Daniel is loudly singing some aria about Jamaica, a girlfriend, and motorcycles. He is also dancing. Imani is whining, then shouting at her brother to stop. All this is happening in my bed. I’ve been awake for ten minutes. The noise and action make me feel like I have awakened in the midst of a bullfighting festival. Trying to survive the stampede by dodging my son’s dance moves and my daughter’s poking, I get up and go about my business, as if I am home alone, and there isn’t a war in my bedroom. Such is the day, that instead of taking the cue that I’m not having that kind of thing this morning, my children choose to turn up the volume higher than one would think possible, I am assuming, with the goal of getting my attention. And then, they learn a lesson about the importance of thinking about what kind of attention one gets when one acts like a maniac.
After I have shouted at them to stop, they are suddenly silent. Guilty in that awful way where one wishes to be able to go back in time for just a split second, I retreat to an empty room to breathe and reflect. What I do next will determine the kind of day we will have; despite the calamity of the morning, the mood of the day is yet to be set. As I breathe through a silent brainstorming activity, in which I weigh the pros and cons of giving them such-and-such a consequence, I find myself having a rather difficult time with one particular detail that has grown into a log in my eye: Our daughter, who is almost four now, seems to have lost her mind. I remember sitting with nothing to share when friends lamented the sleep they had lost to motherhood right around the time when my own daughter was born, adamant on leaving her mother’s sleep intact. I heard friends—especially ones who were sharing what it is like to parent a person suffering from the terrible twos—tell stories of tantrums in public places, refusals to go to bed, demands for this or the other thing. Again, I had nothing of the kind to share about my daughter. She didn’t cry as an infant, had mild outbursts I could count on one hand, and was the kind of child whom her babysitter and teachers couldn’t stop praising.
Until sometime in the middle of summer, somewhere between Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, where my little girl somehow lost her mind. All at once, she had morphed into a being who whined, didn’t always say “excuse me” and “please,” and nearly hyperventilated each time she didn’t get her way. She couldn’t sit still, was always frowning, and was suddenly intent on always being right. At first I thought all the traveling and time in the sun must be exhausting for a toddler, even one with a pleasant disposition. Then, I told myself it was because she hadn’t taken a single nap since school had ended in June. Then, the teacher in me said, “Oh, you know how kids are. They need structure and routines.” It’s true that without these, even a battalion might turn into a chorus of dancing dervishes. Suddenly, a thought crept into my mind, and here it is now, threatening to settle and become a truth: My daughter hasn’t just been wild because it’s summer; she is just my daughter. What if this is the truth? What if my girl, who had until recently been so lovely and gentle in word and deed, is, in fact her mother’s daughter?
I haven’t been gentle or meek a day in my life. There have been momentary manifestations of such qualities, usually in dire circumstances, but I am rough—in sarcasm, in rolling my eyes, in inflecting my tone to say I can’t believe it (even if “it” is really not much of a thing at all), in raising my voice, in being quick to judge and criticize, in being easy to disappoint, and difficult to persuade. I dislike these things about myself, not in moments of self-deprecation, of which there are many, but at my most honest, when I most truly wish to better who I am and how I walk the earth. I have spent the last few years looking for the roots of the behaviors and actions that have become who I am, seeking to undo them the only way harmful habits can be undone—with an honesty that cuts to the deepest, rawest part of one’s self. Why did I do that? How did I feel afterwards? How did I make the person before me feel? Then: What can I do instead?
The complexity of the nature vs. nurture debate notwithstanding, life compels me to believe that we are not who we are because we were made a certain way by certain people in certain places as a result of certain experiences, but that we become who we are with every action we choose to take. As a child, I heard adults say that was who I was—impulsive, aggressive, rough. I heard them. I believed them, and stood uncorrected. I accepted these behaviors for who I was, and made a home for them in every part of my being and life. But these ways are not who I am. They are habits, and like all habits, they can be undone, let go, replaced, if there is genuine need for replacement. This—the undoing of a lifetime of habits that have settled into the mold of my being—is the single most pressing, painful, and important work of my life.
And so, I take a deep breath, walk to the bathroom, and wash my face with cold water. I find my son playing the drums and my daughter the harmonica. I tell them they sound great, and ask them to please stop for a second. “Circle time,” I say, and to my surprise, they don’t grunt, roll their eyes, or as the case has recently been with my daughter (who has lost her mind), start to scream mostly incoherent things. We make a circle in the middle of the room, and I notice that my children are smiling—because they are looking at me, and I am smiling. I ask them what we are doing. “We are making a circle by holding each other’s hands,” my daughter says. Daniel says, “Wow, Imani, that was a such a nice way to say that sentence! Good job!” I ask them why circles are important. My son, who I was told a few years ago would never speak, says, “Because circles symbolize, like, being together in, like, unity.” I let go of my daughter’s hand, and ask what happened to our circle. Imani says, “It’s broken!” She grabs my hand, squeezes it, and grinds her teeth to add theatrics without which she would be quite a different person. I ask why the circle broke, and she says because I let go of her hand. Daniel says that means we have to take care of each other, you know, like, hold each other’s hands in real life, help each other and stuff, you know, like, we have to listen to mommy, and help her, and not tell on each other all the time, and, like, be nice to each other. We each apologize, and make promises for a better day. We break up our circle by throwing our hands up in the air and cheering, “Fresh start!” And then, we have a beautiful day.
I don’t think my daughter is just like me, if being like me means she will be brisk and rough around all edges. (I do think she has lost her mind, perhaps because of me.) But until she knows to undo what isn’t hers and mold her own self, just as her mother did, when she was in her thirties, she will do what she sees. And so, one breathing break, one battle with demons, one circle, one day at a time, I forge ahead, albeit still tethered to the ways that have so long defined me. But I am aware of what needs to change and the ways in which I need to grow, and so I surround myself with people who are kind and generous in spirit, and in their exemplary presence, toil on changing the mold of my own self. And maybe someday, that will become who I am—kind, compassionate, and gentle—because we are what we choose to do.