She spat his full name like it tasted dirty in her mouth. “Get over here NOW!” she screamed. Each word got louder and sharper as her emotions mounted.
Her son, who was the same height as the box of colorful sugar-coated cereal that held his attention, ignored his mother. “Don’t you TOUCH that,” she said, her voice big enough to swallow him whole.
He turned around, blue eyes big and searching, from my face to hers. She saw me too, and my audience gave her license to sell her son’s dignity for the little bit of sympathy she might extract from me.
I would see how hard she had it, if she yelled her son’s transgressions loud enough for me to hear.
“I told you not to TOUCH THAT! You know I’m not buying that for you.” She spewed the words at him from behind the protection of her grocery cart. He was close enough to her that she could have led him away gently, but she did not move. She sent her words instead. “You’d better GET YOUR BUTT OVER HERE.”
He yielded to the threat in her voice, drawing near to the mother who could not hide her loathing. She grabbed his arm when he was close enough to reach, jerking him forward so he stumbled over his own feet.
“Would you watch where you’re going? God!”
He tripped after her, glancing back longingly at the box of cereal that promised rainbows and beautiful mornings.
Her boy did not touch the cereal again.
I stood in the breakfast aisle alone, holding the sympathy she had cut right out of me.
I didn’t want to feel sympathy for her.
This mother’s common, default tone with her child was so full of anger and resentment, I wondered what he could have done in his three years of living to make her hate him so. The words she spewed in public were harsher than any I had ever heard in private.
What was his life like at home, when he didn’t have the benefit of social etiquette to hold mother’s tongue in check?
I didn’t have to wonder.
I knew, and I felt dizzy. How could any mother speak to her child that way?
A mother does not just wake up one day with that kind of hatred in her heart. She does not simply decide to degrade her child with every word she speaks. It is a learned behavior, and I had a feeling that this mother had learned it long before her child was born.
Decades ago, that little girl wasn’t worth the time it took to speak lovingly. Perhaps her mother didn’t know that she could get the same results from her child by careful attention and kind correction as she could by hot words and hitting. Maybe she didn’t know that if she got up off the couch and pulled her child to her lap, that child would stop screaming.
Instead, she used harsh words to do the job of gentle hands. “Stop screaming! Stop that! If I hear one more word out of you I’ll…”
And so it began. That wide-eyed child listened to all the words, and like a good child, she learned them. The angry words became the soundtrack of her childhood, and she believed it. It never occurred to her that there could be another way, never entered her mind that she deserved better. She was stupid. She was trouble. She was worthless.
Now all these years later, she was a mother. She had a child of her own, and she found she mothered him to the same music her mother played for her. Bitter words and angry tones poured out of her mouth so naturally, it was almost like they were a part of her.
They were a part of her.
They were becoming a part of him too. He was learning. Already, the cycle was repeating. I could hear him a few aisles over. “No! No! No! You stupid Mommy!”
All the brokenness of the mother was breaking the son and neither one of them realized it was happening. All I wanted to do was hold the pieces together, somehow.
Because I know what happens when I let anger into my home, and I have seen how words can sever relationships. I know how my soul is shredded when I allow myself to speak to my children in a way that is not lovely. I know, too, how children can push and pull all the layers off until there’s nothing left but raw emotion, and how, in those moments, it is easy to let anger rule in place of love.
Some nights I go to bed thinking of the words I’ve said during the day and I realize I have chosen the cheap and easy way of parenting. I have served myself instead of my children. I have put my desire for annoyance-free behaviors over my children’s need for true training and loving discipline.
I have had to say I’m sorry.
I have had to give myself time-outs.
I have had to start over.
As much as I disliked that woman in the moment, I ached for her to know that she could start over. I longed for her to stop her cart, grab her boy, and say, “Baby, Mommy is wrong. I should never talk to you like that. No one should talk to you like that.”
For all the generations before her that used words like weapons, I wanted her to know how many generations it would take to stop the cycle.
Just one mother speaking love instead of hate could change it all. It wasn’t too late for her to be that one.