Tag Archives: parenting

The Ogre In Me

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up in the worst mood. I came downstairs to join my husband and children and couldn’t stand any of them. My older son wanted to tell me everything he had thought or done since he woke up and every ounce of my being wanted to shout, “Be quiet!” My younger son came running to me for shelter from his older brother’s taunts and I tried to squirm away from his clutches. I warned my husband of the clouds over my head and he knew enough to steer clear of me.

I tried to use some Buddhist teachings to get me out of the funk. “I’m getting attached to my thoughts. Just let it go and let each moment be what it is.” Problem was, each moment was more annoying than the one that came before it. “I’m adding fuel to my own suffering. This is about me, not them.” None of it was working. I knew I was toxic to be around so I decided to clean the house.

All day I cleaned the house. You might think, “That’ll do the trick!” I thought it would. I still felt grumpy, but the house looked spiffy.

We went out that night with friends and I forgot about my bad mood. We had a great time. The next morning, the ogre in me was back. Sigh. We spent most of the day at a cyclocross bike race at a park in our neighborhood. My husband and kids all raced and we set up a tent where we grilled sausages, cooked frites, and drank beer. My husband is really into bike racing (check out his awesome blog) and this day in the park was his birthday party.

At one point during my husband’s race, while me and the kids and a bunch of friends stood cheering on the sidelines, my younger son started doing that charming testing thing that three year-olds do. It goes like this: I say, don’t go over the line onto the course. My son dips his shoulder under the tape that is strung from pole to pole along the edges of the race course. I say, don’t do it. He does it with his toe. I say, do you want to go sit in the car. He looks at me. I say, don’t. He waves his hand under the tape. And so on.

I’ve been a parent long enough that usually I can pull something besides brute force out of my bag of tricks to get us up and over this hurdle and into something more enjoyable. But not yesterday. I went into total reaction mode. Grabbed him and carried him off to another area where we were away from our friends. We didn’t make it all the way back to the car, but he got the message. He’d been removed. He was crying. I felt like crying too.

The rest of the day wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I could feel myself having little patience with pretty much everything. That night I went to bed early.

This morning started out on the same track until I was driving the kids to school when suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head. This weekend has been about the latest concept we have been studying in my Mussar class: the yetzer ha’ra. I mentioned it in another post awhile back, but this was the first time I think I’ve really experienced it. Here it is explained in the book Everyday Holiness.

We are born with free will and can choose to do good or bad, but whenever we try to do something that stretches us in the direction of good, we need to expect to encounter this inner resistance arising from the shadows. We have an inner inclination to elevate and purify ourselves – that’s the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse to do good – and what stands in our way is the built-in adversary, the yetzer ha’ra.

I think it is interesting that this tension defines the Jewish concept of free will. For me, the idea of an impulse to do good versus an impulse to do evil is a question of whether I can keep my focus on cultivating an inner life or just get swept up in the daily flow of my busy life.

Mussar teachers say it takes great strength to control the yetzer ha’ra, which by the way, is not something to be extinguished. Before now I did not understand what this meant. Now I think I do. If this mood this weekend can be understood as a manifestation of my yetzer ha’ra, then I see now the power of my inner adversary. For all the tricks I tried: cleaning, meditation, exercise, nothing seemed quite enough to overcome that grouchy, irritable, impatient side of me. To control that, harness it somehow? It’s daunting. I stand humbled, which is right where I want to be.

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Stepping Up

Parenting two small children can be a most harrowing ordeal. It can also be the funniest face. Sometimes it is the softest touch. Often it is the loudest shriek. Occasionally it is the smelliest mess. And usually it ends with the most exhausting day.

Being the mother, I loom large. My hugs are potent. My approval is sought. My anger is damaging.

I asked for this job, but honestly I don’t always embrace it. I want things to be quiet and neat. I don’t want to hear small people complaining when really their life is pretty great or crying again because they banged their knee on the stool or asking me to stop what I’m doing and help them cut up a thick cardboard box so they can make a pirate ship. I just want some peace.

My reaction is to resist. Cringe when I hear them calling for me, frown when I see the mess they made of the couch pillows which are now a fort on the floor, yell when the noise gets to be too much.

Then the children are in bed and their lovely faces rest on their pillows and I am racked with guilt. I was mean about the couch pillows, I yelled at them to move it! when we were late for school, I walked away when they tried to include me in their game. I worry that I am hurting them.

In the book Everyday Holiness, it says the first leg of the spiritual journey involves the cultivation of humility. In this context, humility means “being no more of a somebody than you ought to be” or “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” It exists between arrogance and self-debasement, which are both overly preoccupied with the self. It is the first trait we are studying in my Mussar class.

I am thinking of humility as it relates to my parenting. What is the right amount of space in this context? I don’t want to be so big that I cannot allow my children to be who they are in my presence. Our Mussar group leader said maybe I need to step up to the job, which ironically I think means I need to shrink back a bit. By stepping up I will accept the reality of the situation and stop trying to impose my will on my kids.

It helps that the teachings in the Buddhist meditation class I am also taking reinforce this idea. If it’s good or bad, pleasant or terrible, show up for it. It also helps to know that even Buddhist mothers struggle with anger. In this article in Shambala Sun, Karen Connelly writes about her interactions with her toddler son.

It’s always like this. He gives me back the emotion I have just sent out to him. My reactions set the tone of the conflict to come; I am the adult after all. Drive all blames into oneself, says one version of the lojong slogan for mind-training, which isn’t a recipe for more mother-guilt but an admonishment to examine the nature of power and responsibility. I have power over my child. Yet I so easily misuse it. I do the precise opposite of that other Buddhist meditation practice, tonglen. Instead of sending out calm breath, I shoot a javelin from my mouth.

After Mussar class the other night I was surrounded by the mothers in the group. They offered me support and war stories of their years with young children. One woman said, “You never hear anyone saying, ‘Oh yeah, that was easy, raising children. A piece of cake.'” She’s right. I never do.


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