In “The Monster At The End Of This Book Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover” (from Sesame Street), a Little Golden Book I remember reading as a child and now read to my kids, the audience is begged not to turn any pages because Grover is terrified at the thought of there being a big, scary monster waiting on the last page. (I usually do my best Grover impression when reading this book to my kids, which I think I’ve nailed.) Besides warning us to stay away, Grover tries everything to keep that monster from rearing its ugly head. However, from building walls to tying pages together, nothing seems to keep the pages from being turned and what Grover finally realizes is that the monster he’s been so afraid of (spoiler alert!)… is him. That’s when he abandons his fear as he comes face to face with the only monster in sight–lovable, furry old Grover. Then he admits embarrassment after having caused so much commotion simply due to an extrinsic fear that no one but him could understand.
As a child I too was terrified of the possibility of monsters hiding under my bed or in my closet. But as an adult, the only monster I’m afraid of… is me.
I have been a monster. I admit to doing things to intentionally hurt others. A few of those things I can brush off as simply being part of growing up and learning how to process through my emotions. But other things, bigger things, more consequential things I have done as a mother to my kids.
The year following my ex-husband’s affair, during the bullshit that is the divorce process, I was a total mess. The anguish I went through was at the expense of my children so no one else could see that I was slowly unraveling. I’d scream and yell at them for no reason. Or at least, no reason good enough to make them feel so bad. I began spanking my son which is something I told myself I’d never do. He was 3-years old at the time, so melt downs and tantrums were inevitable, but not something I was equipped to handle. I’d grab him off the floor and carry/drag him to his room, sometimes plopping him down with no concern to hurting him, and then slam the door. I would yell in his face and on one occasion I slapped him (not with all my might, but that’s not the point). How traumatizing must this have been for him. And his sister, just a stander-by, probably hating me for treating her brother that way. I hated myself for the same reason. Going through a divorce, feeling rejected and terrified and angry after my husband abandoned our marriage to start a family with another woman, on top of dealing with a tantruming toddler was just too much for me. I had become a monster.
But then things seemed to level off. My son got older and I moved on. I found love again. I found peace. But I’ve never gotten over the guilt of those days; those vital, young and impressionable days. The days I should have been reassuring my kids that although things were changing at a rapid pace (new home, new family, new siblings and live-in mother-type figure) I would always be there to comfort and love them. Not terrify and vilify them.
When I was going through counseling years later, I was asked why I hold on to feelings of guilt. I couldn’t answer except to say that I was hoping the guilt would be enough to prevent me from acting that way ever again. But that’s not how guilt works. Making someone feel bad doesn’t lessen the likelihood that they’ll repeat a behavior. In order for any change to take place there must be forgiveness. There must be an openness and willingness to accept our humanity, not resist it. We are all human and we are all capable of doing some pretty horrible things.
What I was encouraged to see is that guilt is a tool used to control. Through shame we seek to regulate the pain we and others feel. We award blame distinguishing one as right and one as wrong. I have historically blamed myself for every rejection I’ve ever faced. It seems I have a strong threshold for pain. If it weren’t for me, in other words, I’d be able to find someone to share my life with. In my head, I am always an outsider; always the unwanted one; inherently flawed. Rejection is my biggest fear and fear will bring out the monster in any of us.
When I acted like a monster to my kids, fear was at the root of all my destructive behavior. I was afraid of failing as a single mom. I was afraid I would never be able to offer my children the kind of family I have always wanted for myself. I was afraid no one loved me and no one ever could. If my husband who I had known more than half my life could just up and leave, what’s to stop someone else from doing the same?
People like myself strive to be perfect, aim to please, try to be everything to everyone. But faking perfection is friggin exhausting. And when we fall off some imaginary pedestal we look for others to blame so that for at least a moment we don’t have to face ourselves.
I’ve spent my life building walls and tying chains around my heart. Except now I’m willing to abandon my fear and start facing myself. I’m ready to stop pointing fingers and accept responsibility. It’s time to forgive myself so that I can teach my children to embrace themselves, imperfections and all.
Love is a tool used to scare monsters away. And I am surrounded by it. A week ago I was walking my son into his school. We were holding hands and preparing to say our farewells. “Who’s the best mommy?” he repeats out loud with a huge cheesy grin on his face. He thinks it’s me, regardless of all the ways I’ve hurt and frightened him. And that will always be enough to keep the monster at bay.