The other day, driving home from the store, Bean announced from the backseat, “Bella* called me a dumbhead.”
I looked up to the mirror sharply to see if she was laughing or hurt about this little bit of information. Bella is her best friend who she goes to daycare with and their friendship has being going through a rocky transition recently. Bean was looking out the side window, holding her water bottle loosely balanced on her thigh. Definitely hurt.
I bit down my initial mama bear response and tried to keep my voice even. “Why do you think she called you that?”
“We were fighting. She was wanted the toy and I wouldn’t let go.”
“That’s not a nice thing to call somebody, even when you are mad at them. How did it make you feel when she called you that?”
“Mad. I yelled at her.”
Poor Bella. My girl has a big voice. She’s yelled in my face a few times and it is kind of scary.
Sometimes I envy Bean being 3 and not having all the social filters for her emotions in place yet. On one hand, it makes being blindsided by your best friend calling you a mean name really painful. On the other, you can respond by yelling your rage into her face.
There have been a few times in the last few months when I wanted to voice my rage and grief exactly like that. But I didn’t, because I’m a lot of years older than 3 and I know I’m not supposed to do that. Also, I didn’t know whose face to pick because the things I’m angry about are no one’s fault.
Instead my anger comes out sideways. I shove the cat off my lap with a bit more force than needed. I slam doors. I swear at other drivers when I’m alone in the car. I pick fights with my man, who doesn’t really respond, which just makes me more mad so I shove the cat again. The yelling gets bottled up and that doesn’t feel healthy.
That evening while I was making dinner and getting frustrated with her being underfoot, she tried out her new powerful word on me. “You’re a dumbhead!”
I responded badly: “Go to your room! You may not talk to me that way!” I made her cry. I made myself feel like a jerk.
Later, after we’d both calmed down and had some food, she told me again, “Bella called me a dumbhead today.” There was something else she needed to process about this.
“How did that make you feel?”
“It made…,” She was looking away, across the room. “It made me feel… broken hearted.” She lowered her head and inhaled a sob. My tears came just as fast. I know, my little one, I know that hurt.
“Come here, honey, come sit in my lap. I’m so sorry Bella made you feel broken hearted.” She curled herself up into a lap-sized ball and I comforted myself with the warmth of her in my arms.
“I’m not a dumbhead,” she said into my shirt.
“No, you are not a dumbhead. That’s a mean name that makes people feel bad, but it isn’t true. Do you remember when you called me a dumbhead earlier?” She looked up at me warily.
“Well, that made me feel bad, too. That’s why I got angry. When you said that it made me feel like you don’t like me. It made me feel broken hearted, too.”
“But Mommy, I still like you even when I’m mad at you.”
Sometimes having my own words echoed back at me is the best thing ever.
“I know you do. I still love you even when I’m mad at you, too. But I’m very careful to use words that don’t hurt your feelings, even when I’m mad. When you called me a dumbhead when you were mad, that hurt my feelings.”
We went on with our meal. We negotiated how many more bites she had to eat before she could be excused and how long she could play before it was pajamas time. She got down from her chair while I was finishing my plate and went over to her craft cart.
“Mommy?” she said after a minute, her back to me.
“I love you. I’m so sorry I called you a dumbhead.”
“Thank you, sweat pea. I love you, too.”
“You are not a dumbhead, Mommy.”
If only the universe could issue me that apology. “You are not a bad person. You didn’t deserve this bad year.” It would make me feel so much better.
I might even feel like I don’t need to yell or shove the cat any more.
*not her real name