Anyone who thinks the Peace Corps is about helping other people is suffering some serious delusions. Sure, I helped a few hundred kids learn some English—a valuable life skill in the heart of the rainforest—and I opened some eyes to what else it out there in the world. I'm not saying I didn't help anyone. But what I really got out of my three years in the Peace Corps was a lot of knowledge about myself. It was a crash course in Hard Life Lessons, and I learned most of them by making a ton of bad decisions. It was an exhilarating, exhausting, difficult time in my life. I'm so glad I had that experience, but man, it was a tough, tough road.
One of the things I learned while I was there was just how angry I am capable of getting. I grew up in a house where we're always fine. Things are always good. We don't do extreme emotions very well, at least not the bad ones. We're fine with extreme happiness, but when it comes to being sad or mad or anything else that's uncomfortable, we tend to do a lot of faking it 'til we make it and hauling ourselves up by the boostraps and Moving On. It's a philosophy that's actually served me pretty well; there are times when I pretend I feel great and all of a sudden I do. Magic! If I'm feeling pissy about something that's actually quite petty, or irritated by something that's really not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, I am well-served by having been taught that I just need to Get Over It.
But when it comes to anger, I learned in the Peace Corps that you can only push it aside for so long before you Blow the Fuck Up. It all came to a head for me at the post office in Libreville. If ever there was a place designed to piss people off, the Gabonese post office is it. I once went to mail something when I lived in Makokou, and despite the fact that there were at least four workers behind the counter, I was told that "the person in charge of mailing things" was not there. It's the post office. Isn't everyone in charge of mailing things? Pfffttt. Care packages are what keep Peace Corps volunteers sane, and we usually had to pay bribes to get them. Even worse, sometimes Package Guy (yes, there was only one of him, and he worked limited and unpredictable hours) would glibly tell us that there were no packages to be had when we could see them behind the counter. I'm sure he did this just to make us sweat, emotionally, that is, since it was 90°F with 110% humidity and we were already drenched with physical perspiration.
So one day, I battled the heat and humanity of Libreville to go buy stamps. It cost 260 Gabonese francs to send a letter to the U.S. There was no such thing as a 260-franc stamp. You had to cobble together a collection of CFA20 and CFA50 and CFA10 stamps to make the sum total of CFA260. Once I had to put twenty-six ten-franc stamps on my letter, layered so as to show just the value and thus not cover the entire face of the envelope. Crazy. So I go, to buy fifty-thousand stamps that will allow me to mail ten letters, already feeling annoyed just by the idea of the post office. I don't remember for sure, but I'm certain that I was harassed for being white, or a woman, or fat, and someone probably groped my ass or my boobs, and at least a dozen people likely hit me up for money before I even got to the counter. But eventually, I made it to the front of the "line" and asked for enough stamps to mail ten letters to the U.S.
"We're all out of stamps, Madame."
Out of stamps? I repeat: it's the post office. How does the post office run out of stamps? I was livid. LIVID. I'm sure I yelled at the woman behind the counter, and I'm sure she yelled back at me. But what I remember most about that transaction is that for the first time in my life, I felt that if I were able to physically harm the Stampless Woman, I'd feel better. I wanted to punch her right in the face. Multiple times. She was my scapegoat for all that was wrong with the Gabonese postal system, the final straw in my two-and-a-half years of postal frustration.
I had never before felt like physically hurting someone would make me feel better. Of course, I didn't punch her and I'm sure that it wouldn't have made me feel better at all if I had. But the idea was so, so tempting. As I left the post office, I knew that it was time for me to leave Gabon and go home to the States to regain my cool.
That deeply physical feeling of rage was quiet for years after I got home. Sure, I got mad—one of the things I started learning in Peace Corps was how to express anger rather than repress it. But then I became a parent. Kids do all kinds of things that make their parents feel angry. That's part and parcel of parenting. But I find I'm often angry with the twins about things that are my problem, not theirs, and yet I end up unleashing my anger on them even though they don't deserve it.
This morning, for example, I screamed at the twins. SCREAMED. It was gutteral and primal and, shamefully enough, quite satisfying. Their crime? Not wanting to get dressed. A toddler classic that I just didn't feel like dealing with today. So I screamed, they freaked out and got scared, and then they were compliant out of fear. I just said in a post yesterday that I don't like to be ruled by fear, so it hardly seems right that I'm ruling the twins that way.
So we end up in a disgusting cycle of me blowing up, the twins being scared, me apologizing, and us all having a big snuggle and moving on. Sigh. I'm sick of it. They are sick of it. We have even instituted a house motto: No Freaking Out. It's cute and funny to hear little Maddie and little Riley say, "Mama freaking out. No freaking out, Mama!"
I'm working on this with my therapist. And it's helping. Slowly. It used to be that I'd be yelling before I even knew what was happening. We'd be going along all fine and dandy and then poof! I was yelling, and I wouldn't have even felt it coming. Now I usually feel it coming, and sometimes I can stop it. I'll say things like, "Mama is feeling angry right now," or "What can we do differently right now?" or "I need to take a break for a minute." Sometimes I still end up yelling, but that awareness is slowly coming.
I think that part of what's at work here is that being in therapy is bringing up a lot of anger I have about John's illness and death. I have a lot of resentment about what cancer has done to my life (not to mention what it did to John's). I spend more time during my sessions with the therapist talking about how to handle the anger that bubbles (boils) to the surface rather than talking about where it's coming from. I think the combination of keeping the anger at bay for so long combined with devoting more time to thinking about its causes mixed with a couple of two-year-olds is making a lot of uncomfortable things surface.
I'm OK with that. I'm OK with yelling at the twins occasionally. I would never, ever, EVER hit them, nor have I even come close (although I have thrown a lot of things across the room and nearly broke my toe by kicking a bookcase). But I want to spend a lot of time in the next weeks figuring out how to release my anger in ways other than taking it out on the twins as they have somehow become my primary target. I want them to learn how to handle big emotions appropriately, and I have not been modeling that very well. I also want them to know that when I get angry, I mean it, and that it's not a more-or-less constant state of being.
Related to this is that I want to get more comfortable with just hanging out at home with the twins. I pretty much never get angry or yell when I'm out in public. That would be so shameful! So white trash! The truth is that one of the reasons the twins and I are out and about so much is that I know it's emotionally "safe" for us to be away from home. Home is where I lose my shit. Home is where my buttons get pushed. It's said that the reason a lot of kids cry when their parents pick them up at daycare is that kids feel safe releasing their emotions in the presence of a parent. I have a little bit of that going on with being at home. I feel like I can let it all out there, which is fine, but sometimes I need to redirect it. Maybe I need to start wearing a rubber band on my wrist and snapping it when I start to feel out of control. I've been working on naming my anger (or other feelings), acknowledging that it's OK to have that feeling, then choosing not to invite that feeling to be a part of my present interaction, but I think I need something more physical and immediate for when then a child says, "No, Mama, all by self," for the thousandth time, wanting to do something that is physically impossible for said child to do and refusing all help. Grr.
The weather is supposed to be gorgeous this weekend. We have a few things planned: a playdate at the park, a trip to have dim sum, a very low-key BBQ at our place with friends. We're going to start the weekend with a walk on the bike path after daycare tonight, as I know that exercise is a great way to get out some negative stuff and bring on some endorphins. I want to not expect myself to be perfect, but I do want to work hard. And I want to have fun with my kids. I want them to have fun with me. I want them to love being at home, to love for the three of us to be together. It seems so simple, doesn't it?
[NB: For those of you who (a) made it through this long piece and (b) might have missed another long piece, there is a post below yesterday's Idol post about how and why John and I decided to have kids despite his diagnosis. Due to Blogger weirdness with drafts, I posted it after the Idol post, but it appeared as though I posted it the day before. You can find it here.]