If you were looking for me this past Saturday, in the early afternoon, you would have found me on my knees on the floor of my bedroom. I was crying and mad and just plain upset at my father. You see, I had done one of the things that as a child, I swore I’d never do to my own kids: I made my child cry because of homework.
I remember being in middle school and trying so hard to figure out pre-Algebra. I was frustrated because the answers seemed so close to appearing in my head and onto my homework page, but I just couldn’t grasp how to manipulate the formulas to make them work. I would sit at the kitchen table and do my homework, and if my dad was home instead of working or on a business trip, he would sit down and try to explain math to me.
He was a civil engineer and comfortable with numbers. I loved words and language, and numbers didn’t quite jazz me up. So when he would sit with me, we would rapidly alienate each other because we couldn’t speak the other’s language. I’m pretty sure every time he tried to help me, I ended up in tears. The good news is this didn’t happen often, because I was a smart girl and had observed this same tear-filled exchange with my sister when she was doing math homework a few years earlier. I quickly realized that Dad plus homework always equals yelling and tears. THIS is the kind of math that made sense to me, so after a few times of practicing that type of formula, I decided to stop it altogether. I learned to wrestle with my homework alone, either at school or in my bedroom. I stopped asking for help, especially from my dad. To me, Mom was still approachable for other homework (English papers, theses, etc.), so I wasn’t totally flying solo.
I vowed that when I had kids one day, I would never yell at them or make them cry over something as stupid as homework. Well, one day has arrived and my vow has been broken, thanks to 6th grade math and a daughter who, like me, struggles with perfectionism. Before you start imagining me standing over my daughter and shouting, let me clarify by saying there wasn’t a fight and there was no yelling. So I’ve kept that childhood vow intact, thanks to God rewriting my story. But – as my husband pointed out to me later – the intensity level had ramped up, which is what caused Katie to get upset and start crying. I see it from her perspective: she was trying so hard to find the answer (the one I had all but written down for her), and was desperate to keep up with me and see the solution that seemed to be obvious (but not to her). I, on the other hand, was leaking patience after four interactions that increased the frustration in my voice and tone. The more intense I got, the less she could hear what I was saying. The less she could hear, the less she could say and the more frustrated she got in not being able to express herself – which made me frustrated that she couldn’t even talk to me.
And there we were, two fireballs of intensity aimed at each other. Her tears started falling and I held mine at bay, and then Dan happened into the room. He gave me the hairy eyeball, and I tempered my frustration enough to give Katie a little more direction before I tagged out. I asked Dan to meet me in our bedroom to discuss the interaction.
I told Dan how much Katie’s tears affected me, because they were like a time travel machine that flashed me back to my tears at the kitchen table with MY father. I told Dan I wasn’t nearly as intense as my own dad was, so why should Katie be crying?! He pointed out my homework time doesn’t involve my father any longer, and this is just too much for me and Katie right now. We both agreed that math homework should be off the table for a little bit, and he can help her with that. For some reason, “word” homework doesn’t affect me the way “number” homework does – probably because I personally hate math and fear looking like an idiot when I do it (which is what 6th grade math inherently does to me – makes me look like an idiot, I mean). So, for now, I’m taking a pass at math. Whew.
Dan left the bedroom, I cried (as I mentioned before), then joined the family a little bit later. Katie and I relaxed in the hammock after a while, and we were able to discuss what happened that day. I told her the story of my homework struggles growing up, and explained the term “baggage” to her. We brainstormed ways for both of us to communicate better, and both found peace about the situation.
I know, as we all do, that my baggage has made me who I am. I can’t get away from that truth. But I can turn the rough draft of my past into a final copy by examining what caused my heartache so I can avoid inflicting it on the child I’m raising now: my daughter – and the little girl still inside me – who wants so badly to be acknowledged for her efforts… even when they are less-than-perfect.
So, to my daughter, I hope you know that you aren’t alone in the struggles you are having. I’m struggling, too, and aching with the confusion and the questions I sometimes have about the world around me. The beauty is that while I get to help you through your struggles, you are helping ME through MINE. Parenting is hard. It is scary and mistake-laden, but every now and then I get a glimpse of redemption and restoration through it.