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 of the book. I usually do my best Grover impression when reading this book to my kids, which they love and I must admit, it’s a pretty damn good impression.
Besides warning us to stay away, Grover tries everything to keep that monster from showing its face. From building walls to tying pages together, nothing seems to keep the pages from being turned. What Grover realizes, however, is that the monster he’s been so afraid of… is him. And so, he abandons his fear as he comes face to face with the only monster in sight–lovable, furry old Grover. And then he admits his embarrassment after having caused so much commotion due, simply, to an extrinsic fear that no one but him could understand.
As a child I, too, was terrified of there being monsters hiding under my bed or in my closet. But as an adult, the only monster I’m afraid of… is me.
I have witnessed myself as a monster. I admit to doing things to intentionally hurt others. A few of those things I can brush off as simply being a kid. 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 whole divorce process, I was a real mess. I mean, quite honestly I think I held up pretty good all things considered. Nevertheless, the anguish I did go 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. I’d grab him and pick him up off the ground during one of his meltdowns (he was barely 3, meltdowns occurred all the time, I can’t imagine how much the confusion of mommy and daddy not living together only exacerbated his “terrible 2” episodes) and I’d carry or half drag him to his room, sometimes plopping him down with no concern to hurting him, and then slam the door. How traumatizing must this have been for him. And my poor daughter, just a stander-by, probably hating me for treating her brother that way. I’d get in his face and yell at him. During my last tirade I slapped him across the face as he laid on the floor (I didn’t think it was hard, but who knows, right?). He was 4 years old. Going through a divorce, feeling all those feelings 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 to handle. I knew 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 mother-type figure) I would always be there to comfort and love them. Not terrify and vilify them.
During my last counseling session, I was asked why I hold on to these guilty feelings. I couldn’t answer except to say that I was hoping the guilt would be enough to encourage me to refrain from acting that way ever again. But that’s not how guilt works. Making someone feel bad doesn’t lessen the likelihood of them repeating 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. I mean, how many of us are one step closer to becoming homicidal maniacs? Even if it is just a thought we entertain.
What I was encouraged to see is that guilt is a tool used to control. We seek to control the pain we and others feel. We award blame distinguishing one as right and one as wrong. And I have historically blamed myself for every rejection ever faced. It seems I have a strong threshold for pain. In my head, I am always an outsider. In my head, I am always the unwanted one. In my head, I am inherently flawed. So in my relationships, I have created situations which allow that image of myself to stay in tact. I’ve done it as a mother and I’ve done it in my romantic involvements.
I blame myself once the relationship ends. If it weren’t for me, in other words, I’d be able to find someone to share my life with. But who would want to spend their life with me? I ask myself. Who? No one, I retort. And so I throw myself off that pedestal. Afterall, people like myself strive to be perfect, aim to please, try to be everything to everyone. But faking perfection is friggin exhausting. And this expectation of perfection was quite evident in my last relationship. No one was “good enough” for him to even date for 4 years until I came along. Major compliment, right? Sure. But it’s a lot of pressure, too.
So maybe that’s why falling off that pedestal hurt so much. Maybe when he attacked my parenting skills I figured the gig was up. My imperfection was finally exposed. And I feared he would no longer love me. Fear will bring out the monster in all of us. When I acted like a monster to my kids, fear was at the root of it all. I was afraid of failing as a single mom. I was afraid no one loved me and no one ever would. My husband, a person I had spent over half my life with, stopped loving me just like that. The guys I was meeting just weren’t interested. I was afraid. And then I meet someone, he adores me, a year and a half goes by and he tells me he no longer loves me. I stopped being perfect in his eyes. So I am to blame for this, right? I pushed him away, I became untrustworthy. But the mistakes I’ve made have had much less to do with my actions themselves than believing I have been to blame for my relationships’ denouement.
My counselor had a lot to say about this. Trust my instincts, she urged, look deeply. Being loved and adored isn’t enough. Look at you, she demanded. You are completely lovable. You will meet someone who feels the same way and who not only sees you for all you are but also possesses the qualities you desire. You don’t need to settle for the first person who promises to love you. If you see signs early on that this person isn’t suitable to your needs, move on. Don’t hang on simply because you think you’re not likely to snag someone capable of loving you.
He never even said good-bye to my kids. They haven’t heard a single word from him in 2 months. My son called a couple weeks ago and left a message saying he loves him and misses him and wanted him to call back. But he never did. If that isn’t proof enough that he’s got a thing or two to learn about raising children, then I don’t know what is. And the fact that my kids still love him and would take him back in a heartbeat and continue to have nothing but nice things to say about him is nothing but testimonial to the type of parent I am and the love I’ve raised them in, wouldn’t you say?
Regardless, he’ll never see it this way I’m sure. So my analysis does nothing really except enable me to empathize. And this, in turn, allows me to have peace with what happened between us. It allows me to love. And forgive. It allows me to blame… no one. Because I see it all as life simply repeating itself in an attempt to resolve itself.
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. And that will always be enough for me.