d make it through these years was with faith in forgiveness and change.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter